Did the Ducks take any advantage of their cap space this year?

Reed Saxon/Associated Press

Reed Saxon/Associated Press

If you have been following along this month, you’ll notice that this Bruce Boudreau’s Anaheim Ducks will be the fourth Western Conference team I have covered in absolute detail. It’s been beyond clear that the only way you can win the Stanley Cup now is to get passed Chicago or Los Angeles; holders of four of the last five Stanley Cups and to get out of the Western Conference, where 11 of the last 17 champions came from.

Now if you look at the standings last year, Anaheim had the best record in the Western Conference, with 116 points, but plenty of evidence is there to prove that they were not as talented as their record indicated. In puck posession, the best indicator in future playoff performance in recent years, the Ducks finished below 50% for the fifth straight year. In today’s day in age, this indicates that plenty of luck was involved in order for Anaheim to be successful. During that same five year span, the Ducks have been the best team in on-ice shooting percentage, and Rob Vollman’s luck index had Anaheim among the five luckiest in every year they made the playoffs during that time.

With all the evidence to prove that the clock usually strikes midnight on them, the Ducks have not made it passed the second round of the playoffs since they last won the Stanley Cup in 2007. Last year, they went toe-to-toe with the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings in the second round, but would then get smashed to pieces by them in game seven. It would mark the final game for Teemu Selanne’s and Saku Koivu’s careers and the Ducks would enter the off-season with Daniel Winnik, Matthieu Perreault, Stephane Robidas and Jonas Hiller as unrestricted free agents. That is a combined $16.15 million of yearly salary potentially leaving that summer. However, Anaheim had the most avenues to dramatically alter their roster and improve their team this summer because they had one of the deepest prospect pools in the NHL, they had the most capital in the upcoming draft and they had the most cap space per roster spot of any team in the league. So did the Ducks get it right?

First, one of the easier decisions the Ducks front office made was letting Jonas Hiller leave and have John Gibson and Fredrik Anderson battle it out for the starting goaltender spot this season. Hiller would go on to sign with Calgary for two years and $9 million while Anderson and Gibson will make less than $1.9 million combined this season. Now, Hiller has not been a bad goaltender since he became a starter in the 2008-09 season, but his save percentage from each postseason has dipped and he is about to hit his age-32 season with 326 career regular season games under his belt. That may not sound like much, but it is once you realize that only 129 goaltenders have played that many games in NHL history. Despite the small sample size, both Gibson and Anderson have proven they are ready for the task ahead. With Gibson, the Ducks have a young netminder with plenty of big game experience from last year’s playoffs and the 2012 World Junior Championships where he won the gold medal with Team USA.

Before the draft started, GM Bryan Murray caused a stir by trading one of their two first round picks (24th overall), their third round, Nick Bonino and Luca Sbisa to Vancouver for Ryan Kesler. Immediately, Anaheim got better at center even if Koivu did not come back and brought in a true top six forward that can play on both ends of the rink. Both Bonino and Sbisa were seen as surplus to requirements as players like Emerson Etem and Sami Vatanen became better options on the Anaheim lineup.

What came afterwards, however, was just downright odd. While Winnik’s poor posession numbers led him to signing with Toronto, Mathieu Perreault seemed like a player Anaheim should have kept, and for three years and $9 million, that did not sound expensive for an above average, third line center. That didn’t seem to be the case for Anaheim’s brass as Winnipeg was the first to jump the gun on him during free agency and was able to give Perreault his first big payday of his NHL career. Now the Ducks will be using rookie Rickard Rakell to fill in Perreault’s skates.

Despite Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Vatanen have career years last season, Anaheim’s depth in defense has been their biggest weakness in recent years. Ben Lovejoy has done all that he can to form a good partnership with Cam Fowler, but he is not talented enough to be a top pairing defenseman on a Stanley Cup contender. Francois Beauchemin, Sheldon Souray and Bryan Allen are not getting any younger and while Shea Theodore will be a great talent for years to come, he will still need another year to develop in the WHL. Despite always being a mediocre third line player for Minnesota, Anaheim felt the need to spend four years and $13 million on Clayton Stoner. If it wasn’t for Calgary doing whatever they could to get above the salary floor, the Stoner deal (and really, what a deal for a Stoner!) was the worst contract passed out during this summer’s free agency period. To be frank, why would you ever give someone who spends less than 14 minutes of even strength ice time per game and had so little playing time on any of the special teams units $3.25 million per year….and for four years?!?!?

They could have gone after Tom Gilbert and even the often-injured Anton Volchenkov for less term and money, but again, the Ducks had all the money they needed to spend lavishly on anyone in the unrestricted free agent market. Matt Niskanen was given the highest cap hit out of any defenseman this summer at $5.75 million and players like Willie Mitchell, Dan Boyle, Christian Ehrhoff along with Volchenkov and Gilbert went for one to two year deals. How is it that Anaheim wasn’t able to go after, at least, one of these guys to surpass someone like Allen on the blue line depth chart? In the meantime, Boudreau will have loads of fun watching what $3.25 million looks like as a healthy scratch for most of the season.

In the forward ranks, secondary scoring was added with the addition Kesler, but two veteran forwards were lost as a result of the trade. Subtract another four that either retired or went somewhere else, and the Ducks practically have changed half their group. Even after trading Dustin Penner to Washington in the middle of the regular season last year, him along with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf still finished as the most frequently used line combination last year, according to leftwinglock.com. When Penner left, Boudreau was left scrambling for the perfect left wing for Perry and Getzlaf. Again, instead of spending freely, Murray decided to pick up Nate Thompson and Dany Heatley. Thompson is a very solid bottom six centerman, but when was the last time Heatley put any fear towards anyone offensively, even if it was in a fourth line role?

Now it’s understandable if someone like Thomas Vanek and Paul Stastny were too expensive for Anaheim, but they could have had Mike Camalleri, Matt Moulson, Jussi Jokinen or Jarome Iginla for less than $5.5 million per year and put them on the top line immediately. Instead, every single one of them went to teams that are in markedly worse situations than Anaheim. Even if you want to get creative, couldn’t Kesler have pitched for bringing in his former Canucks teammate in Mason Raymond, who only went for less than $3.2 million per year to Calgary of all places?

There simply was nothing Anaheim did after July 1st that made sense. The Ducks might be forced to have Kyle Palmieri play first line minutes and even though Patrick Maroon showed great promise, I’m not ready to place his name in permanent marker in the top six. We are also heading into the third straight year of us wondering if Devante Smith-Pelly can stay on an NHL roster for a full 82 games. Even after a great postseason last year, we have only know none answer to that question and that is no.

There are still good pieces to this roster. Etem should get some more playing time and Stefan Noesen and Jakub Silfverberg should have better seasons than they did in their first years after being traded from Ottawa for Bobby Ryan. Nick Kerdiles and William Karlsson are also interesting prospects to watch in the AHL this season and the young blueline of Vatanen, Fowler and Lindholm should keep getting better. What I can’t understand though, is that Anaheim needed to make a statement. Both Perry and Getzlaf are about to hit 30 years old this season and only have so many hockey miles to put on their bodies and yet, Anaheim is sitting with over $9.5 million in cap space right now. I just don’t see what they are waiting for, especially when you see St. Louis and Dallas make a push to get passed the Blackhawks and Kings while San Jose is hoping to give the captaincy to everyone. Maybe they are waiting for another chance to not have their luck run out on them, or something.

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