Roller coasters are a commonly accepted source of enjoyment for the general public. For a professional hockey team, however, the very word roller coaster has a much frostier connotation.
The 2016-17 campaign has been exactly that for the Anaheim Ducks: a string of highs and lows, making consistency a coveted commodity. Through 16 games, the Ducks have compiled 17 points. They have yet to win more than two games in a row, still seeking that elusive three-game winning streak.
Rickard Rakell’s return was a source of hope during a moribund 0-3-1 start to the season. Since returning to the lineup, the Ducks have gone 4-2-1, and it would be impossible to argue that the 22-year-old’s 7 points haven’t had a meaningful impact in that span. Yet, Anaheim remains maddeningly up and down, which demands further investigation. Here are three data points that could shed some light:
1. Kevin Bieksa’s Ice Time
Randy Carlyle has leaned on the veteran Bieksa in the early going, and the results can only be described as utterly disastrous. The 35-year-old has logged a shade over 20 minutes of ice time a night while getting consistent time on Anaheim’s second power-play unit. The ice has been heavily tilted against the Ducks during those minutes. Nearly every skater on Anaheim’s roster sees their shot attempt rates suffer when playing with him, a number that’s not all that hard to understand when you get a glimpse of his play:
"Why pass it to wide open teammates when I can hand it right back to the other team?" -Kevin Bieksa pic.twitter.com/Eyl93s662M
— Felix Sicard (@Felix_Sicard) November 11, 2016
Bieksa’s decision-making process was never the sharpest, but it seems to have hit a new low this season. To make matters worse, Carlyle has paired him with the freshly re-signed Hampus Lindholm, effectively hampering the 22-year-old’s effectiveness. To boot, the Ducks’ scoring rates crater when Bieksa is out on the man advantage. Maybe, just maybe, the solution here is to play him less (but what do I know).
2. John Gibson’s Save Percentage
The hope was that once anointed as the unquestioned No. 1 man in net, Gibson’s game would blossom. That just hasn’t been the case. Through 12 starts, he’s sitting on a .902 save percentage. Not exactly what the Ducks, or their supporters, were hoping for.
Much like the team in front of him, Gibson’s game has also been extremely uneven. He stood on his head against the San Jose Sharks in relief of Jonathan Bernier, turning aside 24 of 25 shots in 41 minutes to steal a point in overtime. Then there have been games like the one against the Nashville Predators, where he had to be pulled after allowing four goals on 18 shots. That performance was only three days after he’d let in three goals on 18 shots against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Most troubling is that he’s once again struggling on high-danger shots, ranking in the bottom-10 in high-danger save percentage. That was a sticking point against Gibson last year, and it doesn’t seem that he’s anywhere near corrected that issue. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that his game doesn’t rebound eventually. Anaheim doesn’t generate a ton of offense, making Gibson’s play all the more crucial to their success.
3. Josh Manson’s Shot Attempt Rates
The title of this article reads “3 Troubling Stats,” but let’s throw that out the window and inject some positivity here. Josh Manson has been outstanding so far. He’s been stellar defensively, and while he’ll never be mistaken for Cam Fowler offensively, he’s had a positive impact on the shot attempt differentials (a proxy for puck possession) of essentially everyone that he’s skated with:
Though Fowler has rightfully earned praise for his excellent play on both sides of the puck, it’s important to note how much being paired with Manson has helped him. Manson’s steady hand has enabled Fowler to make use of his speed through the neutral zone. Perhaps knowing that his partner is there to clean up any potential messes has helped Fowler’s mental game as well. That would sell Manson short, though. As reliable as he is in his end, he’s also a solid puck-mover and seems to generally make good decisions when he has the puck on his stick. The numbers certainly back that up.
The Ducks have actually been fairly proficient in suppressing opposing shot attempts, but they’ve been relatively porous in allowing opposing scoring chances. Cutting down those scoring chances against would work wonders for Gibson, who unquestionably struggles on more dangerous shots.
Severely cutting down Bieksa’s ice time would go a long way to tidying up that discrepancy. With Lindholm now back in the fold, there’s at least a chance we eventually start seeing less than 20 minutes of Bieksa a night. This Ducks team probably won’t ever be confused for an offensive juggernaut with Carlyle at the helm, but if they can at least start allocating minutes on the back end more effectively (more Manson), they might not have to be.