2011-2012 season preview: Anaheim Ducks

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2010-2011 record: 47-30-5, 99 points; 2nd in Pacific, 4th in West

Playoffs: Lost to Nashville 4-2 in Western quarterfinals

After an embarrassingly bad road trip to start last season, the Ducks managed to turn things around and eventually earn home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs last season. Teemu Selanne proved that he could still play even though he turned 40 before last season. Lubomir Visnovsky showed that he is one of the most potent offensive defensemen in the league, and Jonas Hiller demonstrated in the first half that he is a world class goaltender. Take all of that and mix in an unstoppable top line led by the defending Hart Trophy winner and there are plenty of pieces in place to get fans in Anaheim excited.

Offense

There’s no question that the Ducks’ offensive line is extremely top-heavy — but those few stars showed that they were capable of carrying the team last season. MVP Corey Perry, captain Ryan Getzlaf, and Bobby Ryan combined last season to be arguably the top line in the entire NHL last season. Selanne joined Getzlaf and Perry on the power play and put up 31 goals and 80 points of his own. If the major players can stay healthy, they’re going to get theirs.

For the Ducks, the key will be for the team to get some scoring depth from the other lines. Jason Blake and Saku Koivu will join Selanne on the second line. Newcomer Andrew Cogliano will take over for Todd Marchant as the shutdown center. Another bottom-six player to watch could be rookie Devante Smith-Pelly — he plays the perfect style of game to be an effective, physical player who can create energy and opportunities for his teammates.

Defense

The weak spot on the Ducks is their blue line. Guys like Lubomir Visnovsky and Cam Fowler are the types of blueliners who can create offense from the point, but true shutdown defenseman are few and far between in Anaheim. Toni Lydman was a fantastic surprise for the team last year and will be asked to do the same last season. Francois Beauchemin will also look to rediscover the game he left during his first stint with the Ducks. Regardless, the Ducks were 20th in the league in goals against average — not a good stat considering Jonas Hiller and Ray Emery were such strong goaltenders last season.

Goalies

The word out of Anaheim throughout training camp is that Jonas Hiller is 100 percent and ready to start the season as the No. 1 goalie. He was one of the best goaltenders in the league going into the all-star break, but a bout with vertigo symptoms in essence sidelined him for the entire second half. Ray Emery stepped in with Dan Ellis to help the Ducks survive to the playoffs — but it’s always been Hiller’s net. In the offseason, the Ducks let Emery leave for a tryout in Chicago and acquired Jeff Deslauriers to put a little pressure on Ellis for the backup role.

Coaching

Randy Carlyle started his tenure in Anaheim with a trip to the Western Conference finals in 2006 followed it with the franchise’s first (and only) Stanley Cup in 2007. Unfortunately, the team and Carlyle haven’t had as much playoff success in the four years since reaching the promised land. Still, the Ducks have consistently been a playoff contender — due in large part to Carlyle’s ability to get his team to play with a tough edge.

Breakout candidate

Cam Fowler has all the makings of a breakout player this season. After his highly-publicized freefall in the 2010 draft, Fowler found himself in Anaheim in his very first season. He gradually became more comfortable on the ice and finished the season with 10 goals and 40 points. He also had a minus-25 rating. The Ducks and Fowler say that he’s more comfortable on both sides of the puck and he’s slated to get first-line power play minutes this season. Watch for Fowler to improve upon his rookie stats and grow into a legitimate top-four defenseman role.

Best-case scenario

In some ways, the Ducks can look to last season for their best-case scenario. Perry was able to put the team on his back and score 50 goals (even with Getzlaf out for an extended period of time). Selanne was able to stay healthy and didn’t miss a beat and Hiller was one of the best goaltenders in the game during the first half. If Anaheim can replicate everything from last season and have better luck on the injury front, it could battle for home-ice in the first round again.

Reality

The Ducks will need to prove that they can keep the puck out of the net. In a way, Anaheim is an interesting case study in building a team. While the Ducks used defense to win a Cup in ’07, they’re now led by an elite handful of scorers and a great goaltender. They could certainly use more depth at forward and a little more help on the defensive side of the blue line. Still, the Ducks proved that their formula can produce positive results when everyone produces at the highest level. They may slip, but the third spot in the Pacific and the seventh spot in the Western Conference are realistic expectations.

Should Miles Wood be suspended after boarding Vladislav Namestnikov? (video)

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He won’t have much of a defense, it would seem.

New Jersey Devils forward Miles Wood took off his responsible thinking cap on Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In the second period, Woods came barrelling in on the Lightning forward Vladislav Namestnikov. The latter had already ushered the puck up the ice, and with his back turned to Woods, the Devils sophomore appeared to leave his feet, driving his shoulder into the nameplate of Namestnikov’s jersey.

If that wasn’t enough, Andrej Sustr came in to defend his teammate and paid the price at the hands of Wood, who broke his visor with a punch, leaving Sustr bloodied.

Wood was given a boarding minor on the play and an additional two minutes for roughing after he left Sustr in a mess. It wouldn’t be at all shocking if Wood is summoned by the NHL’s player safety department.

Both Namestnikov and Sustr had to leave the game, but both returned in the third period.

The Devils won the game 4-3.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Cam Talbot, furious with overturned goal, launches expletive-laden tirade

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Cam Talbot wasn’t too happy after losing to the bottom feeders of the NHL’s Western Conference on Saturday afternoon.

The Oilers, who have Connor McDavid, couldn’t manage to score a goal against a team that’s given up the third most to opposing teams this season.

And the goal they appeared to score to tie the game 1-1 in the third period was eventually overturned because of goaltender interference.

Video review confirmed that Patrick Maroon impeded Antti Raanta’s ability to move his blocker side arm freely, a call that Talbot took exception to following the game.

“It’s extremely frustrating, to have what seems like every single one of these calls go against us in the past two years is just unbelievable,” Talbot lamented to the media. “I’ve never seen anything like it. We challenge a goal, it stands. They challenge a goal on us for some reason it’s always waved off.

“I just don’t understand it, it’s the exact same play that we had last week against L.A. where the guy clips my blocker. We challenge and it’s still a goal. Last year in the playoffs against  Corey Perry, same play, takes my blocker with him, puck goes blocker side and it’s still a goal on us. There’s just no consistency and I’m f***ing sick of it.”

Answering another question, Talbot continued to drop f-bombs speaking to Robert Tychkowski of the Edmonton Journal.

“The fact that every single goal is disallowed against us and every single call or every single time we challenge it’s still upheld. I don’t f***ing get it. They’re the same f***ing plays every time and for some reason, the call goes against us these past two years. We haven’t won one challenge in the past two years. It’s ridiculous. I just don’t get it.” 

This looks one part frustration and another part sour grapes. There have been some blown calls this season, for sure, including against the Oilers.

Here.

Here.

And here.

But this one the Situation Room got right.

Meanwhile, Talbot’s Oilers were shutout for the seventh time this season. They continue to wildly underachieve, despite having names like McDavid and Draisaitl. And they have to watch former teammates like Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle light it up with their new teams.

Sure, Talbot and Co. can blame it a host of external issues. But he and the Oilers have to start looking within. They didn’t become bottom feeders because a goal got overturned.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Nathan MacKinnon set for return after eight-game layoff

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Nathan MacKinnon declared himself fit on Saturday.

And with that self-diagnosis (and probably a lot of input from team doctors), the Colorado Avalanche superstar will return to the lineup on Sunday when the Edmonton Oilers come to town.

MacKinnon has missed eight games with an upper-body injury, going down at a time when the Avalanche were thriving off his impressive play.

The former No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft left second in NHL scoring with 61 points, although he’s fallen a bit behind now, sitting in 16th spot.

More importantly, MacKinnon’s play had him in the conversation for the Hart Trophy, and despite missing eight games, could likely put himself right back there if he can lead the Avs to a playoff spot.

Colorado was 4-4-0 without MacKinnon, including an ugly 6-1 defeat away to the Winnipeg Jets on Friday.

“A hundred percent, I feel good,” MacKinnon told NHL.com’s Rick Sadowski on Saturday. “My trainers did a great job getting me ready, getting me healthy quickly, so I’m good.”

The Avs get their All-Star back at a time they need him most. Colorado sits three points back of the Minnesota Wild for the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference with 25 games to play.

“You get your best player back, it’s positive, no question” Colorado coach Jared Bednar told Sadowski. “He drives our offense in a lot of ways, 5-on-5, power play. We need him back, but we can’t just rely on Nate. It’s not just going to magically turn around here in our favor just because he’s back in our lineup.”

The Avs also found out that Alexander Kerfoot is a quality young center within their organization.

“He’s been pretty good,” Bednar said from Winnipeg on Friday. “It’s a big hole to fill, a big job playing in that No. 1 spot. For a young guy coming in an elevating his game as the year goes on, I think he’s been pretty good. He’s learning on the go a little bit. He’s faced some real tough matchups, he’s still finding a way to chip in a little bit offensively and, for the most part, done a nice job defensively as well.

“We’re pretty happy with what he’s done.”

On Friday, before his team’s walloping, Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog told NHL.com’s Tim Campbell that he felt his team had what it takes to make the playoffs, without the need to bring in any more talent at the trade deadline.

“I think for us, first and foremost, we’re focused on winning hockey games,” Landeskog said. “The trade deadline is what it is. We’re a team that’s pushing to get in and we’re just on the outside looking in right now and we’re focused on winning games. I believe with the team we have, we’re good enough to make the playoffs. We haven’t been favored by too many people to make the playoffs, but as long as the guys in here believe, I think we can do it.”

Whether they need help or not is certainly debatable, but Landeskog also said he believes any moves that general manager Joe Sakic would make would be minor. The thrashing they received at the hands of the Jets on Friday would suggest they need to do more than just stand pat.

But the injection of MacKinnon could act as a quasi-acquisition in its own right.

The Avs have a lot to do if they’re going to emerge out of the toughest division in the NHL. Getting MacKinnon back for the stretch drive can only help.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

No NHL players means more mistakes and goals at Olympics

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Hockey is a game of mistakes and it’s on display in fine form at the Olympics.

It doesn’t look beautiful, of course, with players all outside the NHL turning the puck over for point-blank scoring chances or leaving opponents wide open in front. The talent level is lower, so the risk factors and the entertainment level are up. Goaltenders have to be on their toes for unexpected, game-saving stops even more than usual.

”It’s a short tournament: A few mistakes can decide your fate,” Finland goaltender Karri Ramo said Saturday. ”You try to create more than carry it out of the zone, so obviously teams are trying to keep the puck and create scoring chances, so those mistakes happen. You’re not going to win if you play safe.”

There’s not a whole lot of safe, low-risk play so far, and scoring has increased as a result. After each team played twice, games were averaging 5.1 goals, up from 4.7 in Sochi with NHL players on the rosters.

Four years ago, the bigger international ice allowed eventual Olympic champion Canada to hold on to the puck and simply wear out other teams. This time, it’s being used as a canvas for offensive masterpieces being authored by players such as Finland’s Eeli Tolvanen , the United States’ Ryan Donato and the Russians’ Kirill Kaprizov.

Players with the ability to create and finish are taking advantage of the mistakes being made all over the ice and turning them into goals.

”I think every team’s mentality is to come here and play for a win, not to play not to lose,” Ramo said. ”So you’re trying to push it, and you’d rather lose trying than lose by playing too safe. It’s great to see. I think it’s great for the fans, and it’s great for the players, too, to get to kind of play that kind of game once in a while.”

Germany coach Marco Sturm said every team is trying to minimize mistakes while also pressuring teams hard, so there are more opportunities to force turnovers.

”A lot of teams now, they make the pressure up ice and that’s why a lot of mistakes we’re making,” Sturm said. ”It seems like that’s the trend right now.”

Canada gave up a goal when veteran defenseman Chris Lee whiffed on a puck and another when former NHL goaltender Ben Scrivens’ attempt to rim the puck around the boards went right to a Czech Republic player. Canada lost in a shootout that happened in part because the Czechs capitalized on blunders.

”It’s just different (than the NHL),” former NHL winger Martin Erat said.

In the NHL, Switzerland goaltender Jonas Hiller could count on sound play in front of him. In a blowout win over South Korea, Hiller said, ”a lot of stuff happened by accident, and that’s kind of tough as a goalie to read what’s going to happen.” Carey Price and Jonathan Quick in Sochi showed the value of great goaltending, and the impact is even bigger now.

”You have a good goaltender, he gives you an opportunity to win every night,” South Korea coach Jim Paek said after Matt Dalton made 38 saves to keep a game against the Czech Republic close.

A lot of games have been close, too. Six of the first 12 games were decided by a goal, and two of them went to overtime, which is a wild, back-and-forth Broadway show of 3-on-3 on big ice.

This is the first Olympics with 3-on-3 OT on ice that is 15 feet wider than NHL rinks, so Ramo doesn’t believe teams really prepared as much for it as those in North America. Canada and the Czech Republic went through a full five-minute OT and traded scoring chances for much of that time.

”All of us are in Europe, so we’re used to it,” Canada forward Wojtek Wolski said. ”You’ve got to really be ready to be jumping.”

Canada coach Willie Desjardin said the OT format was ”hard to play” Sturm said ”it’s a lot of skating,” and turnovers in OT – those mistakes again – can lead to not one scoring chance but many.

”It certainly is a game of possession,” Ramo said. ”Small details can decide who’s going to get the odd-man rush, who’s going to get the breakaway. … Whichever team has the possession of the puck more is more likely to win the 3-on-3.”

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno