At 6-4-0, the Anaheim Ducks are off to a start that not many expected. While their fourth loss of the season — Tuesday’s 6-1 drubbing by the Nashville Predators — looked like a regression, the Ducks have otherwise showed an ability to compete against playoff contenders and division rivals. If it feels like the Ducks have been through a gauntlet this month, you would be right. Their record against stiff competition is a good sign that the team could continue to turn heads this season. However, the month is not over and Anaheim will need to continue their success against more difficult competition and stay away from the issues they had against Nashville.
October Has Featured Some Scary Opponents
With Halloween approaching, horror movies, haunted houses and frightening costumes have been on the minds of many. If it feels like the Ducks’ October schedule has been just as scary, you are right. Heading into Thursday’s game in Dallas, Ducks opponents have compiled a record of 48-27-9.
That schedule included seven teams from last season’s playoffs as well as the Buffalo Sabres, who are off to a league-best 17-point start and the Arizona Coyotes who have won four in a row after struggling at the outset.
Though the Ducks record and place in the Pacific Division—tied for third and in the first wildcard spot—could be fleeting (more on that in a bit), their consistent play against formidable competition is far more critical.
Ducks Youth Are Learning
With head coach Dallas Eakins’ willingness to play his young more inexperienced players in critical spots, the difficult competition has given them a crash course in the NHL grind. Ducks veteran defenseman Cam Fowler highlighted the importance after Sunday’s loss to the Calgary Flames.
“I think it’s a good experience for our young guys and obviously division games you put the onus on those through the course of the season,” Fowler said. “They’ve had their fair share of that already. Some of these guys have played last year and playing San Jose and teams like that at the beginning of the season too. These guys are battle-tested, they are ready, and they are a big part of our team and they will continue to be a big part of our team.”
The loss saw Max Comtois fail to score on two golden opportunities in the final period and the Flames go-ahead goal resulted from a Sam Steel turnover in the neutral zone. The young players have learned and will continue to learn from the small margin of error and the high intensity of division games against strong opponents.
For all the excitement about the Ducks’ new style of play, which features active participation in the offense by the team’s defensemen, they are also clamping down in their defensive zone. The Ducks allowed their two, season-high marks in shots against in their first two games, 33 and 36, which were both wins. That number has trended down since, including limiting the Boston Bruins to 23 shots. Yes, I know, David Pastrnak, four goals, loss… oh well.
The point is that the Ducks are improving. So much so that they have allowed the sixth-fewest shots against per game in the league at 29.5. At this point last season, they were last by a mile at 37.8 shots against per game but had a record of 5-4. We all know how quickly that changed. Their season-ending total of 33.2 shots against was good for seventh-worst in the league and they finished with the NHL’s eighth-worst record.
Ducks Limiting Dangerous Chances
It’s not just the shot number they are decreasing, which John Gibson is sure to appreciate, it’s the shot quality. They are tied for tenth-fewest “high-danger chances against” (HDCA) with 65 at five-on-five play, even after the Nashville beating. High-danger scoring chances are what they sound like, opportunities that occur a minimal distance from goal, especially including rebounds. At this point last season, they allowed almost double the high-danger chances against at 106. That was by far the most in the league.
What do these advanced statistics indicate? It shows that the Ducks are defending the front of their net much more aggressively. Last season, Gibson was under siege, not just from shots and opponents pouncing on rebounds but from players crashing the net, and on many occasions, Gibson himself.
This season has been a different story. The Ducks appear to be concentrating on forcing shots from the perimeter of the offensive zone, and when those shots get through, they are doing a much better job of collecting rebounds and preventing opponents from harassing Gibson.
Considering that five of their first ten opponents have been in the top half of the league in goals for and seven have been in the top of the league in shots for, that’s a pretty drastic improvement.
Defense Still in on Offense
Maintaining possession of the puck in the attacking zone is an essential factor in this defensive improvement. The less the opponent has the puck, the less they can generate offense against you.
This isn’t exactly new information, but the Ducks continue to encourage their defensemen to jump into the offense. It’s how they scored their only goal of the night against Calgary on Tuesday. Jakob Silfverberg’s go-ahead goal came off assists from both Josh Manson and Hampus Lindholm on a nifty passing play off the rush.
The important factor when it comes to this style of play is that Eakins is sticking to it, no matter the opponent. The offensive skill that the Ducks have faced hasn’t caused Eakins to encourage the defense to play more conservatively, which is a good thing, and it’s part of the reason why they have had success so early on.
Scoring hasn’t been the Ducks’ forte going back to last season. Even this season, they’ve struggled to score at times. Help from their offensively skilled defensemen like Fowler and Lindholm is crucial and it’s working.
The Gauntlet Isn’t Over
The spooky schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Ducks for the rest of October. Between now and Halloween, Anaheim plays four more playoff teams from last season, including the Colorado Avalanche, who are the sexy pick to make the Stanley Cup Final.
The Ducks’ final four opponents this month have a 22-18-2 combined record. Their games against the Dallas Stars — the only genuinely struggling team they’ve faced so far — the Avalanche and the Las Vegas Golden Knights are all on the road until the Ducks return to Anaheim to play the Winnipeg Jets.
This monstrous month could go from glowing to rotten faster than a pumpkin in November if the Ducks don’t continue their better-than-expected play and improve in a few categories.
Ducks’ Not So Special Teams
As Tuesday night showed, special teams are an issue that needs improvement.
After scoring their first power-play goal against Buffalo, the Ducks haven’t scored in the three games since. They have the league’s worst power play percentage, tied with the Ottawa Senators at four percent. They squandered three more opportunities and a penalty shot versus Nashville on Wednesday.
Though their penalty kill has been decent so far, they are still committing far too many penalties. Wednesday’s debacle in Nashville showed that the team is trending in the wrong direction. They are now tied for sixth in the NHL in number of times shorthanded and fourth in the league in minor penalties taken with 39. It seems their discipline issues weren’t just a “Randy Carlyle problem.” The Ducks can little afford to be shorthanded facing teams with strong power play units like the Golden Knights and the Avalanche in the next few days.
The Ducks’ start has many fans and even some media encouraged that this team will once again challenge for the playoffs and that last season was a small bump in the road. The competition they’ve done it against lends more weight to that hope, but the Ducks’ first month of the season could finish sourer than a pack of SweeTarts if they don’t improve on their power-play potency and their discipline. However, if they finish the month as strong as they started, fans will be more excited than a kid with a pillowcase full of candy on Oct. 31.
If you want to hear more from Anthony and former Duck Kent Huskins about weekly Ducks happenings, checkout the “Flying V Anaheim Ducks Podcast.”
Anthony Ciardelli grew up in Vermont and New Hampshire but now lives in Los Angeles. Though he was raised a Bruins fan, he quickly came to enjoy the hockey culture in Southern California and the rivalry between the Kings and Ducks. He covered USC Athletics while pursuing his journalism masters there. He also enjoys doing play-by-play for USC Trojan Hockey.