October 06 2012 10:39AM
I wanted to take a look at some teams that are facing a crossroads of sorts but that usually fall by the wayside or operate shrouded under popular perception. To that end this series is focused on taking a look at some of the out-of-the-way NHL franchises that don’t get much attention here on the Nations. So we’ll start with the Leafs…
The first organization I wanted to look at is one that I’ve mentioned a few times in discussions here at the Nations and one that has had some peculiar happenings these past few seasons. The Anaheim Ducks.
They traded away Jake Gardiner and Joffrey Lupul for Francois Beauchemin, then GM Bob Murray started openly shopping Bobby Ryan, then he stopped, then he started again, and now Ryan has pre-empted Murray and has asked to be traded because he is sick of being jerked around. Finally Justin Schultz bolts out the first available CBA trapdoor and Murray, knowing that there was a strong likelihood of losing Schultz for nothing via free agency, sits on the highly-touted prospect rather than trading his rights for any tangible asset.
This organization warrants further scrutiny.
The ownership of the Ducks under Henry and Susan has been relatively quiet, despite Henry Samueli having his ownership temporarily suspended after he had plead guilty in a charge of lying to securities regulators in 2008. The charges were later dropped after being found baseless, and Samueli was exonerated in 2009.
Since purchasing the team in 2005 from the Walt Disney Corporation for $75 million the franchise has increased in value to approximately $188 million, 19th in the league in 2011, according to Forbes magazine.
Today the Ducks are rumoured to be working under an internal budget that is more or less in the range of their current payroll, roughly $56 million. Oilers and Flames fans are well aware of the restrictions that can place on the running of a team.
Prospects and Drafting
Photo: Alexander Laney/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0
Drafting has been a strength of the Ducks over the past decade. While they may not have hit on every prospect, many of the ones they’ve selected have become NHL players. Their success doesn’t impress as a percentage, but the number of players they tend to find good players even when they are drafting at a disadvantage.
The Ducks are ranked 5th in the league for prospects by Hockey’s Future and 8th by Corey Pronman over at Hockey Prospectus. Personally I’m more comfortable with them in Pronman’s range than as high as 5th. The loss of Jake Gardiner and Justin Schultz leaves this prospect group with two legitimate defensive prospects in Cam Fowler and the recently drafted Hampus Lindholm. Those two, in addition to a defensive corps that has Sheldon Souray, Francois Beauchemin, Luca Sbisa and Bryan Allen means that there is decent mix of the older and younger players. I’m a big fan of both Sbisa and Fowler. It is likely that these two will form the nucleus of the Ducks defensive core over the next few years.
The problems begin to arise when one looks further down the developmental depth chart. Lindholm and Sami Vatanen are the next two defensive prospects. One is still playing in junior while the other is listed as being only 5’9”, 165 lbs. Vatanen may yet become a power play specialist, and Ryan Murphy is perpetually convincing others that size need not be an impediment to being an impact player, so we cannot be dismissive of him based solely on size. However, had the Ducks kept Gardiner and Schultz it is very likely their defensive six would be set for anywhere from five to ten years. They need to add blueline prospects at this time. How remains to be discussed, but depth in this area is of concern.
At forward the Ducks, like so many other NHL teams, appear to lack a future franchise center. They have been gifted with one in Ryan Getzlaf since 2006-2007 and it is often difficult for teams to address future needs when the present appears so safely predictable. Elite talent at the center position is also notoriously difficult to acquire.
The strength of the Ducks prospect pool is on the wings in Rickard Rakell, Emerson Etem, Devante Smith-Pelly, Kyle Palmieri and Nicolas Kerdiles. If all five were to become regular NHL players then the Ducks might only need to find one first line center and a passable second-line center.
At goal the Ducks have a highly-thought-of prospect of John Gibson as well as Igor Bobkov, who is more of a project draft pick. This is a very difficult area to predict, but I would hazard the guess that the goaltending is not as strong an area of depth or potential as the forward group at this time. I may very well be wrong. As we all know, and have been reminded by BookofLoob, Trevor Kidd was once selected ahead of Martin Brodeur, so guessing on goalies is a tough game.
The prospect group for the Ducks is certainly above average. That is the good news. But how does that contrast to the current state of the NHL roster as it projects to play out over the next few seasons? That is the real question. What you have in reserve depends greatly on how far you need to travel.
It also depends on the ability of your management staff to properly assess and prioritize that talent. If the scouts are seeing one thing and the GM another then they will be working at odds, and every job well done by the one may be undone by the other.
The State of the Roster
The Ducks have made several roster changes since their Stanley Cup win in 2007, yet have been able to retain a portion of their core group in Teemu Selanne, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. They’ve gotten generous mileage out of Selanne and Scott Niedermeyer and boast a good first line of Getzlaf, Perry and Bobby Ryan. Getzlaf and Perry are both unrestricted free agents at the end of this season (or whatever this season becomes once Gary and Donald are through with it). Selanne and Saku Koivu are also pending UFAs at the end of this season and at this point I don’t think that either can be counted upon to re-sign for another season. Koivu may want to explore other options and Selanne’s retirement is only a matter of time.
The Ducks are rumoured to be in difficult financial straits and are a budget, rather than a cap, team. This may change depending on the outcome of the current CBA negotiations and the prospect of a new revenue-sharing model. For the purpose of this exercise we are going to focus on the realities of the organization as it existed under the old CBA and assume that a significant portion of that financial landscape will carry over to the new (ie: salary cap within the range of $60 to $70 million).
The Ducks have four of their top six forwards as pending UFAs and are unlikely to find themselves able to replace high-end players on the open market due to budgetary consraints. In addition to that, their 1st line winger in Bobby Ryan has recently demanded to be moved after routinely finding his name brought up in trade rumours. Meanwhile, their second-line center and second-line winger, two of the alluded-to free agents, are both close to retirement. What then to do?
Getzlaf and Perry are the primary concerns, of course. The general concensus is that they need to be re-signed to three or four year deals and that they are players who are too good to simply let walk or to trade away. Looking at Getzlaf and Perry’s numbers at Behind the Net, they drive the play and face the toughest competition that the Ducks encounter. That’s great. But does the team have a counterpunch to those two or are the team’s best players being sacrificed in an effort to prevent scoring, but leaving nobody behind them to capitalize offensively on weaker matchups? The Ducks don’t have a good enough shutdown line to allow Getzlaf and Perry to feast on the lesser lights of the competition. That they have done as well as they have to date is a credit to their skill.
Koivu was a great second-line center but has been losing ground these past two seasons. Given his age (38 in November) and the inevitable decline in play, as well as the likelihood of his imminent free agency, it would behoove the Ducks to pursue a replacement-level player for the second-line center position, presupposing that they can retain Ryan Getzlaf. Right now Andrew Cogliano is the heir-apparent for Koivu. His first season with the Ducks, and his career thus far, suggests that he is far better suited to the wing than the middle.
If the Ducks attempt to retain Getzlaf, Perry, and Koivu it means that the team is committed to attempting to win with this group and will complement this core with some of their drafted talent. Right now the likely candidates for promotion to the NHL team are RW Kyle Palmieri, LW Luca Caputi, and defensemen Matt Clark and Sebastian Erixon. The Ducks could, conceivably, promote these players from within, trade Bobby Ryan for other immediate assets (we’ll get to him in a moment), and then attempt to sign one or two free agents after the lockout ends, all in an attempt to make the playoffs. Given their lack of depth at most positions and weak goaltending, though, it is difficult to believe that they could accomplish much in the post-season. For what it’s worth, the Hockey News has predicted that they will finish 11th in the West.
Given the financial situation of the organization it can be debated which approach would be in the best long-term interests of the franchise: to attempt to make the playoffs as a weaker roster with a core that is nearing peak performance but gets buried on matchups. Or to trade expiring assets at their peak to capitalize on a relatively healthy prospect group and re-assemble a new core group around draft windfalls Cam Fowler, Kyle Palmieri, Devante Smith-Pelly and Emerson Etem. There are, of course, other variations the team could take between the stated options here, but these two are simply examples of philosophically divergent alternatives.
So why on earth would the Ducks be looking at moving Bobby Ryan, a dynamic winger with speed, size and a dependable scoring touch (not to mention a decent long-term contract)? According to some Ducks observers it is because Ryan isn't enough of a talent to build around. So perhaps management has identified that while he is an elite complementary talent, he is not a foundational one. The Ducks could extract from a Cup-ready team a king's ransom for a young dependable skilled winger like Ryan. What Nash returned to Columbus, Ryan presumably could be worth and more. His cap hit is lower, his production is similar, he is younger and they both play a similar style - Ryan looks to be the more valuable asset. And what does this gain the Anaheim Ducks? Trading away such a valuable player when they appear to desperately need to add his strengths to their roster? The argument from within the Ducks fan base is balance. The Ducks would gain by being able to add a player to make up the difference lost in the departure of Gardiner and Schultz, as well as find a player to slot in to replace Koivu.
Trading Bobby Ryan seems absurd and counter-intuitive on the surface. I'll admit, my immediate reaction when I heard the rumours a year ago was that they would be better to trade Getzlaf and Perry, keep Ryan and add the new center they so desperately need through the draft. However, it would appear that the Ducks have instead chosen to try and exchange Bobby Ryan likely for a mixture of quality and quantity that will help to even out the roster while staying under their internal budget and capitalize on the ELCs of their prospects Rakell and Etem.
I have read that the internal budget for the Ducks sits somewhere in the range of $56 million. This is hearsay, but it comes from fans in Anaheim and most often those fans are privy to offhand remarks and subtle media comments that outsiders never hear. So let's suppose, for the sake of argument that they do sit in that $56 to $59 million range. If the salary cap remains at $70 million once the season begins, that puts the team at roughly an $11 million to $14 million disadvantage over at least half of the other teams in the league.
The Ducks had a defensive group under the age of 25 that included Fowler, Schultz, Gardiner, Sbisa and Matt Clark. They traded Gardiner and Lupul for Beauchemin and lost Schultz in a very high-profile free agency loophole. That leaves them with Fowler, Sbisa and Clark. The first two are in the NHL and can be relatively quantified as to their potential. The last is still untested in the NHL but would appear to be near ready to make the jump.
Had the Ducks retained Gardiner somehow convinced Schultz to stay (or at the very least traded his rights for some tangible return) this organization might be able to afford to trade Ryan or lose either Selanne or Koivu and not be set too far back. Unfortunately, the Beauchemin/Gardiner trade was a disaster and the damage wrought by Schultz's unceremonious departure could have repercussions for the organization for years to come.
With that in mind, trading Bobby Ryan might seem like a bad idea following on the heels of earlier bad ideas. However, it may become Bob Murray’s only alternative to improve the team. It is one that he cannot afford to screw up.
A Small Digression On Justin Schultz...
The Ducks don’t have a stellar defense and three of their defensive six are nearing the end of their careers. Ice time and a decent forward group with which to play seems an inevitability for any budding defensive prospect in Anaheim’s system.
So then why did Justin Schultz leave? Was there something else going on there that we don't know about? Is there some whispering dysfunction deep in the halls of Duckville of which the fans and mainstream media are as yet unaware? Maybe he doesn’t like Disneyland and is he still upset that Bambi’s mother died?
Schultz said he wanted to play in Canada and he used some obscure CBA arcana to achieve that end. There is rampant speculation that he decided to leave after his friend Jake Gardiner was traded, but I find it difficult to believe that a hockey player could advance to the level of NCAA hockey, and excel there, and have such thin skin. Besides, if it were that important to him he could simply have signed in Toronto this June.
The defensive depth that the Ducks currently have would have ensured Schultz as much ice time in Anaheim as he is likely to get in Edmonton, or any other NHL market for that matter. So a prima donna drive to want to step in as an immediate 1st pairing option is a non-starter as well.
Perhaps we simply have to take Schultz at his word and live with the explanation that he took a road few find open to them in order to control his career.
Fans and the league in general tend to find this offensive because of the proprietary nature with which we both view players. Jim Devallano wasn't really telling stories out of school when he called players cattle. Even I am guilty of assuming terms of language that imply that perspective. I speak of leveraging assets and returns and so on. It is part of the landscape of the NHL player, from draft and development to roster/cap management. Maybe it is also alien to many of us that a player with his potential would actually want to play in Canada. We have become so accustomed to players leaving for warmer, more cosmopolitan cities that we are suspicious when they go the other direction.
Maybe he just really likes free Health Care.
The Ducks failed to trade the negotiation rights to Justin Schultz prior to his becoming a free agent and this may be a signature nail in Bob Murray’s coffin when the axe finally does fall (too many metaphors?). Murray made a bad move when he traded Gardiner, and he made another when he didn’t trade Schultz.
So then back to what this means for the Ducks. It means that Bob Murray suddenly needs to address an area that he felt was insured by the presence of his star prospect, Justin Schultz. He is left scrambling to fill that organizational void and surprise surprise, Francois Beauchemin, Sheldon Souray ,and Tony Lydman are not the solution.
The Ducks have had some phenomenal drafting over the past few years. Their cupboard is considered reasonably well-stocked for a team that won a Stanley Cup five years ago and has finished relatively high (and thus drafted relatively late in the first round) these past few seasons. With their prospect group they ought to be a sustainable regular contender for a deep playoff run with occasional seasons of being Cup favourites. Why not? While the drafting has been above average in quality, their management, including ownership, has been unable to meet the same standard. Bob Murray has made some ill-advised trades and the ownership group has been financially hampered, forcing the team to run the same top line with an aging supporting cast year after year. They haven't brought in the help that would have taken the pressure off of Getzlaf and Perry and allowed them to dominate offensively, as is their potential.
Selanne has provided some sense of security and has bought time for the team to let Rakell, Etem and others develop at their own pace. However, they are now facing a transition point where new bodies will have to be inserted into the roster. What Murray does with Ryan, Getzlaf and Perry is obviously going to dictate the trajectory of the team. If he trades Ryan, and this seems to be likely given the recurring rumours and Ryan's most recent request to simply be done with it, and re-signs Getzlaf and Perry to contracts with approximately a $1 million dollar raise (a number that is considered likely amongst the Anaheim media), that means that the team will be heavily reliant on the next generation of players graduating from junior. Those ELCs will determine the duration of the Ducks' window of opportunity as a playoff and championship contender.
The Ducks have been losing ground in the standings since their Stanley Cup win in 2007, with the exception of the 2010-2011 season where they had a phenomenal run near the end, with Corey Perry earning the Hart Trophy. Their season-by-season progression (or regression in this case) has them going from 110 points, to 102, 91, 89, 99, and 80. The trend is pretty apparent and we have seen what happens to teams that fail to make attempts at improvement from year to year. When an organization retains a great deal of their roster, barring exceptional status, quite often they begin to lose ground to other teams that make adjustments, whose core players mature, or who have a windfall infusion of talent.
The Ducks are a team that bears some similarities to the Calgary Flames. Whereas the Flames have had stalwart talents in net and on the wing, the Ducks were blessed with those talents at the forward position, and when coupled with the windfall addition of Chris Pronger and a generational talent like Scott Niedermeyer, they were able to translate that talent (and a good amount of belligerence) into a championship. Since then they have suffered a steady rate of roster attrition and have failed (though understandably) in their attempts to replace that talent.
The franchise strength has been in finding one or two exceptional talents in the draft, and this bodes well for the organization. However, the failures of management and the limitations of ownership may yet doom this team to a period of continued mediocrity, albeit with the chance of some playoff opportunities, before the roster requires a full-scale rebuild.
My guess is that this team is between three and five years away from needing a massive overhaul. Four to five-year extensions for Getzlaf and Perry are likely the safest bet at this time, coupled with a trade of Bobby Ryan focusing on a replacement winger, a first round draft pick for 2013, and a middle-tier defensive prospect in return. The money saved on Ryan's contract could be used to either sign a free agent or to allow room in trading for an available player once the season begins. A player in the range of a Jim Vandermeer or Michal Roszival would probably be a good stopgap for a season while Vatanen, Clark and Fowler gain more experience.
The goaltending situation will need to be addressed sooner or later, but the old paradigm of needing an elite goaltender to win a championship seems to be fading and perhaps Hiller can improve, or at least maintain some decent numbers until the team can see what they have in John Gibson.
My personal preference would be to retain Ryan and trade Getzlaf and Perry, due in part to age and relative cost. However, Ryan has made it known that he has no interest in being a part of a bad team looking to rebuild and at this point is tired of the rumours and simply wants out. Were the Ducks to annihilate the roster and trade all three they could no doubt gather enough draft picks (in a very deep year) and deep-six their roster to such an extent that either Nathan MacKinnon or Seth Jones would be all but guaranteed. The team's under-23 talent could outstrip nearly every other franchise in the NHL in a single draft year. It would be a risky and bold plan, but the advantages would be in playing to the organization's strengths (drafting) and cutting costs for ownership in the short term. The fan base of the team might also have become aware enough of the intricacies of the NHL that such a move could generate excitement.
So here are a few trade ideas to mull over and give you an idea of what sort of assets I would target in moving Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
Getzlaf is the cornerstone for a line and likely the most attractive piece for many teams. The Oilers and Leafs might be interested given their shared interest in large centers. The asking price would have to be a 1st round pick (intrinsically very valuable given the recent records of both teams), a roster player (Kadri or Franson for the Leafs, Gagner for the Oilers) or a prospect (Carter Ashton or Joe Colborne for the Leafs, Tyler Pitlick or Curtis Hamilton for the Oilers). If the price is too high or too low you can debate it in the comments, but if Murray isn’t asking for this in exchange then he isn’t doing his job.
As for Perry, likely something similar but without the 1st round pick included. So a roster player on a longer contract or a pair of good prospects. Daniel Catenacci and Mark Pysyk from the Sabres might be a good price, or Drew Stafford and one of the above, for example.
If we compare Ryan’s value to Nash, and assume that he would be worth more because of his contract and age, then a 1st round pick, two roster players and a good prospect would be the bargain price. My guess would be an improvement of roster player in return or a greater number of prospects. If Philadelphia were on the phone, Brayden Schenn, Matt Read, and Braydon Coburn and probably a pair of 1st round picks would be where I would begin. Again, this is aggressive, but when you are trading away a player with Ryan’s talents at his young age you have to try to win the deal outright. The Flyers have one of the worst prospect pools in the league right now and there is precious little they could offer to actually sweeten a deal for a team with as rich in prospects as Anaheim.
My argument for this is simply that Getzlaf and Perry are high-demand players right now, and yet they are not enough to make the difference in Anaheim. As well, due to financial restrictions and a lack of any prospect likely to become the difference-maker in the crucial center position in the immediate future, those players are stagnating in Anaheim. Their value becomes moot so long as they are neither leveraged for an improvement in the team’s future nor accompanied by the required complementary talent on the depth chart. With each passing year they are likely to lose some of their current value, if it hasn’t already diminished, and the wise investor knows to sell a fraction of a second after the asset has reached peak value.
This is all very good and logical, but I’m not the one writing cheques for the team and trying to sell tickets. Reticence to part with iconic figures in a non-traditional hockey market is understandable.
Why Should I Care?
The Ducks are one of the teams in the West that the Flames have been fighting against for a playoff position and the Oilers will need to pass in order to rise out of the basement. If the organization is headed in a new direction, be it up or down, it will greatly affect the fortunes of both Alberta teams.
The Flames are considered to be close to rebuilding. Bob Murray isn’t looking good lately, but his scouting group does. And if the Ducks go into a rebuild before or at the same time as the Flames it will impact the cost of draft pick and prospect procurement. One detail that I didn’t discuss in the previous rebuilding series was the timing of many rebuilding efforts relative to the rest of the league. Several teams undertook the effort of acquiring prospects and draft picks with little competition on the trade market. This allowed them to gather those resources fairly readily. The Oilers found themselves in this situation in 2010 when the other teams at the bottom of the league with them were more focused on making immediate improvements. This allowed the Oilers to acquire a number of 2nd and 3rd round picks that otherwise might not have been so readily available had there been other teams also interested in acquiring those selections.
When the Flames rebuild they will need to hope that they are the only team interested in doing so. If the Ducks are in the mix with them it will make the job that much harder to manage.
As for the Oilers, if the Ducks find some resurgence then it may take that much longer and that many more adjustments to get the team to the playoff cut line, delaying the progress of the team by perhaps a season or more. With the shortened window for winning in the NHL today and a league rapidly finding parity, the fewer external delays in a team’s progress the better.
Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition!
I’d like to add that I expect, in three to five years, to be wrong on my earlier prediction. Kent has mentioned a book by Dan Gardner, Future Babble, that discusses why experts (and in fact most of us) are so bad at making predictions. Those that are the worst at it are the hardliners who base predictions on ideology or a biased and unbending view of history as the ultimate predictor of future occurrence. Those that are more flexible in their perspectives are often more correct if only because they are willing to adapt to new information.
With that in mind, I have no idea what Bob Murray or the Samuelis will do over the next twelve months. Philip Anschutz surprisingly put his entire AEG sporting empire up for sale only a month ago. Prior to that nobody expected it to happen. Perhaps Murray fails to sign Getzlaf and Perry. Perhaps the Ducks astonish everyone and win their division. Perhaps the season is cancelled and they win the resulting draft lottery. One can only guess based on the general trajectory of several significant factors. The weight given to those factors when determining a team’s direction may vary depending on the observer.
In other words, this is my best guess and far from a comprehensive evaluation. Take a look at the team yourself and see what you see. Results may vary.