Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 1/5/12
ANAHEIM, Calif. The Anaheim Ducks suffered another home setbackWednesday, dropping a 3-1 contest to the San Jose Sharks as the club nears thesecond half of the season sitting 19 points out of a playoff spot. As has been a familiar case at the Honda Center this season, the Ducksstiffened up after surrendering a tying goal in the second period, allowingBenn Ferriero to score the game winner just 27 seconds after teammate BradWinchester tied it at 1-1. Theres just no resiliency, I guess, would be the best word, Anaheim forwardBobby Ryan said. While 2011-12 appears to be a lost season in Orange County, there are stillreasons to be optimistic that Anaheim can jump back into relevancy perhaps asearly as next season ... and it starts with improving the teams defense.It would take several shrewd moves by GM Bob Murray, who nodoubt is on the hot seat after Randy Carlyles contract extension less thanfour months before his firing. Plus, there was last seasons trade with Torontoin which the Ducks gave up Joffrey Lupul, currently tied for fifth in leaguescoring, and promising 21-year old defenseman Jake Gardiner. The Ducks already have several answers from within. Cam Fowler, who hasregressed somewhat in his sophomore season, must be able to make a leap nextyear in his development, which will be his third in the NHL. Perhaps the lureof a pay raise as a restricted free agent after the 2012-13 season will serveas motivation. Fowler recorded 40 points as a 19-year old last season anddisplays excellent skating and offensive zone awareness, so its not out of thequestion to think he can revert to his rookie-year production and improvegreatly on his career minus-44 rating within the next 15 months. Luca Sbisa continues to offer somewhat of a rugged role for the Anaheim blue lineand leads all defensemen in hits for the second consecutive season. Though hetrudged through an inconsistent first half, theres hope that a corner has beenturned after hes posted a goal, two assists, a fighting major and an evenrating over the last five games in which the Ducks have been outscored 16-10 inregulation. If Anaheim is to make a defensive leap next season, Sbisaand Fowler must establish themselves as minute-eaters capable of holding down atop-four pairing. Enter Justin Schultz? The smooth-skating, 6-foot-2 offensive blue liner drafted43rd overall in 2008 has been the top D-man in NCAA hockey this season. Schultzhas nine goals and 28 points for the Wisconsin Badgers, sitting five pointsahead of the next highest-scoring defenseman. "There's no question, with his ability, just at the right time, to make aplay offensively or defensively, to settle us down," Badgers coach MikeEaves said of Schultz to UWBadgers.comin November. It wouldnt be unrealistic to imagine Schultz on Anaheims blue lineas early as the end of this season, once Wisconsins season ends, though itwould be quite a bit to expect him to enjoy the type of production Fowlerimmediately experienced.Once again, there will likely be some growing pains inSchultzs development, though the innate hockey sense and the poise describedabove will greatly improve the Ducks back end within several years. Speaking of poise, theres one player in the upcoming NHL Draft that possessesit in droves Ryan Murray. International Scouting Services No. 4 overalldraft-eligible skater and the top-rated defenseman entering the 2012 NHL Draft,Murray led Canada to gold at the 2010 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament as teamcaptain despite being its youngest player.In addition to captaining his WHL team, the EverettSilvertips, and his former midget team, the Regina Jr. Pats, Murray alsocaptained Canadas U-18 team in the spring. Scott Niedermayer is still revered by Ducks fans, andtheres a reason Murray wears No. 27 nearly everywhere he goes. With thedecision making and calm-under-pressure style Murray demonstrates, his poiseand leadership is something that would greatly benefit Anaheims defense downthe line. The only question is whether the backbone he possesses will beavailable when Anaheim steps to the podium in Pittsburgh in June. "He's a unique player in that I really don't see a weakness in this youngman's game," Silvertips GM Doug Soetaert told Nick Patterson of theEverett Herald in September. "He's as rounded a hockey player as I'veseen in this league the last eight years. Of course, theres always the possibility of acquiring a young defenseman througha trade, though the Ducks would have to surrender one of their offensive piecesin order to do so. Toronto has often been one of Bob Murrays dance partners.Would Torontos 22-year old heavy hitter Luke Schenn even beavailable? If he is, say goodbye to a player of Ryans caliber, possibly Ryan.Players with expiring contracts Nashvilles Ryan Suter, Carolinas TimGleason are more likely to be moved. Because of their UFA status, theyre ofgreater immediate use to a contending team rather than the Ducks long-termplans. Which brings us to free agency, and theres a good opportunity for Anaheim tocash in with the nearly 20 million coming off of the clubs books heading intonext year thanks to expiring contracts of Jason Blake, Teemu Selanne, SakuKoivu, Niklas Hagman, George Parros, Rod Pelley, Francois Beauchemin, SheldonBrookbank and Dan Ellis.Should Suter, Gleason or maybe even Nashvilles Shea Weber,who will likely command a commitment upwards of 50 million, be available,expect the Ducks to become major players in an effort to revamp their blue line ... which might be closer to being rebuilt than some Southern California hockeyfans might think.
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