By Curtis Zupke | NHL.com
The search for a second-line center has been a long-term project for the Anaheim Ducks. Since trading Andy McDonald in 2007, the Ducks have largely struggled to slot someone behind captain Ryan Getzlaf.
Anaheim was able to run through the regular season with Saku Koivu and Mathieu Perreault, but their lack of size eventually hurt them against the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Second Round series, won by the Kings in seven games.
General manager Bob Murray responded by trading for Ryan Kesler, giving the Ducks as good a one-two pairing at center as any team in the NHL. Kesler's contribution in a conference that only got tougher in the offseason is one of five prominent questions facing Anaheim.
1. How much will Kesler help close the gap between Anaheim and the Kings and Chicago Blackhawks? – Kesler is adept in the faceoff circle and will help the Ducks' 22nd-ranked power play. When healthy, he is good for 10-15 power-play goals per season and is also a shorthanded threat.
Defensively, Kesler has won the Selke Trophy (and was a finalist two other times) and provides size and a 200-foot game that is valuable in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That said, Kesler alone won't put Anaheim on par with Los Angeles and Chicago. The Ducks had to give up Nick Bonino in the trade and veterans Koivu and Perreault were not brought back, so they aren't as deep down the middle on their third and fourth lines.
2. Is Anaheim's defense strong enough to make a deep playoff run? – The short answer is no, at least not the way it is currently constructed. The Ducks do not have a true shutdown pairing. The duos of Francois Beauchemin with Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler with Ben Lovejoy worked well during the regular season but failed to seize the moment against the Kings.
The acquisition of Clayton Stoner gives them size, but Stoner is a second- or third-pairing defensemen who won't put Anaheim over the top. Sheldon Souray has a career-threatening wrist injury and Murray cast serious doubt that Souray would be able to continue when asked about his health in July.
3. How does the goaltending shake out? – Frederik Andersen is probably the No. 1 at the moment but that could change in a heartbeat if fellow second-year goalie John Gibson has an outstanding training camp. Andersen and Gibson both usurped Jonas Hiller, who signed with the Calgary Flames, and there might be times this season when Anaheim realizes how much it misses Hiller. That's why Jason LaBarbera was signed to provide veteran leadership.
"We think we've got two really good goalies and an experienced, veteran goalie," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I think we're OK there, I just don't know how it will shake out."
4. Who will play with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry? – Boudreau may try Dany Heatley on the left wing. He's a pure scorer who can finish Getzlaf and Perry's dirty work much the same way that Bobby Ryan did when he was in Anaheim. Heatley is also a left-handed left wing, something Anaheim lacks.
The top-line left wing spot has been a revolving door since Ryan was traded. Boudreau used at least 10 players there last season, something he would like to avoid.
5. Can Anaheim translate regular-season success into the playoffs? – Getting past the first round of the playoffs was a significant step in itself for Boudreau, who has done so just three times in seven seasons with the Ducks and the Washington Capitals and has never advanced to the third round. But Anaheim is coming off two straight Game 7 collapses, to the Detroit Red Wings in 2013 and the Kings last season. The Ducks regularly rack up regular-season accomplishments under Boudreau, whose contract expires next summer, but that has resulted in one playoff series win in the past three seasons.
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