Identity Crisis

ROBBY:

The Anaheim Ducks are at an interesting point as a franchise. The last vestiges of the Cup-winning 2006-2007 team are all but gone (Teemu Selanne (sorta), Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Francois Beauchamin, and George Parros are all that remain), and the team has noticeably pivoted away from the physical, defensively-dominant style that earned Anaheim the first Cup in California history. With the team seemingly in a transition toward a more youth-oriented lineup, it remains to be seen what the Ducks identity will be moving forward.

For the sake of argument, it's fair to characterize a team based on one of the following four identities. While most teams are a blend of two of these personalities, some teams clearly fall into one of the four personas:

  • Offensive Attack - The focus is on scoring, both at even strength and with the man-advantage. Scoring may be dispersed through the lineup or focused in one or two lines, but such teams rank in the upper third of Goals For across the league and typically feature one or more 30+ goal guys and 60+ point guys. In recent history, teams like Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit, Washington and Tampa Bay have personified this approach.
  • Defensive Stalwarts - Keeping the puck out of the net. Great defensive teams rank low in GA/G and while they can kill off a penalty when they need to, they tend to avoid such situations altogether. Strong defensive teams may or may not have great goaltenders, but they typically give up few shots anyway. Recent examples would be Nashville, Boston, New Jersey, and Los Angeles.
  • Balanced Approach - Teams aren't loaded with many superstars (one or two standouts, but typically not many more) but are marked by solid depth and contributions throughout the lineup. Teams won't set the world on fire in terms of offense or defense, but don't feature glaring weaknesses either. Teams may have one or more stars and might excel in a particular area like special teams or goaltending. Can often be hard to compete on this basis. Recent examples include Dallas, Montreal, and Calgary.
  • Physical Presence-Push around the opposition and intimidate them. Teams are usually high in penalties but also tend to have strong defenses (numbers can be obscured by a degree due to elevated shorthanded situations). Scoring is usually achieved by establishing a presence in the net, rather than sniping or finesse. Recent examples include Philadelphia, Boston, and St. Louis.

It can be difficult to put a team into one category as most teams are strong in several areas. However, it's pretty clear that a team usually emphasizes one key strategy in the overall development and construction of the team. And while this is far from a perfect system, it serves as a reasonable baseline from which to build your roster. In fact, I would argue that teams that have bought into a particular mentality or system can be more dangerous and can enjoy more consistent success.

Looking back at Cup teams since the lockout, I would roughly categorize the winners as follows:

Season

Team

Style

2005-2006

Carolina Hurricanes

Offense

2006-2007

Anaheim Ducks

Defense/Physical

2007-2008

Detroit Red Wings

Offense

2008-2009

Pittsburgh Penguins

Balance

2009-2010

Chicago Blackhawks

Offense/Defense

2010-2011

Boston Bruins

Defense/Physical

First off, I know it seems ludicrous to mark the Penguins as anything but an offense-first team, but outside of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, nobody on that team scored. But they had lots of guys with 30+ points and offered several pretty strong lines. Secondly, offense makes the most appearances on this list, with the 2009-2010 showcasing the truly frightening superb defense and offense combination that money can buy.

So what goes into establishing an identity? It comes down to two factors: the players and the coaching.

In the case of the Ducks, this seems particularly apt. Randy Carlyle has a reputation of being a defense-first kind of coach and the team that won it all was the one that ranked 7th in GA/G. The Cup team also featured the particularly strong defensive grouping of Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, and Beauchemin, as well as the infamous checking line of Travis Moen, Samuel Pahlsson, and Rob Niedermayer. So in the case of the 2006-2007 Ducks, it was a perfect storm of coaching and talent that combined to make the Ducks a defensive juggernaut that year.

Conventional wisdom seems to hold that most teams focus on defense first. After all, it's not exactly easy to score in the league and you could argue that it's easier to prevent goals than score them. Elite scorers tend to be more expensive, while a solid checking line and other blue-chip players can be more affordable and particularly effective in goal prevention.

However, real world results don't exactly bear this out. Sure, half of the past six teams to win a Cup had particularly strong defenses. But a majority of the last six teams that won a Cup also featured above average offenses. While it may be harder to retain offensive talent in the long-run, if you're got a limited window to make a run, an offensive approach seems to be a good idea.

Which brings us to the Ducks. Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Lubomir Visnovsky are all signed for the next two-years. Cam Fowler becomes an RFA after that point and this is likely Teemu Selanne's last year. Given this two-year window, and the overall offensive talent on this team, I think it's a mistake for this team to focus on anything but offense. We certainly do not have the assets to be a strong defensive team and we no longer feature the same physical edge we displayed after the lockout (although the zebras have not apparently caught on to this). This team features the best line in hockey and one of the most offensively-gifted defenseman in the league. Throw in a strong PP, and it becomes clear which direction this team should head.

Our top prospects would also seem to lend credibility to such an approach. Guys like Emerson Etem, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Kyle Palmeiri are scorers. Sami Vatanen also appears to be an offensive defenseman and there's not a whole lot in the cupboard that suggests extreme defensive prowess.

All that said, I'm not entirely sure the Ducks have the right coach to capitalize on these assets. Carlyle has taken the Ducks to the playoffs on numerous occasions, but he has also over-worked his top guys. Either because he lacked the necessary players or because he believed it was the right approach, Carlyle frequently ran out the top line against the best from other teams (last year, the majority of Getzlaf's ice time began in the defensive end and among forward, third and fourth line guys enjoyed more favorable offensive zone starts than the top two lines).

I believe the key in 2010-2011, and moving forward, will be a strong, offensive third line. We already know that we have two pretty potent scoring lines, but I think it would do wonders for the top two lines if the third and fourth lines took some of the pressure off of them. I also think that part of this strategy will require defenseman like Fowler and Sbisa, and forwards like McMillan to take more chances on offense. Obviously we don't want to give up a ton of goals. But even with a healthy Jonas Hiller, the Ducks gave up an inordinate amount of shots. If that's going to be the case, then why not focus on maximizing your scoring chances when you have control of the puck?

The Ducks made a name for themselves as a rugged, defensively responsible team. But the talent has changed. The Ducks are now a team stocked with skilled players that can light the lamp with regularity. While it might be uncomfortable for Randy Carlyle to adapt to this new reality, I think it's imperative for this identity to take hold if the Ducks are to achieve success in the near- and long-term.

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