Stanley Cup Windows Part II: Anaheim and Nashville

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With the trade deadline fast approaching and the regular season 75 percent finished, the weight of what is at stake for each franchise in the upcoming playoffs begins to materialize. Possessing star players is invaluable to achieving a long playoff run, and having depth is essential, but the salary cap puts a timeline on both.

And the bad news does not just start there. A poor matchup could squash a team’s incredible success from the regular season and in prior series, like the Boston Bruins experienced last postseason. An injury to a franchise player could capsize a team as it did for San Jose with Marc-Édouard Vlasic against the Kings in their first round matchup from 2013-14. The Blackhawks losing Patrick Kane likely annihilates their Cup chances this season. And luck plays a huge part as well. Many teams are built to win this season, and franchises that see themselves as contenders of the future should be cognizant that a title window never lasts as long as an organizations wishes.

In four games, a year worth of preparation can vanish. This is a results business, and anything less than hoisting the silver chalice is a failure. IH continues a multi-part series that looks at Cup windows and surveys each team’s readiness.

Anaheim Ducks

In today’s NHL, most teams want to win the neutral zone. They want to transition with speed before they enter the offensive zone. On defense, they want their blueliners to step up and challenge opposing skaters before they can make the zone entry. Essentially, they want to gain the zone with control of the puck and have support, and they want to impede enemy skaters from carrying the puck into their own zone. To put it in political terms, “possession” teams believe that the game is won between the 40-yard lines.

The Ducks are not one of those teams. As Craig Custance explained in ESPN’s recent analytics rankings, Anaheim is not invested in the advanced-statistics movement. And some of the Ducks’ tendencies reflect that. They dump the puck in a lot. They are content chipping the puck out of the defensive zone rather than direct passing. They employ multiple stay-at-home defensemen, most prominently Clayton Stoner, who Anaheim gave a hefty contract in the offseason. The Ducks’ style is to survive in their own zone and establish territorial advantage in the opposing zone.

Too much speed affects the Ducks’ ability to keep tight gaps. The Ducks are built to play a heavy game that relies on the forecheck and cycle. And they want to use their size to punish opponents and create traffic to block the goaltender’s sightline. Anaheim is at its best when cycling below the dots. The Ducks’ war-on-ice Team Hextally chart reflects that Anaheim scores a lot of goals from around the crease.

What is at stake for the Ducks? Short answer – a lot. Getzlaf and Perry will soon be 30, which means their primes may be ending soon. Another Cup would probably ensure their HOF cases. Jakob Silfverberg, Matt Beleskey, Emerson Etem, and Francois Beauchemin are on expiring contracts. Ryan Kesler’s contract expires next season. There is no time to win like the present for Anaheim.

A Cup win would be another victory for the mindset that you need to be big and physical and strong up the middle to triumph in the Western Conference. The Kesler trade will be seen as a turning point in the franchise trajectory, and possibly warm more GMs to the idea that adding players in the summer and at the trade deadline can alter the season narrative. Although looking at the trade action from yesterday, maybe GMs do not need warming to that idea.

But there are a few hard-to-escape realities with Anaheim despite its glossy record. The forward group consists of three stars (Getzlaf, Perry, and Kesler) and a lot of interchangeable parts. Granted, Beleskey is having a career-best season – he is fourth among Ducks forwards in points (behind the triumvirate) and second in goals. However, his present 16.7 shooting percentage is preposterously high, and his scoring total is incongruous with his prior work. Already this season he has 21 goals whereas his previous high in goals was 11.

Coach Bruce Boudreau treats the nine forwards after his three stars like they are all equals, moving players around to different lines and in and out of the lineup. Looking at points per game leaders for the Ducks’ forwards is an interesting exercise. Getzlaf is at .98, Perry is at .87, and Kesler is at .60. (Kesler’s primary value is his two-way play though.) Beleskey is at .54 and Patrick Maroon is .52. The one other forward in the top six not yet mentioned is Kyle Palmieri, who is between Perry and Kesler with a .62 points per game.

Palmieri’s 2014-15 season has been fascinating. A former first-round pick, Palmieri, now 24, has been seen as slightly disappointing up to this point. The Ducks hoped this season could be his breakout year, but Palmieri missed 18 games to begin the season after injuring his ankle. In December, Palmieri missed six games due to a shoulder injury. And on February 6th, he was made a healthy scratch against the Capitals. However, in the games Palmieri has played, he has put up numbers: 23 points in 37 games.

Still, injury issues and a small body of work where he has played the way Anaheim wants him to play do not make Palmieri an ideal top-six forward option. Ultimately, Palmieri, Beleskey, and Maroon are lesser caliber than the top-six forward depth of other contenders.

The Ducks hope for scoring-by-committee from their nine forwards other than the big three, and while most of these players have talent and some skill, it still places a lot of pressure on the top players to carry the luggage. The Ducks’ offense and defense succeed because Kesler and Getzlaf can handle the difficult usage and allow their lines to produce prolifically. Perry takes easier usage and does not drive play as much, but he is an incredible scorer. Anaheim will go as far as the big three can take them.

So where does this all leave Anaheim with team stats? After spending time in the top ten in the NHL in possession stats for portions of this season, the Ducks have retreated back to the middle of the pack, right around where they were last season actually. They are 15th in Fenwick close and Corsi For percentage at 5 on 5. They are 11th in Corsi For per 60 minutes and 18th in Corsi Against per 60 minutes for 5 on 5. Since possession stats are predictive of team success, these are not great signs for their title hopes.

Unfortunately, it only gets worse. Where the Ducks deviate from last season is their uninspired non-possession team stats. The Ducks’ goal differential is +8, which is incredibly underwhelming given their record. (Minnesota is currently outside the playoffs and has a +11 goal differential.) The Ducks are 19th in 5 on 5 Goals For/Against. Last season they were 2nd. In 2013-14, the Ducks led the NHL in goals per game and were in the top ten in goals against, shots per game, and shots against. This season, they are outside the top ten in every category. An obvious reason for the drop in offense is shooting percentage. Last season, the Ducks’ shooting percentage was 10.24, best in the NHL. But this season they have dropped to 9.38, good for 9th. In team save percentage, the drop has been noticeable too. In 2013-14, Anaheim’s save percentage was .914, but this season it fell to .907. Puck luck has a way of regressing or improving. Last season, The Ducks’ PDO was third in the NHL at 101.6. This season, it is right where it is supposed to be at 100.2.

There is also the issue of success in 1-goal games. As Rob Vollman put it, “several independent studies have failed to find any correlation between a team’s success in close games in the past to its success in the future.” Last season, the Ducks finished second in the NHL in 1-goal games and this season they are first. But the Ducks’ puck luck has caught up with them this season in terms of shooting percentage and save percentage. Hopefully, that will not extend to their wins in close games, otherwise it could dampen their success at an inopportune time.

Finally, three of the top four defensemen in time on ice are Hampus Lindholm, 21 years old, and Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen, both 23, and their goaltender has played less than 80 regular season and playoff games. It is easy to shrug off experience but NHL reps matter, especially in the postseason.

The Ducks have hit a rough patch recently but should finish with the best record in the Pacific. That will give them home-ice advantage and likely the first Wild Card team as their opponent. Anaheim’s best players are so talented that they can often overcome a roster full of inexperience and superfluous parts. It seems like a long time ago, but the Kesler-less Ducks had a 3-2 lead on Los Angeles in the Western Conference semifinals last season. With Kesler, they have a much-desired second center who can shut down opponents’ best forwards and still contribute offense and physicality. The Ducks think they are built to execute playoff-style hockey. We will see if they are right.

Nashville Predators

Acquiring Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli was the proverbial shot across the bow. The Predators mean business and want to reach the Cup this season. The contracts of several key players — Mike Fisher, Matt Cullen, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, Franson, Calle Jarnkrok, Gabriel Bourque, Mike Ribeiro, Santorelli, and Anton Volchenkov — all expire at the end of the season. And franchise cornerstones Filip Forsberg and Seth Jones have contracts that expire in 2016. So winning this season is significant because it is unclear what Nashville will look like next season. The Predators have a lot at stake.

A Cup would be a victory for GMs who say you need to build your team from the goal line out. It would be a triumph for those who believe that possessing an excellent goaltender and defensive group can overcome a good-but-not-great forward group. The Predators’ long-distance shooting is deadly enough that they score well above league average from the perimeter, per the Team Hextally chart on war-on-ice. As one might expect, that opens up a lot of room around the blue paint, in the prime real estate, for the forwards. The Predators accrue a lot of shots from the high slot but score on a high percentage of their shots from the low slot, per

The Predators don’t lose a lot of games but their losses can prove instructive to how this team is vulnerable. Their game against Philadelphia last Saturday was a good example of how this team can be foiled.

The Predators’ defensemen are the engine that drives the team. When they aren’t able to open up ice for the forwards and create offense, this team struggles. On the Flyers’ second goal, scored by Ryan White, Seth Jones conceded a turnover and was scrambling with the puck under heavy pressure, but did not receive any support from the Nashville forwards. The reason is that the Predators’ forwards expect their defensemen to be able to skate through or around any heavy pressure on the forecheck and, when they couldn’t, it resulted in a goal because the gap was so poor.

The Flyers did a very good job using the Predators’ forward aggression against them by generating odd-man rushes when all three Nashville forwards were caught deep and also pressuring the Nashville defensemen into bad turnovers. The Predators’ back end is their best asset and is leaned on heavily, but the aggression and confidence of the Predators’ defensemen can also be used against them.

The Predators’ defensemen are excellent skaters. They have both passing and shooting in their quiver. But they do make mistakes. The good news is that the goaltender behind them is Pekka Rinne and he can cover those mistakes. This team is built with defense and goaltending in mind, and the coaching change allowed them to open up the offense more. The current Predators want to attack off the rush. They want to establish the cycle. They want to play with speed. And they can do that because their defensive posture is always healthy because of the skill at defense and goaltender.

While Anaheim waffles in the team metrics, Nashville checks both boxes. The Predators prosper in possession statistics. They rank 5th in Fenwick close and 6th in Corsi For percentage at 5 on 5. Nashville is also 5th in Corsi For per 60 minutes, and 12th in Corsi Against per 60 minutes. The Predators collect a lot of shot attempts and do a good job at limiting their opponents. But they fair even better in the non-possession statistics!

The Predators are 1st in 5 on 5 Goals For/Against, 6th in goals per game, and 2nd in goals against. They are 3rd in shots per game and 10 in shots against. But Nashville does share a similarity to Anaheim in one respect: 1-goal wins. The Ducks are first in the NHL with 26, but right behind them is Nashville with 25. The Islanders are third with 22. And while the Ducks’ puck luck is at 100, right where it is expected to be, the same cannot be said for Nashville. At 5 on 5, the Predators lead the NHL in PDO. While some of that is goaltending – second in save percentage – they are also eighth in shooting percentage. A regression in shooting, save percentage, or both, is something to monitor.

Shea Weber is a beast and Roman Josi is possibly the NHL’s most underrated player. The defensive pair’s gyroscope allows them to anticipate when to push the tempo and when to recede. They pack an incredible one-two punch with their mobility and offensive talent. Both are fearless in their confidence to carry the puck into the teeth of the defense and possess quick-strike scoring ability.

Weber and Josi are also enormous minute-loggers. Josi is fourth in the NHL in time on ice per game and Weber is fifth. Weber and Josi are two of four players who have played more than 1,600 minutes this season (Drew Doughty and Ryan Suter are the other two). The Predators are planning for a long run in the postseason and they are first in the Western Conference. Coach Peter Laviolette would be wise to rest the duo down the stretch to ensure fatigue does not set in during the playoffs.

Nashville’s forward group is deep and has skill. Forsberg has been unbelievable this season and will likely win the Calder Trophy. Ribeiro is a tremendous puck-handler and distributor. And Colin Wilson and Craig Smith are quality, effective forwards, even if only the hockey wonks and Predators fans seem to focus on them and adore them. James Neal continues to be an impact goal scorer despite habits that seem to irk everyone.

Still, it is hard to escape the notion that the Predators’ most dynamic forward is a rookie and that the defensemen are the focal point of the team’s offense. The playoffs have a habit of magnifying or exposing a team’s weakness. The Predators’ offense has not been a weakness in the regular season – far from it – but there is a distinct possibility it could be revealed as their fatal flaw in their postseason run. The best way to quash the doubters is to deliver victories during the playoffs. Good luck, Nashville. Your Cup window is right now.

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