Perhaps it’s too harsh a thing to say that the Anaheim Ducks saw the devolution of a powerhouse offense in the summer of 2015, but there was certainly a disconnect (and arguably a decline) between the team fans saw in the Western Conference Finals in May and the team fans saw start 2015-16 to a dismal record of 1-7-2.
Cracking open our “Be a GM” mode on our corresponding NHL game probably wouldn’t have seen us trading away Kyle Palmieri, or not signing Matt Beleskey, or letting François Beauchemin walk, but that’s what happened—and it meant in October the Ducks couldn’t buy a goal (not even if the puck was magnetized to the opposing net, said net was empty, and there were only guys in black and orange on the ice).
Cracking open our “Be a GM” mode on the corresponding NHL game probably wouldn’t have seen us trading away Kyle Palmieri, or not signing Matt Beleskey, or letting François Beauchemin walk, but that’s what happened.
They seemed the safe choices: Horcoff had 29 points in 76 games for Dallas the season before, and between the Wild and Sabres Stewart had 36 in 81. Both seemed good, versatile, and relatively cheap—yet neither made the sort of impact on the Ducks’ offense that Murray was no doubt hoping for.
Horcoff was just 36 when he signed with Anaheim—and while not quite Jagr status, Murray clearly sought the veteran center (who had just come off a successful season in Dallas) for the almost 1,000 games under his belt, 46 of those in the playoffs. Horcs proved best on the face-off dot, finishing the season with a 51% win-percentage, his third best over 15 seasons and just 7 percentage points behind team-leading Ryan Kesler.
His 2015-16 campaign also saw, however, his fewest goals (6), his lowest shooting percentage (8.2), and his third-lowest number of assists (5) over his careers between Dallas, Edmonton, and Anaheim; in five playoffs games vs. the Preds, he recorded 0 goals and only 1 assist. Of course, Horcoff was dealing with perhaps his most difficult season to date—a season cut 20 games short after he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs—and still managed to do his job, namely be that steadying, veteran presence in the locker room when the going got tough. But this is, ultimately, the most troubling part of Horcs’ signing.
“We targeted that,” Murray told Brian Hayward and Fox Sports, speaking of that veteran presence, “we felt that our leadership needed a little more support, a little more veteran support.”
A team with the likes of Bieksa, Kesler, Getzlaf, Perry; a team with Cam Fowler coming up on his seventh NHL season, Andrew Cogliano his tenth, Nate Thompson his eleventh—a team like that needs more veteran presence? Admittedly more experience can never hurt, but clearly that presence can only take a team so far.
Players, after all, need to play good hockey, too.
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Horcoff was as well-spoken as they come, and a great cog in the PK-wheel that led the team to be the number one PP silencer in the league—but so was Nate Thompson. Nate Thompson scored 3 goals and had 3 assists in ten less games on the season, plus had a comparable 52% win-percentage in the face-off circle. Horcs signed a $1,750,000 contract; Nate Thompson is getting paid almost $200,000 dollars less, and is signed through next year. In an off-season where every penny is going to count, one has to ask if Shawn Horcoff’s numbers justify taking money away from the likes of more important RFAs (and UFAs, too).
Pros: Monster in the face-off circle, intangible veteran presence
Cons: Lack of offensive output
Chris Stewart is a big body with an even bigger temper; in 56 games with Anaheim, he served up 73 PIMs, the most behind his 2011-12 and 2013-14 campaigns in St. Louis. We know that being hot-headed on a Donald Duck-esque Ducks team isn’t the best, and Stewart had his fair share of stupid penalties—but his willingness to stand up for his teammates shouldn’t necessarily be counted as a negative.
C-Stew put up decent numbers with 8 goals and 12 assists on the season, outstripping Shawn Horcoff in relatively the same number of games played. But history dictates Stewart can do better—indeed, factoring in his various moves (he scored 15 goals between Buffalo and St. Louis in 2013-14 and 14 between Buffalo and Minnesota in 2014-15, his lowest numbers except for 2008-09 with Colorado), Stewart’s season with Anaheim was his worst offensively. His shooting percentage of 10.3 meant this season with the Ducks ranked 7th out of his 11 with the NHL.
The thing that’s frustrating about Stewart is that flashes of brilliance are often overshadowed by periods of ineffectiveness.
The thing that’s frustrating about Stewart is that flashes of brilliance are often overshadowed by periods of ineffectiveness. He reached 28 goals in his 2009-10 campaign with Colorado, and has often hovered around 15, which makes this season’s 8 seem low by comparison. He seemed to find success on a line with Ryan Getzlaf and David Perron, but whether that was born more of his own abilities or the sheer talent of those he was playing with is hard to say. More importantly, his salary of $1,700,000 puts him in the same boat as Shawn Horcoff, forcing us (amateur) GMs to answer the biggest question of all—
Is Stewart worth the price? (Especially considering who still needs to be signed.)
Pros: Big-body, grit and grind, soft hands
Cons: Flashes of brilliance, inconsistent
Kyle Palmieri reached the 30-goal plateau for the first time in his career after being traded over the summer to the Devils; he had 57 points on the season. Matt Beleskey, Hells Bells, that hero of the Western Conference Finals, put up 15 goals and 22 assists with the Boston Bruins for 37 points; he had a +6 rating. Beauch, signing with the Avalanche, had 8 goals and 26 assists for 34 points; he clearly bolstered their blue-line.
Of course, Murray was thinking for the future, and those RFAs the Ducks are faced with keeping now: young superstars like Rickard Rakell and Hampus Lindholm who could easily be the cornerstones of the team for years to come. Budget played a role in signing Horcoff and Stewart—budget and veteran presence. But at some point Murray needs to realize that safe does not always equal impact, and that ultimately teams might need to risk more in order to gain it all (Lord Stanley, how we’ve missed you).
We cannot ignore the parts Horcoff and Stewart played in helping turn the Ducks into one of the best teams in the NHL after Christmas, finishing first in the Pacific Division ahead of the rival Kings (have we mentioned this before?)—but sometimes that veteran presence doesn’t necessarily need to come from veteran players.
All it takes is faith, trust, and ice time to turn a youngster into a superstar, after all.
Sign: Neither. Save the money for the RFAs/UFAs (-cough-Perron and McGinn) who are more important; foster the Gulls.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know who you think should get the nod in this UFA Battle Royale.
*All money statistics provided by General Fanager: all NHL stats provided by NHL.com.