It seems to happen every year. Teams that looked out of it spring back to life. Perennial contenders slide into the “has been” category, and lots of teams simply spin their wheels year after year. So who are the best teams going forward? I am going to spend the next 31 days breaking down each team to sort it all out.
This team by team breakdown separates them into three groups. Contenders, Pretenders, and League Filler Teams. Lets get started
The Anaheim Ducks would appear to be the prime example of a contending team but are they? They have experience, a veteran loaded line up, depth at all positions, and they spend to the cap. They have finished atop the Pacific Division for five straight years and with a strong second half could do so again this year. Vegas might have something to say about that however. Lastly, they have also had playoff success, going to the Conference Finals in both 2015 and 2017.
The Ducks are one of those teams that seem to have both success on the ice and also to find gems in the draft. With their early round picks they have not picked a bad choice since 2010 when they grabbed a sliding Cam Fowler at 10th overall. Their first rounders since then are Richard Rakell (#30 – 2011), Hampus LIndholm (#6 – 2012), Shea Theodore (#26 – 2013), Nick Ritchie (#10 – 2014), Jacob Larsson (#27 – 2015), Max Jones (#24 – 2016) and Sam Steel (#30 – 2016).
This is an amazing track record of impact players, even those taken in the later stages of the first round. Both Max Jones and Sam Steel are currently playing for their countries in the 2018 World Junior Championships. Sam Steel in particular is looking like a draft day steal..
Since taking over in 2008, Bob Murray has done a masterful job in the trading department. Along with the usual plethora of trades that are simply tinkering of small pieces that all teams do, Murray shines when it comes to the big deal. Not only has he traded down in the draft and gotten superior players later such as:
Aside from the draft pick trades, Murray has shone in the big deal. The only borderline loss would be the Chris Pronger trade to Philadelphia. Anaheim received Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa, a 2009 first round pick and a 2010 first round pick. The 2010 pick was a rare miss on Emerson Etem but the 2009 pick was traded for Rakell and Gibson as noted above.
The other big deals are all Anaheim wins or trades that addressed a team need perfectly:
To be fair, the Bobby Ryan trade was a gamble and could have been a huge loss if he had reached his potential in Ottawa. His skill has never been in doubt but his hockey IQ and intensity have often been questioned. The Ryan Kesler deal was outright thievery. Luca Sbisa had demonstrated to more than one team that he was lacking in foot speed and simply lacked the NHL game to justify his high draft position. Murray found a taker in Jim Benning who still believed that you could win with a slow, plodding, “tough” team instead of a skill and speed based team.
The Vatanen trade was a pure hockey trade. The Ducks had a defenseman who was expendable due to their depth in that position and he turned it into the forward depth he needed. New Jersey also “won” this deal getting what they needed as well on the back end. Too many GM’s in the league seem unable to make deals like this one so it is always refreshing when you see it happen.
The Ducks are riding on the shoulders of Ryan Getzlaf, Richard Rakell, and Ryan Kesler up front with Fowler, Lindholm, and Josh Manson on the back end. They have some youth starting to play key roles in Nick Ritchie and Jacob Silfverberg. Throw in some potential young superstars in Brandon Montour and John Gibson who are playing now and San Steel who could crack the line up as early as next year and they look primed to be competitive for years to come.
The only real question mark in Anaheim is injuries and what to do with the anchor that Corey Perry‘s contract has become. If they can stay healthy going forward, they could make some real noise in the playoffs with a lot of their team playing on fresher legs having missed significant games this season.
When you add in a GM who both drafts and trades incredibly well with no hesitation to make big deals, then you have all the components you need for a perpetual Stanley Cup threat. It is entirely possible that Murray will package up a prospect or picks to move the Perry contract next year.