Written by Justin Ritzel and can be followed at @justinritzel.
Despite sitting atop the National Hockey League standings for a better part of the past two months, there is a shred of doubt of the legitimacy on whether the Anaheim Ducks are true Stanley Cup contenders. Perhaps it is their quick playoff exit in the first round of the 2013 NHL Playoffs, or head coach Bruce Boudreau’s lack of playoff success, but the question remains on whether these Ducks can compete with the likes of Chicago, St. Louis, or Los Angeles in a seven-game series.
During his tenure as General Manager in Anaheim, Bob Murray has made exactly one blockbuster trade. The deal was the one that shipped future Hall of Fame Defenseman Chris Pronger to the Philadelphia Flyers for Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa, and a first round draft pick that the Ducks used to select forward Kyle Palmieri. Suffice to say, Murray has been reluctant to take a big swing via trade, electing to fill holes with low-level deals instead.
In all reality, Anaheim is probably a year ahead of schedule as true Stanley Cup contenders. Former first round pick Emerson Etem has spent most of this season tearing up the American Hockey League, and while Palmieri and first-year Duck Jakob Silfverberg have remained with the big club all year, neither has stepped up as a consistent scoring threat they likely will be down the road. On defense, Cam Fowler finally made the leap to the top-pairing defenseman he always had the potential to be, but nobody could have expected the major contribution from 20-year-old Hampus Lindholm so soon.
The fact that the Ducks are ahead of the curve buys Murray some time if he wants to ride out this season and hold on to the many assets he has at his disposal. However, the pieces are there if Murray finally wants to take that big swing.
Keep in mind the Ducks have two first-round picks in the upcoming 2014 NHL Draft; their own, as well as the pick acquired last summer in the Bobby Ryan trade. With Ottawa floundering a bit over this past month, that pick becomes exponentially more valuable.
The Ducks also have a rare situation with their goalie depth. Jonas Hiller is set to hit unrestricted free agency following this season, and under other circumstances might be worthwhile consideration as a trade candidate. However, last season’s surprise star Viktor Fasth has been injury-plagued nearly all season, and while Frederik Andersen has been a mainstay himself, he is still largely unproven. There is also World Junior Championship hero John Gibson waiting in the wings, whom many believe to be a star goalie in the making.
Murray has made it clear that Hiller will not be dealt, as the Ducks appear ready to ride Hiller through this postseason before ultimately allowing him to walk away for nothing this summer. Andersen, who will turn 25 just in time for the 2014-15 season, seems like the likely replacement for Hiller next season, and Gibson is the crown jewel. By process of elimination that leaves Fasth, who comes with an affordable $2.9 million cap hit through next season, as the most likely candidate to be shipped away. Don’t be surprised if Murray kicks the tires with any club that lost out on the Ryan Miller contest to gauge some interest.
When you’re top five in both goals for and goals against, it’s difficult to imagine any glaring holes for a given team, as is the case with Anaheim. However, in a perfect world the Ducks would add another scoring forward and a hard-nosed defensive defenseman as they make their final push during the regular season. Dan Girardi would have been an ideal acquisition before the Rangers locked him up with a new six-year, $33 million deal.
Murray doesn’t seem too keen on selling the farm for expensive rental players, so cross Thomas Vanek, Matt Moulson, Mike Cammaleri, etc. off your Anaheim Ducks wish-list. If he is willing to part with some assets, it would make the most sense for Murray to call Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillies and inquire on the status of center Ryan Kesler. Kesler would provide the perfect complement to Ryan Getzlaf down the middle, providing secondary scoring and defensive prowess that will be needed against the high-flying offenses such as Chicago and San Jose down the road. Murray has the pieces to make a deal like that happen if he is willing to.
Don’t be surprised if Murray also expresses interest in Nashville Predators center David Legwand, if he hasn’t already. Legwand, who is in the last season of a six-year $27 million deal, comes from the same mold as Kesler and would likely come at a cheaper price.
Ultimately, however, it seems more and more probable that the Ducks will likely run the same course as they did a year ago during the trade deadline, which is sit tight and avoid bidding wars. Without genuine pressure on the club to win the Stanley Cup, expect Murray to bring in a lower-tier forward or defenseman for depth purposes, and strike with a bigger deal during this upcoming offseason.