What Drives the Ducks’ Success

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images Sport

The Anaheim Ducks’ victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night places the Ducks at the top of the Western Conference again, with eight wins and two losses. In some respects, this is not surprising. Anaheim has size and speed. They have outstanding depth, which allows them to roll four lines and get valuable play from all their skaters.  Among their important contributors are seven skaters drafted from 2009-2012, as well as their two very good goaltenders. Still, the Ducks continue to fly (pun intended!) under the radar, and while skepticism is somewhat warranted, there is reason to believe in this roster.

One reason for pessimism is because the analytics don’t support the degree of success Anaheim has enjoyed. They are consistently pegged as a great regular season team that is buoyed by puck luck, but does not have the right ingredients to succeed in the playoffs. This is part of what makes the Ducks so gripping, and also that they have two of the greatest players on the planet in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Anaheim is aware of analytics, but seemingly, results are more important than the process.

It is well known that teams that carry the puck and do not relinquish possession typically generate more offense and better possession metrics. Coach Bruce Boudreau even publicly acknowledged this. More poise with the puck leads to better zone exits, decisions in the neutral zone, and scoring chances in the offensive zone. Inversely, a great way to improve a team’s defense is hampering an opponent’s ability to carry the puck in. Yet, the Ducks did not have trouble scoring last year; in fact, they led the NHL in goals per game despite being 16th in Fenwick Close. That was partly boosted by a league-leading shooting percentage at five on five, but the Ducks did generate scoring chance in bunches – not all of it was puck luck.

This season the Ducks have seen their Fenwick percentage jump by 1.6 percent, but still they place in the middle of the pack (15th). The Ducks want to get into the offensive zone and spray shots at the net and hammer teams on the forecheck. And they are reaping what they sow.

They have surpassed the Kings as literally the heaviest team in the league, and they relish individual battles and establishing the territorial advantage that segues into the never-ending cycle. They have versatility to attack off the rush as well – they have imposing puck movement – but their predilection when gaining the zone is a cross-ice dump-in. After sealing the perimeter and gridlocking the outlets in the middle, Anaheim works the puck around with all five skaters who are variable in their positioning and role. There is a clear choice of preferring to establish identity over efficiency.

This is not to say the Ducks are impeccable in their execution in reaching the offensive zone. They can be sloppy in their breakouts and loose in defensive coverage, but for the most part, they have looked good on their puck retrieval and harmonious in the neutral zone. Even though the clip below is against Buffalo, executing such a fluid transition against another NHL team demonstrates how well they can move and pass the puck.

And yet, they are willingly going against the grain by chipping and chasing far more than the rest of the Western Conference elite. But IH believes in this team as long as they do not dip into the bottom third of the league in Fenwick, like paper lions Philadelphia and Colorado. There are reasons to believe that Anaheim is a viable Cup team.

1. GM Bob Murray is a genius for the way he built the supporting cast.

Anaheim has $7.695 million in cap space, per capgeek.com, and is near the bottom of the league in spending. And, as mentioned, this is a team with Getzlaf and Perry! These are two of the most dominant, unstoppable players in the game, but the Ducks are spending less than the New York Islanders. That is incredible, and it allows them an opportunity to add a player or two (or a big piece) at the trade deadline.

Aside from nearly winning the Presidents’ Trophy last season, and taking a 3-2 lead on the eventual Stanley-Cup-winning Kings, the splashy news for Anaheim over the past 20 months was when Murray inked Getzlaf and Perry to lucrative extensions. Anaheim locked in its franchise stars, but what is of almost equal merit is how Murray filled out the rest of the roster.

Much like Detroit, the Ducks have a very clear vision for how they want their players to play and are adroit at development. The upshot has been a group of foot soldiers who protect the puck well and provide off-the-puck support. They also can make plays in tight spaces and with room, and have strong hockey sense. The Ducks’ complementary forwards have enough skill and poise that, aside from Tim Jackman, they can play special teams or ride shotgun with Getzlaf and Perry on the first line.

The young forwards (Rickard Rakell, Emerson Etem, Jakob Silfverberg, William Karlsson, and Devante Smith-Pelly) are learning defensive responsibility and have demonstrated an ability to win the puck in the corner and drive to the net. And these five forwards all register with a cap hit under $1 million. Hampus Lindholm, who is currently a top-four defenseman for Anaheim, is also on the books for under $1 million. Murray and the Ducks’ organization know which players to draft and how to mold them into impact NHL players.

But Murray’s team construction brilliance goes beyond drafting and developing. Murray is very shrewd at identifying players in bad situations and helping them find a way to succeed with Anaheim. For example, Andrew Cogliano was a failed first-round pick who struggled in an elevated role with Edmonton, never living up to high expectations. Cogliano was deemed ineffective and a “wasted talent” with the Oilers, and the Ducks swapped their 2013 second-round pick for him. With Anaheim, Cogliano has always enjoyed an ancillary role and thrived. This season, he has even seen time on the second line with Ryan Kesler.

Another noteworthy reclamation project is Patrick Maroon, a player who was traded from Philadelphia under ignominious circumstances but has found great success with Anaheim, even signing an extension this past offseason. In 62 games, the power forward posted 11 goals and 18 assists, providing the Ducks with soft hands, a physical quotient, and a hulking net-front presence.

2. Sami Vatanen is playing tremendously.

 Cam Fowler and Lindholm are young, puck-moving defensemen with high-end distributing skills, a strong first pass, and prodigious skating ability. Both have garnered attention for their prominent roles at a very young age. Fowler pairs with Ben Lovejoy, and Lindholm couples with Francois Beauchemin, and while that makes a good defensive group, it is not a Stanley-Cup-worthy corps. But Sami Vatanen’s emergence stokes the potential for this defensive group.

Last season, Vatanen was a semi-regular who never could establish himself full-time in the Ducks’ defensive group. This season, his installation has been permanent, and it has been a boon to this Ducks roster.

Vatanen has a right-handed shot on the power play that comes off his stick like a laser, and it allows Getzlaf to move unencumbered instead of staying at the point and quarterbacking the power play. Vatanen displays immense offense and skating ability, and while he has not produced the ice-tilting Corsi that he did last season, most of what he has done from the outset has been very encouraging. He still has areas of his game he needs to improve, but Vatanen’s presence in the lineup lifts this team’s ceiling by enabling Anaheim to exit the zone more smoothly, transition more effectively, and be more potent with the man advantage.

3. Ryan Kesler has been decent, and he still moves the needle.

 Ryan Kesler has played well so far, and has delivered three goals and four assists on the season. He has helped lift the Ducks’ faceoff percentage by winning 55.1 percent of the draws in the faceoff circle. He has seen time on the first and second power-play units, and on the second unit he assumes the role of primary puck handler. Often when the Ducks run window dressing in the neutral zone, it eventually leads to Kesler receiving the puck to achieve the zone entry.

Kesler’s Corsi is decent, but he has been a very good penalty killer and helps stabilize the Ducks’ constantly evolving second line. Kesler also fits the mold of a bruising forward who can help Anaheim dig in when they are in the offensive zone; the former Selke Trophy winner loves battling in the dirty areas. Kesler also improves the Ducks’ team defense. The Ducks are first in the NHL in faceoff win percentage, fifth in goals against, and in the top fifteen in shots against. Kesler is not the sole reason for this team’s success, but he is another important contributor who makes the Ducks a squawk to deal with.

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