The Anaheim Ducks kicked off what was expected to be a championship season with one measly win through ten games.
Rumor mills were ablaze, and the collective groan of the Anaheim fanbase grew more cacophonous with each passing loss.
How could a team bursting with talent be playing this poorly? Analysts, fans, and players alike were all scratching their heads for answers.
That ever so red October feels like eons ago now, with the Ducks now challenging the Los Angeles Kings for the top spot in the Pacific Division.
Their turnaround has been absolutely remarkable, and these three statistics shed some important light on what has been a riveting 2015-16 season:
1. Brick Wall Defense
Since November 1st, Anaheim has allowed an astonishingly low 21.9 scoring chances against per 60 minutes of even strength play.
That’s been the very best mark in the National Hockey League. Teams lauded for their defensive prowess such as the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks are sixth and ninth in that same time-span, respectively.
The Ducks simply couldn’t score for much of the early going, so Boudreau built a system predicated around shutting off the neutral zone from the opposition. It’s worked to near perfection, and it has opponents griping about how extreme it is.
Hey, if you can’t score goals, you might as well do everything in your power to prevent the other team from doing so.
2. Puck Luck Helps
Pardon the cliche, but the Ducks couldn’t buy a goal for what felt like an eternity.
Shooting percentage is a good indicator of a team’s puck luck, and it was depressingly low for the Ducks to start the season.
Even as the wins began to trickle in around mid-November through December, Anaheim still wasn’t scoring much, staying around or even below league average in shooting percentage.
Perhaps there was a magic elixir in the Ducks’ New Year’s Eve cocktails, as the turn of the calendar has brought goals in bunches.
Their shooting percentage has ballooned, giving them that extra margin of error on the rare occasion that their defensive game falters. The past two wins in Calgary and Edmonton are proof of that, as although Anaheim played a pair of sloppy defensive games, their goal-scoring was able to get them four extra points in the standings.
3. Zero Firings
In Anaheim’s darkest hour, general manager Bob Murray had this to say to the Orange County Register, “while this has been a terrible start, I’m not inclined to make rash changes. I’m going to be patient. That said, we are severely under-performing as a group…I fully expect a turnaround.”
Murray stood by a head coach that had gotten him within a game of the Stanley Cup Final and had never missed the playoffs. Firing Bruce Boudreau after one bad month of hockey would have been inadvisable, even though Boudreau was playing a part in those early struggles.
That patience was rewarded, as Boudreau clamped down his team’s defensive structure, making it much harder for opponents to attack the Ducks.
We can’t be absolutely certain if Murray was evaluating his team through that lens, but he was satisfied enough to keep Boudreau as the months wore on.
It was a smart bet at the time: should Boudreau continue his losing tactics, he’s out; should he adjust, then Anaheim benefits as a result.
Perhaps the lesson here is that when you have a coach who has one of the most successful regular season track records of all time, you trust that he can figure things out.
That’s not to say that Murray just sat on his hands however. He identified that Carl Hagelin was a miscalculated signing, and turned him into the now-thriving David Perron who is on an expiring contract.
Murray’s judiciousness, combined with some refreshingly better puck luck and a vaporizing defensive game have the Ducks primed to succeed. As riveting as this season has been so far, it may get even better.