The Anaheim Ducks certainly have a roster that resembles a Stanley Cup contender. After all, they came within two victories of winning the Western Conference last June, then retained most of their key pieces.
Problem is, many of those key pieces have already missed significant chunks of time due to injury this season. And it’s starting to show in the standings. Entering play on Wednesday, Anaheim sat at 11-11-6 — ahead of just three clubs in the West.
To be fair, they’re not the first team to ever lose players to injury. And pointing to man games lost can quickly turn into an excuse for struggling teams that are stumbling through the season. It’s a slippery slope. But it’s hard to ignore what the Ducks have endured so far.
Injuries have limited Ryan Getzlaf to just six games, and he likely won’t return until at least mid-December. That alone is 73 points from last season’s lineup that’s been missing, not to mention the leadership qualities he brings to the ice.
Patrick Eaves — fresh off a 32-goal campaign — has missed all but two games. Ryan Kesler is a reigning Selke finalist who’s typically good for at least 50 points a year, but he hasn’t played at all. And now both Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg are missing time up front as well, just a year after combining for 56 goals.
Those are just the main forwards who have been afflicted. Plus Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen have missed chunks of time along the blue line. And that duo makes up a huge part of Anaheim’s defensive nucleus.
Vatanen is now in New Jersey, partially because the Ducks so desperately needed help up front and wanted to add Adam Henrique. But his absence at the start of the season was undeniably significant.
Granted, some of these guys will be coming back soon. But Anaheim could be facing an uphill battle even when that happens.
The Ducks have now dropped seven of eight, and find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. On the one hand, we’re barely a third of the way into the season. But on the other, there’s a pretty strong correlation in the NHL between qualifying for a postseason berth and hanging around in a good spot when Thanksgiving hits.
Anaheim certainly has the pieces in place to go on a nice run when everyone’s healthy though. And the club is hopeful that Rakell, Silfverberg and Lindholm could be back soon — with Getzlaf and even Kesler potentially returning later in December. Plus, even with the recent slide, they’re still just two points back of a wild-card spot.
Now the question is how quickly everyone can re-acclimate and be effective once they’re back on the ice. Especially the scorers, since the Ducks are currently 28th in the NHL with just 2.61 goals per game. Corey Perry has done his best to keep the offense afloat with 120 points, but nobody on the roster has more than eight goals up to this point.
Working in Anaheim’s favor is the fact that the Pacific is clearly a division in flux this year. Los Angeles has surprised some people and Vegas has been a great story, but neither one of them look invincible. Meanwhile, Calgary and San Jose have been fine — but closer to underwhelming than amazing. And it’s possible Edmonton just realized the season began last week.
So the Pacific could give the Ducks a decent path back into the playoffs — assuming they stay healthy and get rolling once these players start filtering back into the lineup. But they may have to finish among the top three in the division, because wild cards in the Western Conference could be pretty tough to come by.
That’s because the Central is suddenly looking like a powerful division again. Winnipeg has finally found a goalie and is meeting — if not greatly exceeding — the expectations of a team with the likes of Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Mark Scheifele up front. St. Louis and Nashville have been predictably strong, and Minnesota is picking up steam.
That doesn’t even account for Chicago, and that’s where this gets tough. It’s not that the Ducks have to make up three points — they could do that in a week. It’s that there are some other strong opponents sitting outside the top eight that they’ll have to hurdle. The Wild, Blackhawks and Flames were all widely expected to be a part of the playoffs this year, yet they’re all on the outside looking in at the moment. And they’re not all just going to stop playing when Anaheim gets some players back.
The Ducks have done a somewhat remarkable job of staying this close, and they still have plenty of time to get things turned around. It’s only December, after all. But they’ll need the missing players to step back in and start making an impact pretty quickly, and they’ll need the newly acquired Henrique to play a key role as well. Plus, they’ll be leaning on younger defensemen like Brandon Montour (14 points in 26 games) to keep pulling their weight for a full season, now that Vatanen’s in New Jersey.
- Anaheim acquires Adam Henrique from Devils for Sami Vatanen
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