Only three measly points separate the Anaheim Ducks from last place in the National Hockey League.
A team with a league-low 67 goals? One with only 14 wins in 35 games?
In fact, not only is the 2015-16 Ducks’ season completely salvageable, but it may turn into much more than a reclamation project.
Still reading? A welcome surprise, considering the amount of skepticism surrounding this club.
Ducks Dead In The Water?
Head coach Bruce Boudreau’s attempt to implement a passive defensive gap immediately backfired at the start of the season. After finishing as one of the best possession teams in the final quarter of ’14-15, the Ducks hobbled along at 48.8 percent score-adjusted possession in the month of October, trailing hapless even strength teams like the Columbus Blue Jackets.
At that point, calls for a coaching change were warranted. Boudreau had seemingly made his team worse since pushing the Chicago Blachawks to the brink just months before.
Since the calendar turned to November though, they’ve played at 54.4 percent score-adjusted puck possession, good for third in the entire league, ahead of teams like the Hawks and the high-flying Dallas Stars.
Possession ratings are built around shot attempts, which serve as a proxy for puck possession. To get a shot attempt, a team must have the puck. So, to have consistently more shot attempts than the opposition is a sign that a team is also better at possessing the puck. It’s a simple concept and it’s highly predictive of team success, yet critics like Patrick Roy still believe that shot attempt totals are bogus, since, in his mind, they don’t account for shot quality.
If you happen to be among that group of critics, then here’s something for you: the Ducks are generating nearly 12 high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes of even strength play since the start of November. That’s sixth best in the league. In December, they’ve generated high-danger scoring chances at a higher rate than any other team in the NHL.
Anaheim’s play in net has been equally excellent as of late. John Gibson has looked brilliant in 13 games of action, rocking an impressive .938 save percentage at even strength. The Ducks may finally have found their goaltender of the present, and the future, making Frederik Andersen an interesting trade chip come the deadline. Should Gibson falter, Andersen remains a quality goaltender who can keep the ship afloat.
A steady flow of wins remains elusive, yet there’s absolutely no denying that the Ducks are trending in the right direction. Controlling the puck while also generating chances at such a high level is the mark of an elite team, not one dwelling in the standings’ cellar. Add in the excellent goaltending they’ve been receiving, and it becomes a very reasonable assumption to make that Anaheim will climb back up the standings.
Anaheim A Dangerous Foe In 2016
Although the Ducks are rapidly atoning for their early struggles, they can’t seem to get out of their own way at times.
Take their recent tilt against the New York Rangers where two boneheaded turnovers gave the Rangers all the help they needed en route to a 3-2 win over Anaheim.
Even on Tuesday night in a game where they flat out dominated the Calgary Flames, the Ducks gave their opponents life, clanging shots off the post and taking a crucial penalty late in the game.
The Ducks should flourish once they learn to minimize unforced errors of that sort. Their shooting percentage at even strength has been the very worst in the entire league, indicating some seriously poor puck luck. The way they’re generating shots and high-danger scoring chances, the goals will come, and they will come in bunches.
General manager Bob Murray’s patience should be applauded, for he trusted that his team would eventually right the ship. Immediately firing Boudreau and making some panicked trades could have happened were any other GM in Murray’s place. Instead, he clearly sees that his team is driving the play and trusts that results will start coming in the short term. He’s placed part of the blame on himself for the team’s poor start, but he also didn’t mince words when he flat out told the Orange County Register that too many of his players took the summer off.
A general manager calling out his players in such burning fashion through the media is rare in today’s NHL. Murray has never been afraid to make a splash in his Ducks’ tenure, as evidenced by the numerous trades he’s pulled off, so publicly criticizing his players shouldn’t come as a surprise. Yet, seeing how patient he’s been with the team hints that his comments were calculated. As the team is now turning a corner, perhaps his words will provide that final spark.
Unlucky, self-defeating, and at times publicly critical, it’s been a perplexing season in Anaheim. A team this skilled that now has a huge chip on its shoulder and is playing some dangerous five on five hockey should be an extremely frightening thought for the rest of the league.