How Good Are The Anaheim Ducks?

According to the standings, the Anaheim Ducks are the best team in the National Hockey League, and looked every bit deserving of that title with a dominant win over the struggling Colorado Avalanche on Sunday night. Corey Perry is continuing to establish himself as one of the best five players in the league, Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen are looking promising on the blueline (from an offensive standpoint), and the tandem of Frederik Andersen and John Gibson can seem to do no wrong. Yet is this team really the best in the NHL, or is it simply riding some otherworldly percentages from different areas of the lineup? There’s reason to believe that the Ducks might not be the very best the league has to offer, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be close to that either.

Ducks Defense: Where’d It Go?

Oct 19, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; St. Louis Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko (91) reaches for the puck against Anaheim Ducks defenseman Ben Lovejoy (6) during the second period at Honda Center. (Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports)
The Ducks have struggled to be any good in their own zone. (Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports)

This is getting to be a tired topic around these parts, but it has developed into a legitimate story line for the Ducks this season. Through 13 games, Anaheim has been out-shot seven times, while two of the six times where they out-shot the opposition came against the hapless Buffalo Sabres. More importantly, out of the seven games against Western Conference foes (Minnesota, St. Louis, San Jose, Chicago, Dallas, Colorado — all playoff teams last season), they’ve only won the shot count three times, and one of those was against an Avalanche team that has made a habit of getting out shot. In the analytics department, they don’t fare much better, sitting twelfth in the league for unblocked shot attempts percentage (51.00%), a number inflated by a handful of games against really bad defensive teams. The sample size, while small, is somewhat alarming since it’s a continuation of how poorly the Ducks fared in the shot department last year. If not for some absolutely stellar work in net from Frederik Andersen and some solid outings from John Gibson (don’t forget Jason Labarbera!), the Ducks’ record could easily be much closer to .500 than their monstrous .769 winning percentage.

Extra Duck: Anaheim Inefficient On The Power Play

Any statistical argument at this juncture of the regular season must be prefaced by the fact that the sample size is too small to concretely identify trends. But in a vacuum, 17.6% efficiency with the extra man just isn’t very good for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. The Ducks lack a booming shot from the point that can create spacing for other player by forcing penalty killers to cheat up, which in turn has allowed the forwards to be checked tighter by the opposition. Nevertheless, Ryan Kesler has looked extremely impressive at times, especially beneath the goal line where he seemingly cannot be stripped of the puck. The lack of a big shot is cause for concern, but blueliners like Sami Vatanen and Cam Fowler have proven to be solid contributors offensively, both seeing the ice extremely well and able to make the penalty kill pay in a variety of ways. With an elite group of forwards to boot, look for the Ducks power play to trend upward as the season progresses. Although not on the power play, Fowler flexed some of his elite hockey sense with this beauty against Colorado:

 The Final Verdict: Very Good, Not Quite Great

(Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

Until the Ducks can prove that they can win games in spite of getting out shot and being mediocre with the extra man, it’s impossible for any objective observer to crown them as the cream of the crop. However, they remain a very good team, as few teams in the league can boast two dominant lines, two legitimate superstars, and two stellar goaltenders. It’s a blessing and a curse that Anaheim has a player like Corey Perry who can lift them to wins on his own. On one hand, he’s scoring at an absurd rate  and that’s propelled them to wins, but on the other, it allows the coaching staff to overlook systemic issues since the wins keep coming. We’ll find out what this team is truly made of once Perry slows down and the goaltending regresses to league averages.