Monday night’s matchup between the Anaheim Ducks and Pittsburgh Penguins gave a good look – to those who saw it – of two of the more exciting teams in the league, both loaded with young and talented forwards. Pittsburgh has had the press – and television coverage – so most hockey fans have seen or at least know about Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal. But what about Anaheim? If you’re like a lot of sports fans, you’re only paying attention to what’s happening with your team, or maybe the teams in your division, but it’s time to start paying attention to the Anaheim Ducks. Monday’s win by the Ducks in overtime tied an NHL record: 15 consecutive games earning a point to start a season, tying the legendary 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers team, and currently standing at 11-0-4.
Yet virtually nobody across the United States or Canada has even seen them play. Unless you either have the Center Ice package (and if not, why not??) or your home team has played the Ducks, you haven’t had a chance to watch Anaheim on national television, and amazingly will not until February 13th on Versus or March 18th on TSN. It should be frustrating to hockey fans, because it’s not as if the Ducks have come out of nowhere – they had a very strong second half last season, ending up with the best season point total in their short history with 98 points. In the playoffs they defeated the favoured Calgary Flames then swept the Avalanche before bowing to the Edmonton Oilers in the Western finals.
Even though expectations were fairly high coming off the successful 2005-06 season, the summer acquisition of Chris Pronger ratcheted up expectations to where Anaheim became a chic pick by many to be a contender in the West (the SportsBlurb.com hockey staff in our preseason guide had them finishing a close second to San Jose in the top-heavy Pacific division). But not even the most glowing of picks had them without a loss in their first 15 games of the season, becoming the last team remaining with a zero in the “L” column. While the Buffalo Sabres have garnered nearly all of the early press as the first honorees with the “best team in the league” label, the Ducks are leaving little doubt who the elite squad is out west thus far.
The scary aspect of the Ducks’ dominance so far is that they’ve built such a huge goal differential (sixth in goals-for, third in goals-against) and scored at a 15% better clip than last year’s squad without anyone higher than 39th in league scoring – a three-way tie between Teemu Selanne and their two star defenceman: Scott Niedermayer and Pronger, all with 14 points. Remember last year when the Sabres were emerging as one of the year’s surprise teams, and so many articles were written on “who are these guys?” “how are they doing it?” – those very questions were what made that Buffalo team so difficult to shut down – they spread their offence so deeply that it’s difficult for other teams to match up against them. The Ducks are on their way to becoming this year’s Sabres.
The biggest concern going into the season was where their scoring was going to come from. Emerging scorer Joffrey Lupul was dealt away to Edmonton in the Pronger deal and the pressure seemed to be on the veteran Selanne to perhaps once again carry the team this year. Instead it’s Chris Kunitz who is leading the team with seven goals, and fellow youngsters Ryan Getzlaf (21), Dustin Penner (23), and Andy McDonald (a relative oldie at 29) right behind with five goals each. They – along with Selanne - form a corps of dangerous forwards, along with Corey Perry (21) and Ryan Shannon (23) that makes them difficult to stop every night.
Defenceman Francois Beauchemin is proving that the trade that brought him from Columbus in exchange for Sergei Fedorov was a steal…for Anaheim. I wrote last year that this was a good deal for Anaheim despite media overreactions that it was lopsided in favour of the Blue Jackets. I thought this was a great deal simply for the elimination of an overrated past-his-prime former star, freeing up icetime for younger (and cheaper) players, and the freeing up of six million dollars of cap room. What I didn’t know was that Beauchemin would be such a solid addition – with Niedermayer and Pronger taking up so much prime scoring ice time this year, it’s no surprise that Beauchemin’s point totals project to be much lower than his 34 points last year, but his role is more important this year in being the defensive conscience of the defensive corps.
Of course what most commentators like to talk about with regards to Anaheim is their “Big Two” on defence in Niedermayer and Pronger. It’s hard to believe it was 11 years ago that Niedermayer truly burst on the national scene when he completely undressed an aging Paul Coffey in the 1995 Stanley Cup finals, and still all this time later Niedermayer remains one of the best skaters in the league (reminiscent of Mike Gartner in terms of keeping great speed and skill for such a long career). With the addition of Pronger, it has given the Ducks two of the very best defencemen in the world that not only play great two-way games, but log an incredible amount of icetime. By my rough estimate, in Monday’s game there were at most maybe 12 minutes when neither Pronger nor Niedermayer were on the ice (Niedermayer with 26 minutes, Pronger with over 32). Opponents are going to have a hell of a time trying to penetrate through the Ducks’ team with at least one of those players on the ice at all times.
However, looking at this in the obvious negative light - if one of those players goes down with an injury, there could be big trouble. While Niedermayer’s defence partner Beauchemin has been a pleasant surprise, the depth at defence is negligible in Anaheim. A look at the official shift chart shows Pronger and Niedermayer playing a combined 58 minutes, Beauchemin with 23 minutes, and veteran Sean O’Donnell at 19 minutes. Rookie Shane O’Brien logged 15 minutes as the fifth option but Ian Moran – in his Anaheim debut, filling in for Joe Dipenta - only put in six minutes of work. If one of the big two goes down, those numbers for O’Brien and either Dipenta or Moran will have to go way up, which should be a concern to the team. Barring a deal getting a steady top four defenceman, the Ducks need to spend the season working in the rookie O’Brien, steadily increasing his minutes and responsibilities so he would be prepared in the event he needs to take on a more prominent role.
There are other reasons for the Ducks and their fans to take a deep breath and not get overly excited just yet. Even though every win counts, 11 of their first 15 games have been played against teams that missed the playoffs last year (they beat Detroit and Edmonton, lost in a shootout to Dallas and in overtime to the Rangers), so we’ve yet to see them play many games against truly elite teams. The minimal depth at defence and over-reliance on Pronger and Niedermayer could very well be an issue - Monday night O’Brien and Moran had a total of ten shifts between them in the third period and overtime – Pronger took ten by himself. The offence has been excellent thus far, but will the reliance on such a relatively young group prove costly over an 82 game season, especially when they start playing upper-echelon teams like San Jose, Dallas, and Nashville? And we haven’t even touched upon the potentially prickly goaltending situation – with J.S. Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov both worthy of number one status will they be happy if they both remain with Anaheim throughout the season? Their eastern-counterparts Buffalo have proven that having a top-notch duo in goal is invaluable for the regular season and ideally would be best for the Ducks, but if they can parley one of those goalies into a reliable defenceman it could have a great impact on a potential playoff run.
In the end, all teams have question marks, but only Anaheim has points in each of their first 15 games. So all of you eastern and Canadian hockey fans, take note: the Anaheim Ducks are serving notice that they are determined to improve upon last year’s showing and not only win their division, but advance even further in the playoffs. Oh, and you Anaheim fans? Maybe you should take notice yourselves: last year you filled up the Pond to 88% capacity, at 15,106 fans per game. This year – this potentially record-setting year – you’re merely at 84.6%. Get out there and support the team – it’s not like there’s any football teams in town to distract you.
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