Attack of the Clones

08Jun07

The old sports adage is that you imitate whatever the champion did in order to become a better version of that. Now that the Ducks have won the Stanley Cup in a really convincing fashion — it only takes one hand to count the number of losses Anaheim had — are we going to see a bunch of Brian Burke/Randy Carlyle clones? In theory, the answer could be yes, but it’s not nearly as easy as one might think. Sure, the Ducks have a reputation of being big, mean, defensive-minded boars. But it’s much, much more than that. Here’s how the Ducks won:

1) The Norris Twins: Chris Pronger. Scott Niedermayer. Think of the top five defensemen in the league. Those two guys are near the top, right? Simply put, there’s no way that a team can get such a ridiculous top-two pairing like that again. The drop off in Detroit from Nicklas Lidstrom to Chris Chelios/Mathieu Schneider is considerable. Dion Phaneuf’s still got to prove he’s Norris-worthy over the long haul. Dan Boyle’s not nearly as good as Anaheim’s top two guys. Pronger and Niedermayer are masters at controlling the game: retrieving the puck, calming the situation down, and sending out a great outlet pass to start the breakout. It’s a luxury that no one else is going to enjoy for a long, long time, and it’s nearly impossible to duplicate.

2) Two top lines: Some teams, such as the Ottawa Senators, relied heavily on one line. On the other hand, some teams relied on interchangeable parts that went two lines deep (or in Buffalo’s case, three lines deep). In the case of Anaheim, you head the speedy, smaller veterans with Teemu Selanne and Andy MacDonald on the top line and the up-and-coming dynamic duo of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf (for simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on pairs rather than trios for now). This is a case of right-place-right-time synchronicity: MacDonald’s unheralded enough that he’s a steal at $3.33 million and Selanne’s in the twilight of his career and negotiates year to year. At the same time, both Perry and Getzlaf still have one year left on their rookie contracts while contributing big-time performances. If you got all of these guys together in their prime, it’d be an immediate salary cap buster. Through smart drafting and smart acquisitions, the Ducks are able to time it so that money isn’t an issue with their top two lines. Getting this kind of situation requires good development and good timing — two very unpredictable things that can be hard to duplicate.

3) Dynamic goaltending: Jean-Sebastian Giguere’s shaken off nightmare seasons and followed a great regular-season performance with a post-season one that many thought was Conn Smyth worthy. You either have goaltending like this or you don’t; unfortunately, only about half the teams have true #1 goaltenders that inspire unabashed confidence — and it’s something that isn’t always easily acquired when it’s needed (see: Tampa Bay Lightning).

4) Intimidation: Yes, the Ducks took plenty of penalties — but they weren’t necessarily the biggest team in the league (that distinction went to the considerably softer San Jose Sharks). Size doesn’t equal toughness, and the Ducks had plenty of toughness. It got them in trouble, but it also pushed softer teams off balance, creating room and opportunities.

5) Selke-worthy checking: Samuel Pahlsson, Rob Niedermayer, and Travis Moen formed one of the most effective shut-down lines in the league, but don’t let the defensive magic fool you: all three players were capable of capitalizing other teams’ blunders with a quick transition game. Just for posterity’s sake, Pahllsson was considered for Conn Smyth and nominated for the Selke.

6) The system: While some scoff at Randy Carlyle’s system as a defensive-obsessed throwback to the mid-90’s New Jersey Devils, keen observers will note that the Ducks play a unique system that meshes the new and old NHL. The team moves in a unit, supports the defense, and utilizes a near-instant transition game to create offense. It doesn’t hurt that the Norris Twins can both fire off tape-to-tape passes to help the breakout, but the general idea is this: defense first, then turn around and go as fast you can the instant you get the puck. It’s similar to what the Carolina Hurricanes employed so successfully in 2005-2006, but it takes a unique combination of skill, speed, and discipline for an entire team to execute it.

So the question remains: will teams imitate the Anaheim Ducks next season? Looking at these list of key ingredients, the answer will have to be no. Sure, they could try, but let’s look at this logically:

1) No one will be able to match Niedermayer/Pronger.
2) Some teams have as much (or more) forward depth than the Ducks. However, at least half the teams in the NHL are stranded without even ONE consistent top line.
3) Similar to #2, about half the teams in the league have a starting goalie that’s not necessarily locked into his job. Hell, even J-S Giguere wasn’t coming into this season, so things can change really fast for better or worse.
4) This is one area that is easily adopted. Want to be tougher? Sign some bangers-and-crashers and give them the freedom to hit at will. But you’ll have to have the penalty-killing skills of the Ducks to deal with being a high-PIM team.
5) Great shut-down lines aren’t exactly a rarity in the NHL but they’re not easy to come by either. Consider the amount of Selke-worthy candidates in the league — how many teams have one? How many of those teams have a pair to go with the Selke candidate that produces a natural defense-to-transition chemistry?
6) Randy Carlyle’s system is picture perfect — in theory. However, who’s got the right mix of players to pull it off? Buffalo’s transition game was good, but they weren’t tough. San Jose had the speed but they didn’t have the heart or discipline to transition that fast. Detroit only had one Norris-worthy candidate backing things up. Some teams, minus the Norris factor, have the capability of playing this style. Getting that top-line talent to transition with this intensity is another question.

My prediction? Some teams will try to shift to bigger, tougher, meaner games, but most will fail because it won’t be more than the sum of its parts. Now before anyone thinks that I’m labeling the Ducks as repeat champions, it’s important to note that the Anaheim style is really based on blending skill, discipline, and intensity. Skill is inherent; you either have it or you don’t. Discipline and intensity, well, that comes down to leadership and coaching. As Carolina found out really quickly, it’s very easy to let your discipline and intensity slide just a hair. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ducks repeated and I wouldn’t be surprised if they simply couldn’t keep things firing on all cylinders and wound up struggling for 8th.

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One Response to “Attack of the Clones”

  1. 1 Anonymous

    Great great take Mike, though I can’t see Anaheim dropping to the 8th spot or missing the playoffs. Getzlaf, Penner, Beauchemin, and Perry just get better, Bobby Ryan is on the horizon, and if they lose Selanne and Giguere, that just means a whole lot of money to throw at a guy like Ryan Smyth.

    Ian Chin
    Irvine, CA


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