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The Anaheim Ducks’ struggles were foretold

(Photo by John Crouch/Icon Sportswire)

The Anaheim Ducks had high hopes this summer after making it to the Western Conference Final and pushing the Chicago Blackhawks to seven games in 2014-15. Chicago went on to win the Stanley Cup, but didn’t shy away from admitting that Anaheim was a tough out. Jonathan Toews spoke about how physical, skilled and fast the Ducks were over the summer, and they seemed to be trending in the right direction.

Coming off three consecutive Pacific Division titles, this is an organization that was looking to do considerable damage this season. Not just during the 82-game stretch, but during the playoffs as well. General manager Bob Murray spoke about it during training camp, saying that he wasn’t happy after losing games 6 and 7 in back-to-back years.

He proved that by making multiple changes to the Ducks’ roster over the summer. He traded for veteran defenseman Kevin Bieksa at the draft and acquired the rights to speedy forward Carl Hagelin from the New York Rangers. Murray also added pieces to the team’s depth, signing free agents Mike Santorelli, Shawn Horcoff and Chris Stewart to low-risk, high-reward contracts.

It all looked really smart on paper.

The message was sent and heard loud and clear. Management indicated that they were going all-in this season, and the players needed to do their part to help Anaheim to its second Stanley Cup banner.

Heading into the New Year, the Ducks are the worst team in the Pacific Division. They’ve been passed over by rebuilding squads like the Arizona Coyotes and Connor McDavid-less Edmonton Oilers, and have been every bit as bad as the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets.

None of which should be surprising. This team had been propped up as one of the NHL’s elite squads, but is being taken down a peg or three as the weeks pass by for predictable reasons.

The Ducks secured 109 points in the standings last year in a totally unrepeatable fashion. There was absolutely no way they were going to win 18 games while trailing in the third period like they did in 2014-15.  There was absolutely no way that they were going to be able to repeat their 33-1-7 record in one-goal games. What the Ducks did last season, we may never see another team do that again.

It’s admittedly a little odd to see the Ducks struggling to keep up with Arizona and Edmonton, but the Ducks weren’t an elite NHL team last year, and they are showing it in 2015-16. The phrase “paper tigers” got tossed around a lot heading into the playoffs last season and Anaheim managed to quell those rumblings by downing two upstarts in the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames.

Everyone seemed to forget how unrealistic it is to rely on other-worldly comebacks because of how well the Ducks played against the Blackhawks in the Conference Final.

The Ducks are last in the NHL in total goals scored with 55 — that is 12 fewer goals than the 29th-place Philadelphia Flyers. They’ve been doing a good job at keeping the puck out of the net, but Anaheim is the only team in the league averaging fewer than two goals per game. This isn’t a funny six-game sample like it was in October. The Ducks have now played more than a third of their season away.

It’s true that this is a team that has a few bounces coming. They have a PDO of .973, so the Ducks are better than their record indicates. The question is just how much better are they?

Looking back at what made this team successful a year ago — bounces, luck and late surges — it’s tough to believe that this is much more than a middle-of-the-pack team in the Western Conference when all is going well. To make matters worse, the Ducks are married to their current core of players.

Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are both 30, locked into monster long-term deals with big cap hits and have no-movement clauses. Murray inexplicably handed Ryan Kesler one of the worst extensions in recent memory, and he has a no-movement clause that will kick in next season as well. So that’s their forward corps until 2021.

The defense is solid and the penalty kill has been great, but the blue line isn’t nearly good enough to drag this pop-gun offense into the postseason.

Kesler spoke about the team’s playoff hopes at the end of November. The Ducks were in fifth place in the Pacific at that point, and the veteran forward mused about how the team was ” too good not to be in the playoffs.” Kesler was wrong, and so were the pundits who predicted that this would be the team to beat in the Pacific this season.

As of games played through December 18, the Ducks have a 10.3 percent chance to make the playoffs and aren’t trending in the right direction at all. What do you honestly think would happen if this squad faced the L.A. Kings in a seven-game playoff series? Anything is possible in the postseason, but Los Angeles is simply on a different planet right now.

They could fire Bruce Boudreau, but how big would the impact of that move really be? They can’t trade away any of their top players and flipping futures for rentals just to try to make the dance makes no sense.

The team does have north of $8 million in cap space to burn, but they have important extensions for restricted free agents like Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm and Frederik Andersen coming up at the end of 2016-17 — that means they can’t reasonably expect to trade for a big-money asset with more than a year left on a contract.

Where does all of this leave the Ducks? On the playoff bubble at best, which is where they should have been a year ago and where they will continue to be until they can score some goals.

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