They're at either end of the NHL standings, but the Anaheim Ducks and Buffalo Sabres share a similar conundrum. And that is how does a team balance its competitive instincts against what is ultimately best for the long-term fortunes of the organization?
The Anaheim Ducks and Buffalo Sabres are at polar opposite ends of the NHL standings, but they might have more in common than you’d think. After all, despite the fact the Sabres are at No. 30 in the standings and need the Hubble telescope to see the No. 1 Ducks, they face a similar conundrum. And that is: how does a team balance the players’ hard-wired philosophy of trying to win every game every night with what’s best for the organization.
There are no easy answers to that question for either team. There’s no right answer either, which is why it’s a little harsh to be piling criticism on Sabres fans for cheering against their team at this point in the season. After all, it’s absolutely undeniable that the best thing for the Sabres would be to finish 30th in the league and have a 100 percent chance of landing either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the players and coaches not caring about where the team finishes and doing everything in their power to ensure the Sabres have the best chance to win every game. And there’s nothing wrong with the fans who pay for tickets wanting the team to finish 30th.
The Ducks, meanwhile, face a far different problem, a much more palatable one. After cruising to a 5-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers Wednesday night, the Ducks not only put a bow on their third straight Pacific Division title, they strengthened their hold on first place overall and took another step toward the team’s first-ever Presidents’ Trophy.
The only trouble is that right around the same time the Ducks were raising the banner to commemorate their division championship, their crosstown rival was unfurling its second Stanley Cup pennant in three years. Although it may backfire against them this season, the Kings have completely disproved the notion that elite teams cannot flip a switch when necessary. And that last thing the Ducks want it to be putting up a couple of banners next season that don’t say “Stanley Cup,” particularly if the Kings pull off another spring miracle.
The Ducks have flamed out spectacularly in the past two playoffs – losing in seven games to the Detroit Red Wings in 2013 before almost being upset by the Dallas Stars in the first round, then losing in seven to the Kings in Round 2. Undoubtedly, heads will roll this spring if the Ducks can’t get over their Game 7 yips and have a long and fruitful playoff run.
But what’s the best way of giving your team the best chance for that to happen? Would it be to rest top players such as Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry down the stretch? Or would doing that take the edge from their games? Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau recently recalled the 2009-10 Washington Capitals team that finished first overall. He remembers the team made some moves to acquire depth for a long playoff run, but lost in the first round of the playoffs. He said there were too many players idle for too long a period on that team.
Even though Ryan Kesler sat out the Edmonton game, Boudreau doesn’t seem too keen on seeing that kind of thing happen again. The Ducks have the luxury of playing just three games in the final two weeks leading up to the playoffs. And there will be plenty of opportunity for the Ducks to get their rest in that time. Kesler has been bothered by an elbow injury, but it would not have kept him out of a really important game, so perhaps the Ducks are striking the right balance here.
So it’s Presidents’ Trophy or bust for the Ducks. They’ll play and play hard for the last three games, try to figure out their goaltending situation and play to finish first overall. The New York Rangers, who sit four points behind the Ducks with 103 and have three games in hand, are likely the only real threat to the Ducks for the Presidents’ Trophy.
What complicates the situation for both the Ducks and the Sabres, though, is that the more games they win, the worse it might be for them. For the Sabres, winning means the potential of missing out on a generational player who could alter the course of their franchise. For the Ducks, it could mean working so hard to attain a rather hollow achievement and losing again in the playoffs.
The players and coaches, meanwhile, will continue to approach every game as one they must win. The Sabres have proved time and again they have no intention of giving anything less than their best and the Ducks have not taken their foot off the gas all season. Only time will tell if that’s the wisest option. For the Ducks, we’ll know before long. For the Sabres, we’ll have to wait years to get the answer.