Ducks’ version of ice follies: lots of excitement and losses

Ducks forward Trevor Zegras collected the puck at center ice point and slowly swerved wide to the right as he approached goaltender Filip Gustavsson to start a penalty shootout in Minnesota last week. As Zegras accelerated, he shifted the puck from his forehand to his backhand and back and forth, his smooth hands allowing him to stay in control.

He pretended to go to his forehand. Gustavsson bought it. Zegras went to his backhand and flicked the puck past the helpless keeper for another highlight moment of his young career.

Zegras, famous for its spectacular lacrosse-style goals, is mesmerizing. So does teammate Troy Terry, who led the Ducks in goals (37) and points (67) last season. Both scored goals in this game against the Wild during regulation time. Despite their outstanding performance, the Ducks lost that day, a woefully familiar result.

Nearly a third into the season, the Ducks are the NHL’s worst 7-17-3. They won once in regular time, a 3-2 decision over the New York Rangers on November 23. They have won four times in overtime, including a 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday, and twice in shootouts. They concede the most goals and shots per game in the league and rank near the bottom of the table.

The Ducks gave up the lead three times Tuesday at the Honda Center before Ryan Strome completed a two-for-one break to end the team’s losing streak at six. They already came off a seven-game losing streak in October. They’re on track to miss the playoffs for the fifth straight year.

But they have something going for them in securing the best odds in the draft lottery: Thanks largely to the brilliance of Terry, Zegras and rookie forward Mason McTavish – and valiant efforts from overworked goalie John Gibson – the are Ducks most entertaining bad team in the NHL.

That can’t be much of a consolation for her. But for the fans’ sake, they at least threw up some “wow” moments to end a dreary season and the long wait for their prospects to blossom.

“I thought the record was a little better, to be honest. But hey, it is what it is,” said general manager Pat Verbeek, who was hired last February, three months after Bob Murray resigned following allegations of improper professional conduct.

“It’s a tough league,” added Verbeek. “We’ve been in games that we totally screwed up and made terrible mistakes. This league is unforgiving in that sense. When you make mistakes like that, it usually goes into the net.”

Verbeek, whose fighting style of play earned him the nickname “Little Ball of Hate,” learned early in his career that losing felt terrible. In 1983-84, his first full season, his New Jersey Devils lost 20 of their first 22 games. They didn’t make the playoffs until 1987-88.

But he also knows that winning feels great because he was part of Dallas’ 1999 Stanley Cup championship team. He sees only one way to go from the deepest depths to the highest heights.

Pat Verbeek looks on at Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp on August 3, 2016 in Plymouth, Michigan.

Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek is preaching patience with his last-place team.

(Max Ortiz / Associated Press)

“You come to practice every day to get better. That’s how you get over it,” said Verbeek. “Sometimes it was really frustrating to play well and still lose. But when we were 23, 24, we started winning those games. It took experience. It was necessary to go through that type of teaching to get through that.”

Many of these lessons. “Is it good to lose? Yes, sometimes it is,” he said. “Do you want to win? You want that too, because success is good for your self-confidence. Of course, winning is good for confidence. But I think going through games that we lose is also character building.”

That means the Ducks should develop a lot of character this season.

Nobody, including Verbeek, expected them to be in contention for the trophy this season. Out of necessity, he traded several veterans and their big contracts last season, acquiring long-term assets but losing depth in the short-term. It didn’t help when free-agent defenseman John Klingberg underperformed before suffering a lower-body injury, or when dynamic young defenseman Jamie Drysdale injured his shoulder early on. This was planned as a development season. It still is.

Fans have been clamoring for the job of manager Dallas Eakins, whose one-year contract was inherited by Verbeek, but there is little reason to expect a move any time soon. “We are a month and a half into the season. I need to see more,” said Verbeek.

He seeks growth in the children who will form the core of the Ducks. However, the risk of slow recovery is that these children get used to losing and accept it as normal. “Unfortunately, in recent years, many of them have been a part of it. You just have to change the culture,” veteran Kevin Shattenkirk said recently. “You have to change beliefs in the dressing room.”

Results like their extra-time triumph on Tuesday help underscore the value of tenacity and sticking to Verbeek’s plan. “I know that they are being taught and that they have to learn things and gain experience and that they can only do that through the Ice Age,” Verbeek said. “You need runway. You need some time.

“I’m kind of trying to be patient right now. I didn’t see any trends that worried me. As long as they keep competing and keep working, losing isn’t great, but losing is also learning.”

At this rate they will be well trained. What they do with their education—and the talent they’ve amassed and that’s in the pipeline—will determine whether the Little Ball of Hate can make them not only entertaining but also enduringly successful. Ducks’ version of ice follies: lots of excitement and losses

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