In early January, Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray had seen enough of his club's poor performance in the first half of this season.
Murray implored his players to improve over the remainder of the season, suggesting there could be significant off-season changes – including a shakeup of the team's core – if they failed to pick up their play.
That set the hockey world abuzz with speculation stars like left winger Bobby Ryan, right winger Corey Perry and center Ryan Getzlaf would be shopped, perhaps as early as the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
Ryan, Perry, Getzlaf and their teammates, however, took Murray's words to heart, accepted the responsibility for their club's woeful record up to that point, and proceeded to step up their game.
During January and February, the Ducks were among the hottest teams in the league, with a record of 17-6-4, closing the gap between themselves and eighth overall in the Western Conference from 17 points to seven during that period.
Over the last couple of weeks, however, they've cooled considerably, dropping six of their past eight games and sitting nine points out of that final playoff berth.
The Ducks remain determined not to give up, but they'll need a near-perfect record in their final dozen games, as well as the four teams (Calgary, Los Angeles, Colorado, and San Jose) between them and eighth overall to post losing records, to have a realistic chance of sneaking into the playoffs.
Should the Ducks miss the cut, speculation is bound to return over Murray's off-season plans, especially his plans for Ryan, Perry and Getzlaf.
The trio's stats are all well down compared to last season's. Perry, who had 98 points and won the Hart and Richard Trophies in 2010-11, is on pace for only 64 this season. Getzlaf is on pace for only 53 points, down from 76 a year ago, while Ryan's projected 52 points are well below last season's 71.
Despite the decline in their numbers, Ryan, Perry and Getzlaf did step up their efforts since Murray called them out and were among the reasons for the Ducks’ improved performance since then.
Had they played with the same energy and intensity in the first half, their numbers not only would've been higher, but the Ducks would probably be holding down a playoff berth.
Ryan and Getzlaf were most frequently mentioned in Ducks trade rumors. Getzlaf and Perry have one year remaining on their respective contracts and will be eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2013.
If Murray were to consider rebuilding and reducing payroll, he could move Ryan in hopes of clearing cap space to re-sign Getzlaf and Perry. If he opts to retain Ryan, then Perry or Getzlaf would have to be moved if Murray could afford only to re-sign one of them.
Despite the reduction of the trio's offensive numbers this season, they're still considered among the league's best players. Ryan is 24 years old and soon to enter his prime, while Getzlaf and Perry are 26 and entering theirs. The Ducks' odds of rebuilding into Cup contention are better with them in the lineup.
Ryan, Perry and Getzlaf weren’t the only Ducks mentioned as potential trade candidates this season.
Defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky was also mentioned as being available in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline. Like Perry and Getzlaf, he has one year left on his current contract and will be a UFA in 2013.
Visnovsky's numbers are also well down this season. He’s on pace for only 26 points after potting 68 a year ago, but that's due in part to missing 13 games to a finger injury. Shipping him out could have a serious impact upon the Ducks’ offense, especially their power play, if they fail to find a suitable, affordable replacement.
Another factor in the Ducks’ first-half woes was the performance of starting goaltender Jonas Hiller, who struggled to regain his form after returning from the vertigo, which knocked him out of the lineup last season. Since early January, however, Hiller has improved, becoming a key factor in the Ducks’ turnaround.
Unfortunately, they lack a quality backup to spell him and it appears Hiller, who's played in 64 of the Ducks’ 70 games thus far, is wearing down at the most critical point in the season.
Given the strong second-half effort of the aforementioned players, Murray might decide not to move them, hoping they'll regain their consistency next season.
The Ducks GM will have other important issues to address this summer.
Right wingers Teemu Selanne and George Parros, left wingers Jason Blake and Niklas Hagman, and center Saku Koivu are slated to become UFAs this summer.
Of this group, the hardest to replace will be Selanne. The seemingly ageless 41-year old currently leads the Ducks in scoring with 59 points, but is expected to retire at season's end.
Blake (38) and Koivu (37) are also nearing the end of their respective careers, and will have to be replaced by younger scoring forwards. Hagman, 32, isn't expected to be re-signed.
The Ducks’ defense core appears set for next season, especially if Visnovsky isn't traded. Their only UFA defenseman is Sheldon Brookbank, who earns $750,000 and would be an affordable re-signing.
Murray will need to bring in an experienced backup to avoid overburdening Hiller next season.
The Ducks currently have just over $42 million invested in 15 players for next season. If they're willing to spend up to whatever next season's cap ceiling could be, it could leave around $20 million to address their need for second-line scoring, goaltending and checking-line depth.
If not, the possibility of shipping out one of their high-salaried players to free up cap space to address those needs becomes more likely.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.