The Anaheim Ducks and Detroit Red Wings have developed one of the better, if under-reported, rivalries over the last 10 years. A big playoff upset of the defending Stanley Cup champions in 2003 (the only time the defending champs were ever swept in the first round) left a bitter taste in the mouths of Wing fans. A Conference Finals loss in 2007 did nothing to make that taste go away, but a small measure of revenge was exacted 2 years later when Dan Cleary's late goal in Game 7 eliminated the Ducks.
Perhaps the reason why the Ducks and Wings have such a rivalry is due to their perceived difference in styles; the Wings have long been known as a team that relies on skill and talent and foregoes physical play, preferring to beat the opponent with goals, not fists. The Ducks, at least in the past, have relied more on size and toughness with a mix of skill. They have never been afraid to sign mean forwards and bruising defenseman, and as we saw in 2009, a playoff series against the Ducks can take its toll on the opponent.
However, the Ducks seem to be moving more towards the Wings' way of play, and that can be seen in the current make up of the team. They're still big and tough, but their skill players are leading the way. Plus, they still (hopefully) employ one of the classiest players in the game.
Can the Ducks make a Conference Finals for the first time since becoming the only California-based team to win the Cup? Follow the jump to find out.
The Ducks enjoyed a bit of an up-and-down year. After starting the season relatively slow, they won 6 straight games to start November. Unfortunately, they then lost 6 straight after the winning streak was over, and that's kind of how their season went. For every prolonged winning streak the team had, they would follow that up with a longer losing streak. At the end of the year, however, Teemu Selanne became Mr Clutch, scoring late goals against Calgary and Dallas to help the Ducks win crucial games in their quest for the fourth seed. Ultimately they ended up 4th in the West, but lost to Nashville in the first round of the playoffs, giving the Predators their first-ever playoff victory and becoming an answer for trivia buffs everywhere.
Pertinent Stats in 2010-11
Points: 99 (10th NHL, 4th West)
Goals For: 235 (11th NHL)
Goals Against: 235 (19th NHL)
Power Play: 23.5% (3rd NHL)
Penalty Kill: 81.3% (19th NHL)
Offense: I loathe him with every fiber of my being, but Corey Perry had a monster year last year. He won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the only 50-goal scorer in the NHL, finished 3rd in scoring with 98 points, and won the Hart Trophy by punching kicking a likeness of the voters with his skate. He plays with Ryan Getzlaf (the only man whose hairline I'm not jealous of) and Bobby Ryan, and together they form one of the most formidable lines in the NHL. That trio combined for 103 of the Ducks' 235 goals last season, a whopping 44% of their total offense. Getzlaf even missed 15 games due to a fractured sinuses after taking a puck to the face in what can only be described as a karmic act. That line is coming back and once again should terrorize the rest of the league (and score some goals, too).
The biggest question mark surrounding the Ducks is whether or not Teemu Selanne will return for another season. Playing on the second line with Saku Koivu and Jason Blake, Selanne still managed to put up 80 points (31 goals), including 10 goals in his final 11 regular season games. He has contemplated retirement based on a nagging knee injury. As of this writing, he still had not made a decision regarding his future, so the rest of the league holds its breath. It's a catch-22 situation for me: while I relish anything that makes the Ducks a weaker team, Selanne is one of those guys that transcends the thug team he plays for and is a player I admire and respect. Personally, I'm hoping he comes back.
Beyond the big 4, the talent drop off at forward is pretty significant. When a significant signing is Cogliano (career high 45 points as a rookie), then it's pretty clear that the team may struggle to get depth scoring. However, the Ducks do boast the NHL's highest scoring defenseman from last season in Lubomir Visnovsky, who was robbed of a Norris Trophy by some guy who did not have as many points AND finished as a minus player. They also have a stud young defenseman in Cam Fowler, who made the team as an 18-year old last year and scored 10 goals in hsi rookie season. Toni Lydman is another defenseman who is a good puck-mover and smooth skater.
Defense: Like the Sharks, the Ducks did a major overhaul to their defense corps. Gone are Sutton and Lilja, replaced by Foster, Carle and Smaby. As a group, the Ducks' defense is an older one, with Visnovsky, Lydman and Francois Beauchemin all over 30 and Foster turning 30 in November (as an aside, it should be noted that turning 30 means the beginning of the end, right J.J.?) There's some competition for playing time, which is never a bad thing, but the Ducks defense has a little less snarl. It's a nice mix of skill and physicality, and the Ducks will be looking to improve their 19th-best team defense next year.
Goaltending: Like with Selanne, the Ducks have a serious question in net with the health of Jonas Hiller. He was the Western Conference's sole goaltending representative last year, but a bout of vertigo ended up sidelining him for the year after February. While Ray Emery came in and performed very adequately, the Ducks gave up 22 goals in 6 games to the Predators, which is like me losing to my 4-year old daughter at street hockey (beat her 119-0 last time; no mercy). He indicated in mid-August that he is symptom-free and ready to get going for the season, but another prolonged absence would really hurt the Ducks.
Hiller's back up is Dan Ellis, and I would break him down, but I'm afraid of the problems that would cause.
Player to Watch: The guy who is overshadowed on this Ducks team is the one who I think has the biggest upside. Bobby Ryan will always be known as the guy taken after Sidney Crosby in the 2005 draft, but he has quietly turned himself into one of the game's better young forwards. He has scored at least 30 goals in each of his 3 full seasons, and last year set a career high of 71 points. At 24 years old he's still got some maturing and developing to do, but he could become a 40-50 goal guy playing with Perry and Getzlaf.
Player With Something to Prove: Since expansion, only 6 players have ever repeated as Hart Trophy winners, and there will be a lot of pressure on Corey Perry to prove that last year was no fluke. While he's always had good numbers, last year was the first year he scored more than 32 goals in an NHL season. He's got great linemates and is a very good player, but getting the recognition and keeping it are 2 different things. If Selanne does end up calling it a season, that's going to put even more pressure on the top line to produce, and Perry will have to show he's up to the task.
The Skinny: The entire Ducks' season is going to hinge on whether Selanne comes back and is his usual great self and if Hiller remains injury-free and provides the kind of goaltending that the Ducks have been used to. If both of those things happen, the Ducks could challenge the Sharks and Kings for the division crown. However, the Ducks are one of the more top-heavy teams in the league, and the loss of one of their stars combined with their lack of depth could hurt them a lot, maybe even out of the playoffs depending on the significance of the injuries.