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Feb 5, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; Chicago Blackhawks right wing Kris Versteeg (23) passes the puck as Anaheim Ducks defenseman Sami Vatanen (45) chases during the third period at the Honda Center. The Blackhawks won 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Conference Call Tuesday: Anaheim Ducks

Welcome to another weekly edition of Conference Call Tuesday, where we collaborate with the people who know our Western Conference counterparts best: their own die-hard fans, to talk shop and look ahead to the 2014-15 season.

This week, we look at a team that has had a ton of success in the past two seasons, and has emerged as one of the Blackhawks’ biggest threats from the Pacific Division: the Anaheim Ducks.

The Ducks built on a strong 2013 season in 2013-14, and eventually emerged as the Western Conference’s top seed going into the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Ducks bid goodbye to Bobby Ryan the off-season before, and after signing Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to large contracts, it was time for the two Canadian forwards to step up. They did just that, combining for 169 points, finishing 2nd and 5th respectively in league-wide scoring.

Rookie Sami Vatanen was a huge addition to the Ducks’ blue-line, and kept the back-end consistent throughout the entire season. Jonas Hiller was up to the task in goal, with rookies Frederik Andersen and John Gibson behind him, he stepped up as the team needed him. Gibson broke out of Hiller’s shadow at the end of the regular season, earning a shutout in his first career NHL game, and getting playoff ice-time with it.

The playoffs were once again a somber ending to a great season for the city of Anaheim. After taking care of the Dallas Stars in six games, the Ducks fell to the Los Angeles Kings in seven-games, failing to advance past the second round for the second straight year.

The Ducks lost defenseman Luca Sbisa, and goaltender Hiller over the off-season, but picked up former 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley on a one-year contract. The Ducks’ biggest move of the off-season, however, was signing former Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler via free-agency, a player the Blackhawks were rumored to be in the hunt to sign as well.

 

We talked to Josh Paulsin and Jason Byun from pucksofafeather.com this week to talk Ducks hockey:

 

1.For the second year in a row, the Ducks were among the best in the West. What made you successful in 2013-14? 

Josh Paulisin: Just like the lockout shortened season, the Ducks got off to a roaring start. Anaheim entered with Olympic break with the league’s best record (41-14-5). The regulation unbeaten streak at home was impressive as well (20-0-2).

After the break, the Ducks stumbled and went 13-6-3. The start was so important. And like all successful teams, it was just a bunch of solid performances across the board. Timely scoring, quality goaltending, and superstars leading the way (Getzlaf and Perry). If the Ducks can replicate their start once again, 2014-2015 will be another successful season in Anaheim.

 

Jason Byun: Just as Josh said, the team basically roared its way to the best record in the league by the Olympic break. So many things went well for  the team, including that stretch when the Ducks won 18 of 19 games, and Hiller had a winning streak of 14 straight starts.

I do feel like the Ducks were a bit better than they were in the lockout season. The addition of Hampus Lindholm, increased role of Ben Lovejoy, and extreme development in Cam Fowler added some mobility to the blue-line, something the Detroit Red Wings exposed in the Round 1 loss in 2012-2013. It also didn’t hurt to have Ryan Getzlaf score 32 goals this season, when he had never scored more than 25 in a season before.

 

2. Competition is certainly heating up in California, with the three teams finishing 1-2-3 in the Pacific Division. Are you more worried about the Sharks or Kings moving forward? 

Josh: The Kings have won two Stanley Cups in three years. So no doubt in my mind, it’s LA. I think they are just so stacked from top to bottom. Their depth is unbelievable. Quick is one of best between the pipes. It’s amazing how they won the Cup last year. Down 3-0 to San Jose.Game 7s all the way through to the Stanley Cup Final. Truly a remarkable feat and I’ve got to hand it to them.

San Jose seems in limbo. The Sharks didn’t blow things up and they didn’t really add anything either. I think they’ll still be tough, but Los Angeles is the team to beat in the Pacific and the NHL.

 

Jason: I believe the saying goes: “To be the best, you have to beat the best.” That’s exactly the case here. The Kings deserve all the credit in the world for winning the Cup last year. Unlike their 2012 run, this Cup was won by trumping all sorts of adversity in the playoffs. They beat three top-5 Western Conference teams, despite facing seven elimination games. They faced a 3-0 deficit to San Jose, a 3-2 deficit to Anaheim, and score deficits of 2-0, 3-1, and 4-2 to Chicago in Game 7, yet triumphed to only reach the Stanley Cup Final. And although the final line may read “Kings in 5”, we should remember that all three games in Los Angeles went to overtime. And if you look at the analytics side, they beat the No. 2, No. 3, and No. 6 possession teams in the league in terms of Fen close (Chicago, San Jose, and New York). They absolutely earned this Cup.

I’m not sure where San Jose honestly currently stands. I do believe in my heart that had Marc-Edouard Vlasic not been injured in Game 5, the Sharks probably close that series out: he is one of their most important players, and their defense absolutely suffered without him in the lineup. That said, there was talk of a rebuild, and it kind of got started with the trading of Dan Boyle and buyout of Martin Havlat. But honestly, this thing can’t get rolling unless the Sharks find a way to unload Joe Thornton and/or Patrick Marleau, both of whom are hard to deal now that their newly signed three year extensions with full no-trade clauses kick in. San Jose is still really good and really talented, but they have a label for disappearing come playoff time. With the state of the Pacific, they should make the playoffs, but I don’t’ believe people around the league will take them as a serious contender, and I believe they have lost their status as a Top-5 team in the Western Conference.

 

3. Jonas Hiller is off to Calgary for the next season. Are you disappointed to see him go? 

Josh: Jonas gave us a solid seven seasons in Anaheim. Many will remember him as the goalie who just lost it toward the end of last season. They forget that he was spectacular earlier in the year, including having a 14-game win streak.

I think it’s disappointing the way he was so inconsistent. One night he would play like the top goaltender in the world, the next nighthe would be way off and fans wanted him run out of town. But to be honest, if Gibson didn’t shine late last season, I think Hiller might have been back. We wish him the best in Calgary.

 

Jason: Jonas Hiller gave Anaheim some excellent years. Yeah, he always battled bouts of inconsistency, but he always played his best when it mattered most. People forget just how incredible he was in his Stanley Cup playoff debut against the Sharks in 2008-2009, when the Ducks played and upset the San Jose Sharks, who won the President’s Trophy that season. And he then kept the team in a real tight series against the Detroit Red Wings, who lost in the Cup Finals that year. He stood on his head to make saves. I am disappointed to see him go because he was a great, quality player for the team, but I’m not devastated by the loss because the Ducks have Frederik Andersen and John Gibson on hand.

Honestly, I can’t say that I was sure we would have re-signed him, even if he hadn’t stumbled. Eventually, John Gibson had to play at some point: über-prospects are no good if they don’t ever get to see the light on the NHL. Hiller is good enough to start somewhere, and I’m glad he has that opportunity: he wouldn’t have been happy as a secondary or backup option anywhere. After watching the debacle in Vancouver with Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider go down the past few years, I’m glad that the Ducks don’t’ have that kind of situation with Hiller here.

 

4. Hiller’s departure is certainly softened by the arrival of John Gibson as a new star in Anaheim. How excited are you to see this kid play full-time? 

Josh: Extremely excited. I think Gibson is a special talent. He’s been successful at every level he’s played at. Whether it was juniors, the minors, and so far the NHL, Gibson has excelled.

It will be interesting to see what Boudreau does next season. Gibson probably wouldn’t have seen the ice last year if Frederik Andersen hadn’t gotten hurt. Andersen proved that he could handle the load in place of Jonas Hiller. So it will be tough call on a nightly basis whether to put Gibson or Andersen between the pipes.

Gibson is the franchise goalie though.

 

Jason: We’re talking about someone who just turned 21, yet got invited to the Team USA Olympic Orientation Camp without playing a single minute at the NHL level. As I said before, he’s an über-prospect who has been touted as the next great goalie, not only for the Ducks, but also for Team USA. I can’t wait to see him play.

I probably overreacted on small sample size, but I wanted him between the pipes from the beginning of the playoffs against the Dallas series. But when he got his opportunity against Los Angeles, he was tremendous, and he was a huge reason the Ducks recovered from dropping two games at home and ultimately pushed it to a Game 7.

The series didn’t end as we would have wanted, but as it is with most prospects, he should get better with more playing time in the NHL. I said the Ducks’ true window of contention would open when Gibson was the starter in net, and I feel that with him (and Ryan Kesler), the Ducks have become a more legitimate Stanley Cup contender now than they were in the previous two years, when they were on the fringe of contention, but not really there.

 

5. How do you feel the Ducks’ defence will be able to pick up the load left by departed Luca Sbisa? They already did for a stretch last season when he was injured.

 

Josh: Sbisa was really disappointing in Anaheim. He never really turned into that Top-4 defenseman that was expected. I think losing Sbisa won’t be a big loss. The Ducks have such a young and talented defensive corps with Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, and Sami Vatanen on top of a solid mix of veterans in Francois Beauchemin, Ben Lovejoy, Bryan Allen, and now Clayton Stoner.

Defense will be fine without Sbisa.

 

Jason: Sbisa really had trouble getting regular playing time and never really excelled when he was on the ice. I still think he has the potential to be a second-pairing blue-liner in the NHL, but it seems that he’ll be mostly a third-pairing guy or even the seventh defenseman.

I think the defense improved a good bit last year. If Hampus Lindholm takes more steps forward in his development and improves on his game from last season, that will help. I expect Sami Vatanen to have a bigger role on this team, since Sbisa was one of the players who was blocking his ice time at the NHL level last year. The Ducks currently have eight defensemen on the roster, seven of whom were with the team last season. I believe they should be fine on the blue-line, and I hope Sbisa finds success in Vancouver.

 

6. Now that you’ve seen both players play a season, and made a selection with the draft pick, who won the Bobby Ryan trade in your eyes? 

Josh: We certainly miss Bobby Ryan here in Anaheim. Since the trade, we have tried so many guys with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on the top line. No one has claimed that spot and hopefully the experimentation continues only briefly this season and we can find someone to fill that void.

So far it’s Ottawa, but the book is still out on Jakob Silfverberg. He was banged up early in the season. He’s still so young (23). We also haven’t seen Stefan Noesen yet in Anaheim and that first round pick was used on Nick Ritchie. So I think short-term, Ottawa wins. We will see about long-term.

 

Jason: Honestly, I feel like the jury is still out on this deal. Bobby was huge in Anaheim as a goal scorer, and nobody has really stepped up to claim that role, both on the top-line and on the top-six in general. He scored 18 goals through December for the Senators, but only 5 after that, and I feel that his exclusion from Team USA may have had a bit to do with the sharp drop-off in production. He then suffered a sports hernia and had to sit out the last three to four weeks of the regular season.

In Anaheim, Jakob Silfverberg got off to a great start, but then he broke his hand and missed 24 games. When he returned, it didn’t seem like he was really the same player, and after having a consistent role on the top-six and succeeding, he played a lot more checking line duties afterwards. And then Stefan Noesen tore his ACL in the minors this past season and only returned during the Calder Cup playoffs. Finally, owning Ottawa’s 1st round pick was very useful, netting a good player in the draft in Nick Ritchie. The Ducks also had ammunition and leverage with that draft pick when dealing with Vancouver and Ottawa for Ryan Kesler and Jason Spezza, respectively.

I feel like right now, the trade is a mixed bag. Every player involved in the deal got injured this season and didn’t produce to their full capacity. Also, it seems that Ottawa is in some sort of retool or rebuild phase right now, which means we could see Bobby Ryan dealt again this season before he hits the open market as an unrestricted free agent in 2015. If that does happen, I feel the trade ultimately does swing in the Ducks favor, with the Senators unable to get the full two years from Bobby and having to deal him. But if I had to say who won the trade as of right now, it’s the Senators, barely. In hockey, the team who gets the best player usually wins the trade. Right now, that’s Bobby Ryan. Hope he has a successful season.

 

7. What will it take for the Ducks to step out of the first/second round this season? Obviously it will likely go through the defending Cup champs. 

Josh: LA is the team to beat. Regardless of how they make it into the postseason, you have to get past them in order to consider yourself a serious contender. With the new playoff format, we will have to face-off against the defending champs in either the first or second round. That’s a scary proposition since we have failed to get past that stage the past two years.

I think the key is winning the Pacific again. You don’t want to meet LA in the first round. But in order to get past the Kings, the Ducks really need to develop that killer instinct. The past two postseasons, the Ducks held a 3-2 lead with a chance to end the series in Game 6. Both times they failed and ended up losing Game 7 at Honda Center. Whether that’s on coaching or the players, something needs to change in order to advance further next season.

 

Jason: Again, to be the best, you have to beat the best. The West is going to be a dogfight this year, and everybody knows it. Whoever comes out of the Central and Pacific brackets in the postseason will have fought and earned that berth in the Western Conference Finals. I believe there is a gap between the two southern California teams (LA and Anaheim) and the rest of the Pacific, but that isn’t enough.

I do think that securing a top-two spot in the Pacific at the very least is real important. Home-ice is a great advantage to have, with the ability to control matchups, and having it in at least one round should be a major priority. I don’t know if home ice against Los Angeles will mean much: they’re 8-1 in playoff series the last three years when they don’t have home ice to begin with. But honestly, they’re the best team, and any advantage the Ducks can get over them, they should look to get. The team also needs to improve in the faceoff circle: they were destroyed this past year by both Dallas and Los Angeles in the playoffs. It was a huge reason the Ducks sometimes spent entire shifts hemmed in their own end: winning faceoffs is an integral part of controlling the puck and succeeding on special teams, areas the Ducks need to improve on.

But honestly, it all comes down to the players. It’s not losing back-to-back Game 7’s and 3-2 leads that irks me. What irks me is that the Ducks were absolute no-shows in those Game 7’s against Detroit and Los Angeles, that they were so tight to come out and deflated the moment the opposition scored. The leadership for this team needs to step up, and something has to change. I know Bruce Boudreau’s playoff record isn’t great: he’s 1-5 in Game 7’s and has never made it past the second round of the playoffs. But it’s not all on him: at some point, the players have to be held accountable as well.

 

8. Would you say the Ducks’ off-season has been a success so far? 

 

Josh: It was well-known that acquiring a No. 2 center to play behind Ryan Getzlaf was the top priority for GM Bob Murray this offseason. He accomplished that mission with the Ryan Kesler deal. He gave up Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa, and a first round pick, but that was very minimal compared to what many fans thought it would take to bring in Kesler.

I think Nate Thompson will replace the departed Mathieu Perreault. The Ducks have an extra defenseman now with the signing of Clayton Stoner so we could see a trade in the future, but right now, it’s been a successful offseason. Heatley signing was interesting, but it’s a low risk/high reward contract.

 

Jason: In terms of free agency, the Ducks have not done much besides sign Clayton Stoner and Jason LaBarbera. However, the Ducks made their big move by trading for Ryan Kesler. Kesler’s been one of my favorite players in the NHL for a long time: I love max-effort players who do and give anything during a game to win, and he addresses so many areas the Ducks needed filled (No. 2 Center, top-six forward, possession player, faceoff winner, excellent two-way player, special teams guy, leadership). Anytime a team can make a move to acquire a player on the caliber of Ryan Kesler, I think you can call it a success. If he can stay healthy, he can be the piece that makes Anaheim truly dangerous.

 

9. Alright, I have to ask. How many goals for “Heater” next season?! 

 

Josh: 50

But seriously, if Heatley can give us 20+ goals and come close to scoring 50 points, I think it will be a successful season for him. We’re hoping a change of scenery from Minnesota will bring his scoring touch back. He’s played with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry before (2010 Olympics, 4 G, 3 A) so we are hoping they can get that chemistry back.

 

Jason: Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not going to say 50. Honestly, I’m not sure what role he’s even going to have. People thought that Dustin Penner would get penciled into that top-line spot when he signed with Anaheim last offseason, but he had to earn that spot because of a poor training camp and such. And even after he did get the spot, he battled bouts of inconsistency, which led to him being demoted at times and, eventually, getting traded.

I believe Heatley can still play at an effective level, but the Ducks have a lot of young wingers who need playing time to improve as well. I hope to get 15 goals out of him this season, and maybe even 20 if he’s on the top-six. But if he’s motivated, and everything goes right, he might just hit his new jersey number, and we might have a new hashtag for him soon.

#51in15.

 

10. Predict your 2014-15 season.

Josh: 50-23-9

1st in Pacific

Conference Finals – Loss to Chicago Blackhawks

 

Jason: 52-20-10

1st in Pacific

Conference Semi-Finals: Loss to Los Angeles Kings in 7

 

Special thanks to Josh and Jason for their help this week! Stay tuned for next week’s edition, and trust Pucks of a Feather for all your Ducks headlines!

 

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