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Lucky or Good: The 2013 Anaheim Ducks Story

Are you feeling positive in your affectation of statistical probability fields today, punk!?

Ah, lucky post
Ah, lucky post
Victor Decolongon

With the availability of so many statistics and different analyses at our disposal, this post can write itself. The common perception among the advanced stats community is that the Anaheim Ducks were lucky more than good in 2013. I want to tackle this from a slightly different angle, though broadly speaking most of us probably agree.

First, I want to start with luck itself. Luck is not a bad word or concept. The generalized "we" of North American sports culture trends toward narratives favoring effort or talent winning out the day – and that’s it. Good fortune accounts for just as much of what we see as not, but perhaps it is less sexy.

"Unlucky" is a very common word used in soccer. A failed attempt to trap the ball, a shanked shot wide, a ball with too much weight on it sailing high – they are all unlucky events and called such. There is a component of player execution present in all cases, but physics isn’t something we can directly affect with pure talent alone, and fortune plays its part even with the best training.

Similar occurrences in hockey – not receiving a pass cleanly, a shot wide on goal, a puck dinging the outside of the post – tend to be viewed only as failures of execution. All three could occur when a puck won’t settle, which is unlucky. But the role fortune plays in this sports narrative is dramatically lessened comparatively.

Luck is one of the biggest components of all sports, especially in ball sports. (Ice hockey is a ball sport.) All positive plays with the best effort and talent on display are also favored by good luck in the moment and in those leading up to it, with so many things needing to go right for the best talent to execute at that level.

Try not to fall into the trap of thinking luck is a bad thing. Being lucky is as much a part of being good as not. For some reason, our sports culture hates it and hates attributing any measure of success to it, but that’s probably a narrow view.

Good luck is necessary for success. This includes fortune with respect to things like injuries and sicknesses, inclement weather not delaying a team’s travel schedule, or the dugout not being filled with endless amounts of crap.

For those of you who did take the summer off, I’ll give you a small recap of the universe and your team’s place within it: many believe the Ducks were very lucky last season. The team won a lot of games with marginal possession numbers and a pretty high shooting percentage – we watched many goals scored on fewer shots. This is generally an inadvisable way to play because it is inefficient and is hard to replicate over longer stretches of time. Ergo, many predicted the team would regress (they did, some), and many others declared (probably rightly, no way to know) that a full season schedule would see the Ducks fall from second in the conference.

The team was lucky last season, and there are literally hundreds of opinions online pertaining to the statistical aspect of this. You can go read those.

The Anaheim Ducks were also actually pretty good last year. The team’s success was absolutely luck-driven, but player execution on top of fortunate circumstance led to a very good record that doesn’t feature too many whacky outliers aside from poor possession metrics and low shot totals.

The Ducks had 30 wins out of 48 games – that’s nice. They boasted a fairly even record at home and on the road. They went into the OT session 13 times, not the highest or the lowest, but had a winning record there, gaining seven extra points overall. They won seven one-goal games and lost six both in regulation or overtime/shootout, so they weren’t horrible in close games. I can keep doing record gymnastics, so suffice it to say, the team owned their record. Let’s move on.

The team’s goal differential was 0.40 (2.79 goals per, 2.40 goals against per) – fifth highest in the league last season. The team was fairly even in terms of shots on goal for (1347) and against (1340), according to official shots tracked – and in fact, they allowed the ninth fewest shots against. That is a pretty good thing. If you check out this post by Tyler Dellow, the Ducks may be a better shot blocking team than some have realized. But then we get to a big luck component: our club was 21st in shots taken, which is friggin’ awful for such an "offense"-minded team and is the main reason we’re a possession nightmare.

Well drat. Right back to the poor possession numbers, aren’t we? That’s the funny thing about our Anaheim Ducks. We watched them win a lot. They scored goals. The goaltending was very special. But goodness, they just didn’t shoot very much. They were shot at about as much as they shot, and for a team in second place in the conference with a goal differential of 0.40, that’s not really very "good." It’s just "lucky." Dammit. Killing my whole argument.

So what does that tell us? The low shots taken is a telling stat of something we could see with our eyes: this team got hemmed in their defensive zone often, yielding shots or attempts against. They didn’t hold the offensive zone often enough – not eating more pizzas, if you read my summer insanity. (I’d recommend them, but no.) While there’s yet to be a direct correlation between zone time and shot attempts outright being measures of success, common sense certainly ties them together.

This leads me to another possibility for us to consider. What we know: the Ducks were outstanding in goal, and this can’t be emphasized enough. Their blue line was thin, but their forwards were pretty rounded in terms of two-way play. Outside of Selanne and Ryan, who is no longer with us, nearly all our nightly players were respectable in their own end. Interesting.

Despite the shift from Randy Carlyle to Bruce Boudreau…this is a defensive team. Granted, most of the success the team enjoyed there is heavily weighted on Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth. But there’s a bit beyond that – some of which shows up in that Dellow post – because the club allowed fewer shots than most other teams. Goaltenders don’t affect shots against as much as team defense does, and ours may have been better than we realized.

So there you have it: the 2012-13 Anaheim Ducks were a very lucky offensive team that was perhaps underrated defensively. They scored a bunch of goals on limited shots while suppressing more shots than realized. Now, many advanced metrics show that they didn’t suppress shot attempts as much – so there’s still that consideration, which ties into zone time and all that.

But on the face of it, this team was both lucky and good with the chances that luck bestowed. Don’t be afraid to embrace good fortune as a viable thing, a part of sports. Of course, unluckiness is this thing too…