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Ducks Still the Team to Beat in the Pacific

As a whole, the Pacific Division figures to be vastly improved this season. The Edmonton Oilers landed Connor McDavid and promptly revamped the roster (and coaching staff… and general manager) around him — all while holding on to their previous top picks as well. Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames added Dougie Hamilton to an already emerging lineup.

And the Los Angeles Kings? They probably feel like they have something to prove after missing the playoffs entirely. And they somehow got bigger, acquiring Milan Lucic to provide more physicality and offense up front.

Beyond that group, the San Jose Sharks still have enough weapons to be dangerous, the Arizona Coyotes have a very talented core of young forward prospects on the way and the Vancouver Canucks are thrilled with their recent acquisition of Brandon Sutter. In other words, there won’t be many “easy” games in this division.

That said, the Anaheim Ducks are still the team to beat.

A strong case could be made that Bruce Boudreau’s group should have won the Stanley Cup this past season. They cruised through the first two rounds, and seemed to have the Chicago Blackhawks on the ropes — for awhile, at least. In fact, they didn’t even lose a playoff game in regulation until Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals.

Ultimately, the Ducks — like almost every other team over the last five years — couldn’t get the job done in overtime against the ‘Hawks though, dropping a gut-wrenching triple-OT decision in Game 2 and a double-OT nail-biter in Game 4. From there, they couldn’t shut down Chicago’s surging offense in Game 7. When all was said and done and the season was over, Jonathan Toews even acknowledged that the series against Anaheim was the Blachawks’ most difficult.

A loss is a loss, but you can’t get much closer than that.

That narrow margin of defeat with a trip to the Stanley Cup hanging in the balance serves as the backdrop to the upcoming season for Anaheim. There have been changes, but nothing huge. As such, expectations won’t be any lower. If anything, they might be higher.

Frederik Andersen established himself as the main option between the pipes, registering a 2.36 goals against average while playing every playoff game. If he somehow falters, John Gibson seemed to be living up to his potential as one of the top goalie prospects in all of hockey before an injury cut his season short. Even Anton Khudobin is in the mix now, giving the team quite a bit of flexibility in net.

The Ducks have a lot of flexibility in net.

The blue line was a strength last season, and that figures to be a similar narrative for the Ducks in 2015-16. Cam Fowler was already a staple on the back end, and he was joined by Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm as gifted young defenders emerging into established NHL weapons. Francois Beauchemin and Clayton Stoner provided some experience, and Bob Murray struck gold when he basically stole Simon Despres from Pittsburgh in the middle of the season.

Those six defensemen suited up for all 16 of Anaheim’s playoff games, meaning they’ve all gained some valuable postseason experience for the future. What’s more, they’ve done it together, so it’s not like there’s going to be a learning period while a bunch of new pieces learn how to play together in their own zone. In fact, of those six, only Beauchemin is gone. And his replacement is Kevin Bieksa, who brings plenty of experience — and physicality — to the table anyway.

The changes up front have been minimal as well. The Ducks’ top eight scorers from the playoffs (and regular season, for that matter) are all back, with Jakob Silfverberg emerging in the postseason to deliver on the immense potential that made him such a highly regarded prospect back when Ottawa drafted him in 2009.

Of course, Matt Beleskey is now in Boston. That’s a hit, but maybe not quite as big as it might seem, given how sought-after he was in this summer’s free agent market. His 22 regular season goals — and five-game goal-scoring streak in the playoffs — will certainly be missed. But it is worth noting that he put up just 32 total points in 65 regular season games last year. That’s a career high and, while it’s certainly not a bad number, it’s not irreplaceable either.

Emerson Etem is gone too, but the arrival of a speedy Carl Hagelin from New York should make up for that, while also helping to absorb the blow of Beleskey’s departure. In other words, Anaheim should be just fine up front. Remember, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are still manning that top line, with Ryan Kesler roaming the middle of the ice as well. The moves this club made were peripheral ones, and they might even be for the better.

To that end, it’s tough to envision this group experiencing much of a drop-off. Not only are virtually all of the key pieces back in place, many of them feel they have unfinished business to take care of after the way last season ended. Motivation doesn’t guarantee victory, of course. And there are plenty of roadblocks to overcome in the West and — perhaps moreso next year than last — in the Pacific. But it’s hard to argue with a team that just went 22-6-6 in the division and looked broderline unstoppable in the playoffs until they met the eventual Cup champs.

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