Ducks Continue to Improve Despite Losing Streak

The Anaheim Ducks dropped another heartbreaking loss on Thursday night, this time to the Buffalo Sabres, 4-3 in overtime. The Ducks are now winless through their last five games and have fallen to 2-4-2. Even with a losing streak comparably as bad to last season’s start, this season’s club has shown tremendous improvement from a year ago. The team has gone from a low-event, low-scoring team to a fast-paced, high-danger team. This is a result of an improved power play as well as contributions from many of the Ducks’ younger players.

Ducks’ Improved Offense: Goal Scoring and a Potent Power Play

The Ducks have managed to score 23 goals through eight games, good enough for 11th in the league. Anaheim scored just 14 goals in as many games, en route to a league-low 126 goals in a 56-game season. This season’s team is on pace to break last season’s mark by their 43rd game and could nearly double it by the end of the full 82-game season.

Despite the remarkable improvement, nothing indicates that this current pace is unsustainable for the Ducks. Their team shooting percentage is just barely under the league average at 7.4 percent. Their 14 goals during 5-on-5 play are actually underperforming their 17.5 expected goals. Their 67 high-danger chances are an improvement on last season’s 43, but they have finished at a lower rate, with only five high-danger goals this season compared to seven from this point a year ago. This surge in offensive production is even more impressive considering Max Comtois, the Ducks’ leading scorer last season, has yet to show up on the scoresheet this season.

The biggest offensive improvement has come from special teams. The Ducks added a 4-on-4 goal last night to add onto their six power play tallies to start the year. Last season’s club only managed a paltry 11 power-play goals. Head coach Dallas Eakins had his hands full shuffling player combinations with no success. Part of the newfound success comes from a full season of Jamie Drysdale and Trevor Zegras, but assistant coach Geoff Ward deserves credit for the turnaround as well. His implementation of a four forward, one defenseman power-play unit allows the Ducks to maximize their offensive talent and maintain possession for longer stretches of time.

Zegras and Milano Lead the Youth Movement

Zegras and Drysdale are the faces of the new-look Ducks, but they are far from the only contributors in what is one of the youngest lineups in the NHL. As of Oct. 29, of the 22 rostered players, 10 are currently under the age of 25. Of those under 25, only Comtois and fourth-liner Benoit-Olivier Groulx have failed to record a point.

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The newest connection is Zegras and Sonny Milano. Milano, 25, had to pass waivers before being sent down to the San Diego Gulls after training camp, but injuries to the Ducks’ roster have given him the chance to crack the big club’s lineup. In Tuesday’s loss to the Winnipeg Jets, Zegras assisted on Milano’s first goal of the season and Milano assisted on Zegras’ first later in the game. By the third period of Thursday night’s game against the Sabres, Eakins moved Milano up to Zegras’ wing on the top line. The move seemed to get the vote of approval, not only from Ducks fans, but from some members of the media as well.

The Ducks are only going to get younger as well, with Mason McTavish beginning a conditioning stint with San Diego. The third-overall pick in the 2021 Entry Draft is too young to play in the American Hockey League (AHL) under normal circumstances, but exceptions allow for him to be on the Gulls roster for up to two weeks as a result of his injury. The Gulls have a back-to-back tonight and tomorrow before a nearly week-long break. Depending on what the Ducks and general manager Bob Murray want to do with his remaining seven games in regards to his entry-level contract, McTavish may be back in the Ducks’ lineup sooner rather than later.

Growing Pains for Young Ducks

The Ducks have dealt with a fair amount of tough luck during this five-game skid. Four of the five losses have been by a single goal, including two overtime losses and a last-minute collapse. In the loss to the Jets on Tuesday night, Drysdale iced the puck and failed to box out the larger Paul Stastny in front of the net for the Jets’ go-ahead goal. On Thursday night, Zegras turned the puck over trying to pass through two Sabres’ sticks and got caught overpursuing the puck before Rasmus Asplund tapped in the overtime winner. Losing in these kinds of ways can be discouraging from a short-term perspective. If the Ducks manage to stay consistent throughout the season and miss the playoffs by fewer than five points, the lost points during this streak will loom large.

Jamie Drysdale Trevor Zegras Anaheim Ducks
Jamie Drysdale and Trevor Zegras, Anaheim Ducks (Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)

From another perspective, this appears to be the beginning of something more long-term. It was only last week that Eakins leaned heavily on Derek Grant in defensive situations. The fact younger players were even allowed to be on the ice to make these mistakes shows a new philosophy within the organization. The unavoidable truth about the Ducks is if they are going to be a competitive team in the near future, these kids need to turn into stars, and stars close out games. This isn’t going to be an overnight change. I’d still anticipate that the Ducks are a lottery team with reasonable odds of winning the Shane Wright sweepstakes; however, this change in personnel usage is a sign of progress and it indicates that the franchise is headed in a more positive direction.

Looking Forward: Vegas Golden Knights and Montreal Canadiens

The Ducks lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in a shootout, 5-4. Anaheim came out flat, at one point being outshot 18-1 to start the game. Trailing 2-0 late in the second, Milano found Zegras alone in front of the net for their third connection in as many games. Milano was moved to Zegras’ line to begin the game, with Comtois slotting in the other wing for the injured Rickard Rakell. Rakell’s injury also forced the Ducks back into a less dangerous three forward, two defensemen look on the power play that went scoreless in three tries.

The Ducks will head back to Anaheim to begin a four-game homestand starting Sunday against the Montreal Canadiens.

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