By Corey Masisak | NHL.com
The Anaheim Ducks had a great regular season in Bruce Boudreau's second full year in charge, winning the Western Conference and coming within a point of the Presidents' Trophy.
Taking the eventual Stanley Cup champions to seven games in a Western Conference Second Round series is no shameful exit, but the end (a 6-2 loss in Game 7 to the rival Los Angeles Kings in the inaugural "Freeway Series") was a painful one.
It also meant the end for Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu, two of the best players in the history of their country and great ambassadors for the sport. Ducks fans will certainly miss them, but this franchise has a bushel of young forwards ready for bigger roles.
The Ducks also added center Ryan Kesler in one of the biggest trades of the offseason in order to better combat the top teams in the West. Free agent Nate Thompson could also help in the middle of the ice. Dany Heatley is on board as well on a cheap, one-year contract to see if he can rebound after several disappointing seasons.
Anaheim added Clayton Stoner on defense, but he might not be much of an upgrade from other internal options. The other big departure was in net, as the Ducks chose not to try and re-sign free agent Jonas Hiller, but the younger options behind him provide hope (and cheap labor).
Based on several advanced metrics, the Ducks outperformed their actual level last season. Any team that finishes with 116 points is a good bet to experience some regression, but the Ducks in particular could see this happen.
The question will be: Can the addition of Kesler and the evolution of all of the young players help the Ducks improve, even if the standings points aren't culled at the same pace? The team they are chasing is just up the road, and there are plenty of other contenders in the West.
Expectations are going to be a little different in Anaheim now as well. A division title in the regular season isn't likely to be as valuable as a "state championship" or better would be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Few NHL coaches shuffle their lines with the frequency of Boudreau, and there has been little delineation between the "second" and "fourth" trios during his time. There has also been a rotating cast of characters at the spot next to Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
That said, Devante Smith-Pelly looked very promising next to the two superstars during the 2014 playoffs. Having Kesler should give the Ducks a more defined second line, even if the wings move up and down a great deal.
Anaheim's coaching staff likes Rickard Rakell a lot, and the Ducks probably won't need the third-line center to absorb as many tough assignments with Kesler around. Jakob Silfverberg was held back by injuries last season, but he could be a breakout performer in Boudreau's offense-friendly system.
The biggest reason the Ducks could still be on the rise is all of the young talent on the roster and what's still in the pipeline to come. Smith-Pelly, Silfverberg, Rakell, Emerson Etem and Kyle Palmieri could all be impact players, and there could be more forwards on the way like Nicolas Kerdiles, Stefan Noesen (who missed last season with a knee injury) and William Karlsson.
The wild card at the start of the 2014-15 season is Heatley. He could play next to Getzlaf and Perry and thrive, or he could end up being a low-risk disappointment resigned to fourth-line or press-box duty.
Cam Fowler took a big step toward fulfilling his No. 1 defenseman-type potential last season, and Ben Lovejoy should be his regular partner again. The Ducks were significantly better with Sami Vatanen in the lineup and getting top-four minutes. Not having him do so again would be a mistake, but there are other "proven veterans" lurking.
Hampus Lindholm had a successful rookie season, playing well in sheltered minutes. The sooner he can prove that, like Vatanen, he can handle a bigger role, the better the Ducks' defense corps will look.
Those four are a solid base, and there is more young talent possibly on the way. The weak link on the Ducks roster is the other defensemen. Francois Beauchemin can still be effective, but his play slipped in 2013-14 and he needs a reduction in minutes.
Bryan Allen and Mark Fistric aren't going to help the team's puck-possession problem (in relation to the other contenders in the West). Stoner almost certainly won't either. Sheldon Souray's career is still in doubt because of a wrist injury that caused him to miss the entire 2013-14 season.
Expecting immediate greatness from John Gibson is almost certainly putting too much pressure on a 21-year-old kid with seven games of NHL experience and not fair to Frederik Andersen, who had a strong rookie season. That said, Gibson was one of the most anticipated goaltending prospects in years and he didn't disappoint in his brief debut.
Gibson and Andersen are likely to share time, and the Ducks could have one of the best tandems in the League as soon as this season. Jason LaBarbera is also in the fold, and could keep a seat warm if the Ducks decided to send one of the two kids to the American Hockey League for more playing time.
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