NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the biggest reasons for optimism and the biggest questions facing the Anaheim Ducks.
The Ducks were one win from reaching the 2015 Stanley Cup Final before falling well short of expectations last season, when they were eliminated in the Western Conference First Round. General manager Bob Murray doesn't want to see more regression.
Anaheim got off to a poor start last season, particularly captain Ryan Getzlaf, who scored two goals in his first 30 games. With Randy Carlyle back as coach after Bruce Boudreau was fired following another Game 7 at home, the Ducks are hoping to recapture the magic of their Stanley Cup championship season a decade ago.
Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:
1. Depth on defense
The Ducks are loaded on the blue line. Although restricted free agent Hampus Lindholm hasn't been re-signed yet, Anaheim has seven other NHL defensemen, with prospects Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour playing in San Diego of the American Hockey League. Josh Manson proved himself as a big, imposing defenseman last season, Kevin Bieksa brings a veteran presence, Sami Vatanen has improved each season since entering the League in 2014, and Murray managed to keep smooth-skating Cam Fowler, who was rumored to be on the trading block.
2. Special teams
Anaheim ended last season with the best power play (23.1 percent) and penalty kill (87.2) in the League. Most of the special-teams personnel will be the same, and Carlyle retained the staff behind the systems, assistants Paul MacLean (power play) and Trent Yawney (penalty kill). The addition of forward Antoine Vermette should strengthen the penalty kill, and Theodore could be a weapon on the power play.
3. Depth up the middle
After watching two teams (Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins) utilize their speed to win the Stanley Cup the past two seasons, Murray has been trying to figure out the best way to have the Ducks play faster. Depth up the middle will complement speed on the wings. It starts with the deceptively fast Getzlaf, who has said he is healthier than he was going into last season, and the relentless Ryan Kesler. They'll be joined by the dynamic Rickard Rakell and the steady veteran presence of Vermette. Nate Thompson continues to recover from a torn Achilles and likely will return in the spring.
4. Revitalized Ryans
Getzlaf never quite looked the same after his appendectomy last season and was criticized by Murray for a lackluster playoff performance (two goals, five points). Carlyle pushed Getzlaf in his first stint as Ducks coach, awarding him the captaincy at the age of 25. In addition, Getzlaf and Kesler, along with Rakell and Vatanen, are headed to Toronto to play in the World Cup of Hockey 2016, so they're expected to be in midseason form on opening night.
"It's going to be intense," said defenseman Clayton Stoner, who is Getzlaf's training partner. "The tournament is going to be intense and those are the best players in the world, so they're going to be on top of their game."
Here are three key questions facing the Ducks:
1. Will the core bring more?
Although much of the blame for the Ducks' early playoff exit at the hands of the Nashville Predators fell on Getzlaf's shoulders, Murray was critical of the entire leadership core. Murray said he wanted more from the group in big games and small, and more accountability. Nothing specific has been discussed yet, but Getzlaf said a greater effort will be made once the season gets underway.
"Until we get to the season and see where our team is at and what we need to do, then we'll have to step up and do those things," Getzlaf said. "In the offseason, our team is being molded, and we have to see who shows up at camp ready to play."
2. Has Randy Carlyle changed?
Carlyle has been accused of many things, from his alleged disdain for advanced analytics, to his antiquated dump-and-chase system, to his disciplinarian style of coaching. But he says he isn't as out of touch as his critics suggest. After being fired as coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 2014-15 season, he stayed around the game; specifically, the Ducks' game. Carlyle returned to Southern California and attended several games at Honda Center, sometimes working as a scout. He moved back into his beach house in north San Diego County and helped his family run the pro shop for San Diego of the AHL.
"There are a few more miles on the body and a few less hairs, and the ones I got are a lot whiter," Carlyle said. "It's partly because of the game. When you don't have success, and when you live the life of a professional as both a player and a coach, you win and lose, and that's how your emotions go. It's no fun when you're not having success in the NHL."
3. Can the Ducks win a Game 7?
It's a fair question given the history: Four straight Game 7 losses at home. Boudreau was relieved of his duties because of his inability to get the Ducks over the hump. But without Boudreau, they will have no one to blame but themselves should they falter in another winner-takes-all game in the playoffs.