Troubling Times in Anaheim
The Maple Leafs, quite obviously, were a lot more concerned with getting their first victory of the season than helping sell hockey in southern California.
But as the boos rained down on the hometown Ducks last night at a half-empty Honda Centre after a 6-3 defeat at the hands of the visiting Leafs, it was certainly time to take notice on the impact the recession and a variety of other issues have had on the Anaheim franchise.
At one point, the Ducks had sold out 78 straight games, including the entire 2007-08 season that followed their Stanley Cup triumph over the Ottawa Senators. That streak ended early last season, and since then there’s been a decline in attendance at Anaheim home games, although the Ducks still boast a strong season ticket base of 11,500.
The recession hasn’t helped any of the U.S. teams, particularly those in the southern states. Second, as many markets have shown, in three-quarters of the NHL’s American cities the fans don’t come unless the home team is winning.
Right now, the Ducks are one of the worst teams in the league after off-loading great chunks of contractual commitments and experience over the past year.
Thirdly, the competition in this market is ferocious these days. As the Ducks started their season, they were going up against USC football, playoff baseball teams in Los Angeles and Anaheim, and the opening of training camp for the defending NBA champion Lakers. Having the nearby L.A. Kings get off to a strong start isn’t helping.
When Brian Burke ran the Ducks, he established a team personality in which Anaheim bullied as many teams as possible, killed off tons of penalties and scored just enough to win. These days, the Ducks aren’t quite as tough without Chris Pronger on the blueline, and as they showed last night in giving the Leafs 11 power plays and five power play goals, they aren’t quite as effective killing off the penalties.
“It hasn’t been an issue up until tonight,” said Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle afterwards. “The frustration level goes with the lack of success we’ve been having. When you start to see players like Saku Koivu and Scott Niedermayer in reaction mode, then you start to question if we are putting ourselves in a can’t-win situation. Was our attitude and frustration getting the better part of us? I’d have had to say yes in some of those instances.”
Including a loss to Columbus on Saturday night, the Ducks have surrendered 12 goals in their last two home games and are one point out of dead last in the west. It wasn’t that long ago that the Ducks were drawing crowds of less than 10,000, and even winning the Cup hasn’t made this market any less vulnerable to competition, economic downturns or losing.
The Leafs, needless to say, weren’t too bothered about the boos or the size of the crowd. Afterwards, head coach Ron Wilson praised rookie goalie Jonas Gustavsson for making some significant stops early, including one splendid stop on Erik Christenson just six minutes in with the game scoreless.
“That one, at the time, I thought, ‘Here we go, they’re up one nothing just like that.’ But he found a way to make the save,” said Wilson.
Gustavsson made 25 saves to secure his first NHL win.
“For the team, it was big to get the first win,” he said. “Everybody can stop talking about it and move on and try to get the next one. For myself, it was a big step for me to get my first NHL win. I’m really happy about it.”
He said he’s still adjusting to the North American game.
“You have to be ready all the time for shots, shots from everywhere, and it feels like the shots are coming from closer here than in Sweden,” he said.
The Leafs pelted Jonas Hiller with 39 shots, many of them during power plays.
Lee Stempniak played more than 22 minutes to lead all Leaf forwards, while Luke Schenn’s ice time continued to shrink, down to 10:03 last night.
Niklas Hagman had seven shots on goal and scored three times.