As the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs approach, NHL teams will start getting mathematically eliminated from contention. PHT’s “What Went Wrong” series aims to analyze why each team missed the playoffs. The “What Went Wrong” series continues with the 2020-21 Anaheim Ducks.
When you think of the worst places an NHL team can be, you often picture “puck purgatory.” Many teams find themselves in that unhappy medium: not good enough to compete, but not bad enough to collect high-end draft picks.
But what about teams who must be dragged kicking and screaming into rebuilding?
Even teams who go through whole-hearted rebuilds often find themselves taking years and years. Sometimes they can’t ever really dig themselves out of that hole. The Ducks (in 2020-21, and before then) instead seem content to mostly just lean back and relax in the cellar. Someone Photoshop GM Bob Murray as the dog insisting that things are fine while the Ducks’ house is aflame.
Above everything else, the Ducks’ 2020-21 season (and recent seasons) shine a glaring spotlight on how not-fine things truly are. Maybe the offseason will mark the time when the Ducks finally try to get out of this situation, before their faces melt some more?
(Note: full season Ducks stats from after their Friday, April 30 game.)
What went wrong before their 2020-21 season
When the Ducks traded Ondrej Kase and took on David Backes‘ contract during the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, it seemed like a sign that maybe the lights were on. Instead, that move feels more like an outlier.
It’s puzzling, too, because of how clear it’s been that the Ducks were right to part with depreciating assets for first-rounders. In the cases of both Kase and Brandon Montour, you can bet that the Bruins and Sabres would accept mulligans for those trades.
Why not try to repeat those victories, even if they’re smaller wins, for the likes of Jakob Silfverberg, Josh Manson, and Ryan Getzlaf?
Generally speaking, the Ducks have waddled away from those opportunities. And, again, they’ve sent mixed signals. They acquired players like Danton Heinen and Christian Djoos for the likes of Nick Ritchie and Daniel Sprong, rather than picks.
Even seemingly reasonable moves in a vacuum were head-scratchers in context.
Kevin Shattenkirk proved that he could help a team when he signed a bargain contract with the Lightning. However, he seems more like someone who could push a team over the top, rather than accomplish … whatever, exactly, it was that the Ducks were expecting. That $3.9 million cap hit through 2022-23 didn’t make sense then, and it looks worse now.
What went wrong during the Ducks’ 2020-21 season
Plenty went wrong for the Ducks in 2020-21, and the main reasons to feel optimism revolve around hoping that potential eventually turns to production.
One area where the Ducks suffered from a staggering lack of production was the power play. As of May 1, the Ducks sport an astoundingly low 9.48 power-play percentage. Here’s a quick list of recent teams that were in that cruddy ballpark:
Panthers: 10% in 2013-14
Blackhawks 11.8 in 2006-07
Hurricanes 10.7 in 2003-04
Devils 11.9 in 2002-03
Ducks 11.5 in 2001-02
Wild 9.6 in 2000-01
Not good! To some extent, numbers that extreme will work themselves out.
But only to some extent. When you’re severely lacking in talent, you’re going to feel it in areas like the power play.
By just about every metric, the Ducks got crushed in 2020-21. They’re every bit the very bad rebuilding team that should be trying to accelerate that rebuild.
It sure seems like Bob Murray’s “too close” to a lot of the players he should be selling. During a 31 Thoughts Podcast following the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline, Elliotte Friedman indicated that the Ducks set asking prices so high, they likely scared people off.
In some cases, the Ducks might eventually find an equitable trade for someone like, say, Rickard Rakell. Even then, buyers might not be as excited about paying up for Rakell in a contract year, versus getting “two playoff runs” for him.
Setting the stage to sell even lower?
If Ryan Getzlaf retires, or simply comes back, then the Ducks might have squandered an opportunity there, too.
There’s little reason to believe that the Ducks will suddenly become a playoff-caliber team in 2021-22, so it’s fair to wonder if they’re only going to hurt the trade value of potential trade targets that much more.
Speaking of value dropping, it’s fair to worry a bit about John Gibson.
From 2015-16 to 2017-18 (and some extent, 2018-19), Gibson built a resume as one of the best goalies in the world. About the only complaint — beyond the team in front of him — was that he played 60 games or fewer each season.
But we’re now two years into a swoon.
In 2019-20, Gibson went 20-26-5 with a troubling .904 save percentage (and -8.7 GSAA, by Hockey Reference’s version). This season hasn’t been much better, as Gibson is 9-18-6 with a .903 save percentage and -5.7 GSAA.
Now, it’s important to note that he hasn’t received much help. It’s understandable if other teams believe he’d snap back into elite form if he joined a winner.
Still, as this goalie tiers poll from Craig Custance indicated (Athletic sub required), some already questioned Gibson going into 2020-21. Those rumblings likely only grew louder after another tough season.
Frankly, if the Ducks take a sober look at this, they might realize that it could be a while before they compete, and it might be wise to trade Gibson. If they wait too long — Murray’s default setting, it seems — then they could be stuck with a goalie whose best days are behind him.
What went right
Despite dipping their toes (webbed feet?) in the rebuilding water instead of diving in, the Ducks still have some pieces in place for their rebuild.
Trevor Zegras has been turning heads, and with good reason. Jamie Drysdale‘s already gotten his feet wet at the NHL level, too, and could end up being the best defenseman of the 2020 NHL Draft. The Ducks made four first-round picks in 2019 and 2020, and generally seem to have found some quality talent.
(The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler ranked their farm system seventh in February, while Elite Prospects placed them 12th thanks to some “graduations.”)
Sure, it would’ve been nice if the Ducks were proactive like the Red Wings to get even more picks/”dart throws.” It’s also tough not to look at their Los Angeles neighbors and be jealous about the Kings’ more-dynamic approach. But the Ducks have a chance to turn things around if they make the right picks, and get the most out of those prospects.
Follow the Push for the Playoffs to keep track of the Ducks’ 2021 NHL Draft Lottery odds. And maybe keep an eye out during the offseason, as Bob Murray (66, in place since 2008) might not be the ideal executive for what clearly needs to be a full-fledged rebuild.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.