Monday, September 20, 2010

Know Thy Enemy - Anaheim Ducks

I'm back after a weekend of golf and beer, and while the beer sure tasted good, the golf left a bitter taste in my mouth. That could be from all of the grass that I was hacking up all over the course, but it was not a pretty round. But, I'm back in the States and ready to move on with the previews. There's not a ton of news coming out training camp for the Wings at the moment, but there is word that Kris Draper is dealing with a groin issue, and he's been sent back to Detroit for evaluation. This is mildly concerning, but not overly distressing.

Today we look at one of the Wings' bigger rivals over the past 10 years, but like the Avs, one that has seen a number of the key players from that rivalry move on to retirement or new teams.

Anaheim Ducks

Tony Lydman; Aaron Voros; Andy Sutton; Aaron Voros
Departures: Scott Neidermayer; James Wisniewski; Mike Brown; Steve Eminger

The Ducks were one of the better teams of the 2000s, making it to two Stanley Cup Finals; winning in 2007 and losing in seven games as an upstart-8th seed in 2003. The Ducks also took the Wings to seven games in an absolutely brutal series in 2009, a series that I believe really hampered the Wings' ability to repeat because of the physicality involved. However, while most of the Pacific got better last year, the Ducks regressed significantly, earning only 89 points and missing the playoffs for the first time since before the lockout. The off-season only got worse with the retirement of their captain Neidermayer.

Offense: The Ducks are pretty thin up front, but do have one of the better top lines in the league with Ryan Getzlaf (the inspiration for my fantasy hockey name), Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. While I loathe each and every single one of these players with a white-hot passion (particularly Getzlaf and Perry), there's no denying that all three of them have a lot of talent and can carry a team offensively. Beyond that, the talent falls off a bit. The Ducks avoided a major hit when Teemu Selanne decided to stick around for one more year. He bolsters a power play that finished 5th in the NHL last season. Selanne's presence gives the Ducks a legitimate sniper on the second PP unit, but Neidermayer's retirement leaves a gaping hole on the blueline. The Ducks will be looking to Lubomir Visnovsky to step in and help fill that hole, but the Ducks knew that would not be enough, so they went out and signed former Sabre Toni Lydman. Unfortunately, Lydman is dealing with an eye injury and it's unclear if he is going to miss any time. The Ducks will be hoping that some of their players can return to form, including Jason Blake, Joffrey Lupul and Todd Marchant. Saku Koivu teamed up with Selanne to provide a good second line presence, and his 52 points were good for fourth on the team. However, beyond the first 2 lines, the talent level really drops off, and the Ducks could have issues with putting the puck in the net. They finished 7th overall in the NHL last year in goals for, so a slip won't hurt them that badly.

Defense: Neidermayer's retirement from the Ducks will hurt the Ducks in a huge way, much more than Pronger's defection did. There is not a legitimate superstar on the defense any more, and for a team that struggled to keep the puck out of their own net last year, this is going to make life much more difficult for the Ducks' goalies. Visnovsky becomes the de facto number 1 defenseman on the team, but the Ducks were hoping that Lydman will step in and help fill the void left by Neidermayer's elbows....I mean, absence. The Ducks signed Andy Sutton in the hopes that he can provide some stability to the second pairing and making up for the loss of Wisniewski. Overall, the Ducks' defense is their main weakness, and the one area of the team that can really be exploited by opponents. The Ducks are hoping that Cam Fowler, their #1 draft pick this year, can step in and contribute immediately as an 18 year old, similar to what Drew Doughty in LA and Viktor Hedman in Tampa Bay did the past couple of years. Shockingly, with the exception of Visnovsky, every defenseman on the Ducks is either at least 6' tall or over 200 lbs. But this is not Neidermayer-Pronger-Beauchemin any more. The Ducks finished 22nd in the NHL in goals against last year, and a chunk of that can be attributed to their 24th place penalty killing. The Ducks must improve on defense if they want to get back to the playoffs.

Goaltending: Last year, Jonas Hiller took the starting job away from JS Giguere, paving the way for the latter's trade to the Maple Leafs and forever getting the man who stole the first round of the 2003 playoffs out of the Western Conference. Hiller responded with good, but not great, numbers. He ended the year with a GAA of 2.73 and a save percentage of .918, and a lot of his struggles last year can be attributed to the changes on defense in front of him. I personally believe that Hiller is one the more underrated goalies in the NHL, and if he gets the team in front of him to play any semblance of defense, he will keep the Ducks in most games. He is backed up former Flames goalie Curtis Mcelhinney, who should not be fatigued this late in his career since he's been behind Mikka Kiprusoff forever.

Coaching: The Ducks have been led by Randy Carlyle ever since the lockout, and subsequently they have been one of the dirtiest, most physical teams in the NHL. Carlyle coaches the way he played: he stresses physicality and size, and is not afraid to take liberties with opponents from time to time. Carlyle was never a flashy player, but he was a solid NHL defenseman for the Jets, and he has enjoyed a lot of success as a coach. He guided the Ducks to their only Cup in 2007, but being able to throw out a bunch of big guys that can push around the other team certainly helped. I think Carlyle even looks like a dick, and it will be interesting to see how he does with a team that is not loaded with stars. I'm thinking that if the Ducks struggle again, Carlyle's leash is going to get awfully short.

Player to Watch: Seeing as how this is probably Teemu Selanne's last season, it only seems right that we pay attention to how he goes out. Of course, if Modano last year is any indication, then Selanne will not be brought back after this season even though he wants to continue playing, and he'll sign with the Kings next year. He scored his 600th goal last season, the most of any Finnish player ever, and there's no question that he is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. With the Ducks seemingly headed towards a youth movement, it's extremely likely that this year will be his last, and for a guy that has scored 600 goals and over 1200 points, it only seems fitting that we pay attention. Maybe in his last tame, he'll recreate one of the better goal-scoring celebrations ever.

Player With Something to Prove: There's a lot of question marks surrounding the team this season, so I decided to go with something short and sweet: Corey Perry. He's a very good hockey player, but here's hoping that this year he proves he's not a giant douchebag by not stepping on someone's leg, running them from behind, or hacking at them with his stick and then running away like a coward when confronted by someone bigger. I hope he proves that he's matured, but I think my chances of making the Wings this year are greater.

My Prediction: My sister-in-law is a Ducks fan, and if Mrs THITD had any other sisters, this fact alone would push her down the "my favourite of my wife's sisters" list; but there's only the two of them, so she gets the title by default. In her defense, she is not an obnoxious Ducks fan; she realizes that getting uppity about them will only result in her eviction from my house and numerous taunts that may or may not make her cry. However, it does mean that I need to keep my comments at least somewhat censored since she doesn't really say anything negative about the Wings, even during the 2009 playoffs. However, just because I keep my shit to a minimum around her does not mean that I don't still hate the Ducks. As I was researching them, I realized that outside of Selanne, there's not a player on the Ducks I can even pretend to like, although I respect and admire Koivu for overcoming cancer and coming back to play at a high level. Outside of those two, the rest of the team is comprised of thugs and idiots. I think the Ducks will be in the mix for a playoff spot, but at the end of the year, they'll be on the outside looking in again. This will make me smile, knowing that the Ducks' penchant for brute force and lack of talent will once again not allow them to succeed. I'm just glad that this year is not an Olympic year, and I don't have to swallow my pride and sense of decency to cheer for Getzlaf, Perry and Neidermayer again.

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