So if you've been paying attention to the internets or the Twitterverse lately you'll likely have noticed that mere hours after the Ducks defeated the New York Rangers 2-1 to move to 12-3-1 on the season, noted hockey blog Puck Daddy posted a piece from former Anaheim Calling editor Jen Neale entitled "Are the First Place Ducks For Real?"
Her short answer: No. And that's pretty much lit a fire under the butts of Ducks fans everywhere. I've even found myself respectfully disagreeing with a few of her points even though she does raise some legitimate concerns about this team which deserve a look.
If you haven't read the piece, check it out here. Go ahead... I'll wait.
Now let me preface this by saying I've had the privilege of meeting Jen and she's a wonderful person. She's super friendly, smart as a whip, and quick-witted as well. Anyone who's frequented this site in the last year is seeing what is the result of countless tireless hours of her work to build the community and get the site to the place that it is. We here at AC owe her a lot.
In many ways I agree with a lot of what Jen says because we share a common theme throughout our blogging: both of us are ridiculously hard on this team at times, teetering on the edge of what many would consider anti-fandom, because we want nothing more than to see this team win. In today's NHL, winning often requires perfection, despite the fact that it appears good teams win games no matter how bad they play. Thus when glaring issues rear their head, we aren't afraid to call the team out.
The biggest point I agree with about this team is our special teams make this current winning pace unsustainable. Sure the Ducks have managed 12 wins on the season with the league's second-worst penalty kill and worst powerplay by miles. Special teams are a key part of any hockey team, as they are an opportunity to either produce offense or defend against the opponent from producing on theirs.
To this point in the season, the Anaheim Ducks have only played six games in which they have not surrendered at least one power play goal. Additionally, the Ducks only have four power play goals the entire season, coming in only three games. As Jen pointed out there are so few changes to the personnel on these units this season from last (except for the injuries of course) that there really is zero excuse for as to why the Ducks are so bad here. And at that point the blame falls purely on coaching for not getting the job done.
At the outset of the season I said that the Ducks would need to be in the top-half of the league on the penalty kill in order to be playoff contenders. So far they've been almost as far away from that as possible and yet they've still proven me wrong. Likewise I've also said that you don't necessarily need a good power play to win a Stanley Cup, but you do need a good penalty kill. See the 2011 Boston Bruins for an example--awful power play below 10% in the playoffs, lights-out penalty kill.
However it's not all bad. Despite the Ducks having a horrendous record on special teams, they lead the league in even-strength goals. Since the most time of any hockey game is played 5-on-5 (unless you're playing at Joe Louis Arena), being so strong at even strength is a massive advantage, and one that could be sustainable throughout the season.
Likewise, even though they've scored 52 goals on the year, 51 of them have come from their forwards, and none of them have more than Corey Perry's nine. There is balance and depth in the lineup at the forward positions. Even though the offense is hot right now, the defense is cold, meaning the two will at some point swap positions. There is no way a defense that boasts names like Francois Beauchemin, Sami Vatanen, and Cam Fowler scores only one goal in a season.
The Ducks have also been supported by a cast of three spectacular goaltenders who have kept the team afloat and given them a chance to win games on nights where in many cases they didn't deserve it. Take a look at each of the past Stanley Cup champions in the Salary Cap era and you'll find one common trend: they won it all on the back of brilliant goaltending. So far Jonas Hiller, Viktor Fasth, and Frederik Andersen have given the Ducks a chance to win nearly every night they've hit the ice.
The fancy stats back up the improvement the Ducks have shown this season, a year following those same numbers being used as an argument that the Ducks weren't legit. And likewise those number-crunchers threw their arms up in smug satisfaction after the Detroit Red Wings knocked Anaheim out of the last playoffs in the quarterfinals. In reality the reason Anaheim didn't get past the quarterfinals was simply because Detroit played that NHL playoffs game seven exactly like an NHL playoffs game seven while Anaheim played it like a flock of deer in headlights. They failed to perform when it really mattered against a strong and underrated opponent and they got beat. It's the way the playoffs work.
I don't follow the fancy stats too closely, but the general consensus is the Ducks are playing better defense and sustaining better possession this year than they were last year, and both are good trends when it comes to winning hockey games.
It's worth mentioning however that 10 of the Ducks' 16 games thus far have been against Eastern Conference opponents. With a 7-2-1 record in those games (including a perfect 4-0-0 record against the pitiful Metropolitan Division), it can be said that the Ducks have been feasting off the East. From this point forward Anaheim is going to start seeing a lot more of their Western Conference opponents, including a rematch with the nearly-unbeatable Colorado Avalanche, a full season-series still to come against the white-hot San Jose Sharks, and the Los Angeles Kings, who they always for some reason play extremely poorly against.
Lastly, the injuries this team has had to endure since the start of the preseason have been unbelievable. The Ducks have already lost nearly 80 man-games to injury, and that stat is going to get bigger as the season drags on.
But the fact that this team has endured through these injuries to keep themselves at the top of the Western Conference is nothing short of remarkable. Despite missing names like Jakob Silfverberg, Teemu Selanne, and Saku Koivu, the Ducks rookies and young guns have stepped up and filled the shoes well. The fourth line has sparkled recently, beating nearly every other fourth-line they've faced. The Nick Bonino-Kyle Palmieri tandem has been wonderful and they've produced as a result.
This brings me to Jen's question as to what will happen when these injured players are healthy again. Will their return to the lineup disrupt the chemistry that has been developing? There is no easy answer to this, so I'm going to say both yes and no.
Take a look at Luca Sbisa last night. Playing in his first game of the season, Sbisa looked a little rusty, giving up a couple puck in bad places that resulted in decent New York scoring chances, but when you haven't played an NHL game since last May when the playoffs were in full-swing, it's expected that there will be a few mistakes. Likewise Bryan Allen stepped up his game and bailed his partner out, a sign of a solid pairing despite many people's reservations (including mine).
These new players are not going to immediately play spectacular the moment they set foot on the ice again (in theory) but likewise they are in fact our best players and those are the guys you want to play consistently.
The bottom line is Boudreau will have to play the hot hand. If a young player like Sami Vatanen is playing as well as he is, then the return of Sheldon Souray might be delayed a touch. Or he might sit a game like he did last night to get Sbisa back in the lineup.
Some guys will be sent down to the AHL again, and some guys will be healthy scratches pressuring the lineup players to perform or risk falling out of the lineup, but these are good problems to have for a team looking to contend. All in all it's one giant motivation tool to get every player on the roster performing as best as they can.
So I'm not sure if these Ducks are legit yet. I'm not sold on their current pace that would see them reach 128 points this season. But that being said this team has shown remarkable tenacity to keep themselves afloat despite all the injuries and horrible special teams, they've still managed to find ways to win. And finding ways to win is the sign of a good hockey team.