Anaheim Ducks’ Season So Far: Rockin’ & Rollin’

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Here we stand, halfway through November, over a quarter of the 2013/14 NHL season gone, and where are the Anaheim Ducks?  Why, battling for the league lead in points with the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks of course!  What, didn’t you expect this?

I’ve been absent from The Farm Club for well over two months – thanks to a major geographical upheaval – and whilst I’ve been “out of the game” for some time, news of the Ducks’ early-season dominance was impossible to escape.  Considering many believed the team had over-achieved last year, and after they hogged the Free Agent Day headlines by trading one of their top forwards, a hard fall back to Earth was expected.  So why hasn’t that happened?

Anaheim Ducks’ Season Record – By The Numbers

In 22 games so far this year, the Anaheim Ducks’ season has seen them win 15 games, lose 5 and fall in OT twice to give them 32 points of a possible 44.  How does that record break down?

  • In October, they won 10 of 14 games, and are 5 for 8 in November so far.
  • They have yet to lose a single game at home.
  • They have scored 35 goals at home and allowed just 13 (2nd least in the league) in 8 games, whilst scoring 35 on the road and allowing 41 against in 14 games.
  • After a 6-1 loss to the Avalanche to open the season, they went on a 7 game winning streak.
  • Until their current three game losing streak, they hadn’t gone more than 2 games without a win.
  • Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf each have 4 game winning goals, tied with Alex Steen of the St Louis Blues for the league lead.
  • The team has employed three different goalies already on the season, and still has a .727 points percentage.
  • They have seven skaters with 10 or more points, tied for 5th most in the league, with five of those being in the top 100 scorers so far.
  • Their powerplay efficiency is a lowly 11.7%, good for 26th in the league, and their penalty kill is even worse at 75.4% for 27th in the league.
  • However, they are killing it during 5v5 play, with a goals for/against ratio of 1.62 at even strength, second in the league.

Why Are They So Good?

Let’s examine the most obvious differences between this year’s team and last year’s:

  • Roster turnover:
    • Of skaters who played over 24 games (50% of the season) for the team last year, only two – Bobby Ryan and Toni Lydman – were sent away.  For a team that was considered to have over-achieved, this might not sound a terribly good thing, particularly given Ryan’s impact goal scoring ability and Lydman’s penchant for playing safe, dependable hockey.
    • However, the fact that the roster turnover for regular players was so small suggests that this is a group the management have confidence in, and are willing to let them grow with the system that (relatively) new coach Bruce Boudreau is trying to implement.
    • It stands to reason that consistency within the roster, particularly one that at the end of the day did do very well, could lead to a strong season.
  • Six “new” hires are all performing very well so far this year:
    • Dustin Penner returned after a six year absence and after a slow start has gotten hot in the last few games.
    • Mathieu Perreault can be counted as a coup for GM Bob Murray, providing terrific secondary offense for the team following his off-season trade to Orange County.
    • Patrick Maroon has played some strong two-way hockey in the bottom six after years of development in the AHL.
    • Jakob Silfverberg, the primary return in the Ryan trade, is playing very well in a secondary scoring role, displaying good offensive instincts and being well-rounded defensively.
    • Devante Smith-Pelly, who seems to have been around forever but is still just 21, has struggled to find twine this year but is using his team-mates well and provides his expected physical component.
    • Sami Vatanen, another name who seems to have been a long-time coming, is finally here and is looking every bit the smart, skilled defender he was billed to be.
    • Hampus Lindholm, the surprise 6th overall pick in 2012, has given an equally surprising performance this year as a 19 year old in the NHL displaying poise beyond his years at both ends of the rink.
  • Resurgent seasons from primary difference makers:
    • Corey Perry didn’t have a bad season in 2013, but it certainly wasn’t up to scratch with his previous output.  This year however, he’s finding the net and playing better two-way hockey.
    • Cam Fowler has rediscovered his mojo following a disastrous 2013 season which saw his scoring dry up and his defensive play fall off a cliff.  If he truly has recovered, Ducks’ fans should be salivating at a future Fowler-Lindholm pairing.
    • Bryan Allen has never been confused with an offensive dynamo, but his output last year was pretty low even for him.  He has nearly matched his 2012/13 output in 19 fewer games, and combined with his improved defensive play in the absence of Sheldon Souray, he’s providing that stable presence on the back-end that this young group needs.
  • Outstanding depth in goal:
    • Whilst the Ducks weren’t exactly shabby in net last year either – Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth were a solid duo overall – this year the team’s much vaunted depth between the pipes has finally borne fruit.
    • Hiller, who has been Anaheim’s (almost) undisputed starter for nearly five seasons, has put in some rather sloppy displays this year (though he looked shaky at times last year too).  Most teams would panic, but this team has a secret weapon.  Or two. Or three.
    • Fasth struggled in his first two games, but was fantastic in his last two starts, and once he gets back into game shape following an injury layoff he could well take over as the starter should Hiller falter again.
    • The real revelation – though he was already highly touted – is 2012 3rd round pick Frederik Andersen.  Drafted as an overager, Andersen stepped in for an injured Fasth and stumbling Hiller midway through October, and went on a phenomenal run where he won his first 6 NHL appearances, and allowed just 11 goals in 7 games overall for a magical .943 SV%.  That’s how you help your team.
    • Nope, not done yet.  Team USA hero John Gibson has enjoyed an exceptional start to his professional career, recording 6 wins, a 1.99 GAA and a .940 SV% with the Norfolk Admirals.  With Andersen back in Norfolk, he’ll be battling for ice-time, but he’s certainly earned his fair share of the crease.  Gibson is showing no signs of slowing down on his route to becoming an NHL starting goalie.

Digging Deeper – Underlying Numbers

Another way to examine the team is to take a look at their underlying numbers.  Many refer to these as fancy stats, or advanced stats, but their really isn’t anything particularly fancy or advanced about them.  They simply utilise readily available information to produce numbers that can provide a more contextual look at a player or team.

Part of the reason many people doubted the Anaheim Ducks last year was due to the fact that their underlying numbers suggested they were encountering an awful lot of good luck – a combination of unsustainably high shooting and save percentages.  This is measured via the statistic, PDO, which literally adds together a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage.  This number should work out to 100%, and over time will almost always regress back to 100; if the number comes in below 100, the team is regarded to be playing in bad luck (poor SH%, SV% or both), and should improve over time; if the number comes in over 100, the opposite is true.

In 2012/13, the Ducks had the second highest PDO number in the entire league at 103.  This was due to both their team shooting percentage and save percentage coming in at well over league average.  Unless they had a team-for-the-ages, those numbers simply do not sustain themselves over the long-run.  If the season had been a full 82-game one, the team likely wouldn’t have finished as high as they did in the standings.

This is supported by their “Fenwick For %”.  You’ve probably heard of Corsi, the most basic “advanced” stat which simply adds together shots on net, missed shots, and blocked shots, essentially increasing the number of possession-based events on the ice to give a better idea of who had the puck, or at least who was creating chances.  Well, Fenwick is essentially the same, but removes blocked shots from the equation.  This is done to remove some of the noise, or random data, over a longer period, and gain what is viewed as a more accurate number.

Subtract their Fenwick Against from their Fenwick For number, and you get their Fenwick Number, which is then converted into a percentage.  The higher the percentage, the more a player or a team has possession of the puck and is driving play in the right direction.  In 2012/13, the Anaheim Ducks had a FF% of 49.7%.  Whilst this isn’t awful per se, it was only good enough for 19th in the entire league, and showed that they were giving up more chances then they were getting.  As a reference, Chicago had a 57.7% number, and Boston came in at 55.8%.

In fact, each of the last several Stanley Cup winners have been strong possession teams, somewhat proving the idea that the more you have the puck, the more likely you are to win.

The fact that Anaheim kept winning despite their poor possession numbers is further proof that they were perhaps playing in good luck, and indeed it all unraveled when the faced Detroit in the playoffs, a notoriously strong possession club.

This year, the Anaheim Ducks are still second in the league with a sky-high 104.5 PDO number.  This is primarily due to incredibly high shooting percentages, which are likely due to regress in short order.  So given this indication of “good luck”, why are people more optimistic about this year’s squad?

Well, they are playing a far improved possession game.  They are 9th in the league in FF% at 52.8%, indicating that they are outplaying their opponents more often than not when it comes to driving play in the right direction.  This is most definitely a good thing, and the teams that consistently reach the playoffs year in and year out all manage good possession numbers.

Whilst the Ducks may not be a top-of-the-league team over the course of the season, there are so many positive aspects to this club at the moment that unless things go horrifically wrong, it’s hard to see them finishing anywhere else but in the playoffs, even at this early stage.

How Could They Improve?

Francois Beauchemin has not been very good to this point.  Whilst last year he was in the conversation for the Norris Trophy, this season has seen his scoring drop and his defensive play fall off quite severely.  For a guy counted upon to be that jack-of-all-trades and a model of consistency, things haven’t gone to plan for him so far.  There’s still plenty of time to go, and the team has to be thankful for the young talent outperforming him, picking up the slack, thus far.

The return of Sheldon Souray, who is recovering from an off-season wrist injury and is still a ways off, should help no end, but for the time being the team has to hope that their current group can sustain their strong play.

Saku Koivu has not been his normal self so far this year, struggling to score despite decent ice-time and not at his usual high-level of defensive dependability.  Teemu Selanne likewise has not been at the level of years past, but is not a liability.  He still flashes the ability to break a game wide open though, so his usefulness is not yet expended.

Also up-front, Kyle Palmieri is a young attacker who had a wonderful opportunity to break-out this season, what with the departure of Bobby Ryan from the top-six.  It has not gone that way however, being slowed by injury and illness as well as just playing awful defensive hockey and struggling to put up points.  Turning his game around should be a priority for the club.

What’s To Come?

The Ducks’ schedule sees them play several strong possession teams over the next few weeks, including Pittsburgh, New Jersey, San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago, St Louis and Minnesota.  This will be a test of their current form, taking on the league’s best (it feels wrong to include the Wild in that group!), but that is the best way there is of finding out if this year’s incarnation of the Ducks is a legitimate threat in the NHL.

 

Follow Chris on Twitter.

Statistics courtesy of NHL.com, extraskater.com and hockey-reference.com.

 

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