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Home Improvement: Fifteen Games In, Time to Evaluate And Repair

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With just under a quarter of the season gone, it's time to take a look at the first month-plus of the season and determine what exactly the Ducks need to fix in order to contend and compete from here on out.

The Anaheim Ducks fell in overtime to the Arizona Coyotes in overtime on Monday because of a play that was, to be honest, downright embarrassing. And it was perhaps the best microcosm of the season thus far I could possibly imagine.

Solid build up only to literally give the game away to their opponents due to an absolutely egregious mistake.

The loss dropped the Ducks to 5-7-3 on the year, snapping a four-game win streak. On the positive side, the team is back within two points of the third and final playoff spot in the division as I write this. On the negative side, their form this season has ranged from "decent" at best to "unspeakably pathetic" at its absolute worst.

So, now that we've got an initial tour of what this season has in store, it's time to do a little improvement on this house on Katella that seems to have fallen into quite the state of disrepair. So I've decided much like how spouses will leave "Honey-Do" lists for each other, I've decided to leave one for the Ducks. If they're going to right the ship and truly contend for the Stanley Cup like they set themselves up to do

1. Get Healthy

There's no question much of these early-season woes have come about from a rash of key injuries to the Ducks lineup. Simon Despres hasn't been heard from since October 16th, and this is bad not only because he's an excellent defenseman who drives a lot of puck possession while playing with a not-so-subtle physical edge, but also because he's Cam Fowler's partner.

Ever since Cam Fowler came into the league, Ducks fans have learned one thing about him that has not changed: he is extremely partner-dependent. It took a while to find a partner for him that worked, but once Ben Lovejoy seemed to be a nice fit, Bruce Boudreau didn't dare separate them. And it worked pretty well overall. Then Bob Murray pulled off a bit of wizardry and managed to trade Lovejoy for Simon Despres and the new guy stepped into the role along side Fowler and the chemistry was immediate, apparent, and spectacular.

And then he got hurt, and Fowler has been bounced around between everybody from Kevin Bieksa to Josh Manson to Korbinian Holzer to try to find someone who fits. And while Fowler has seemed to take another significant stride forward into his own this year, his partner being out has no doubt made his life more difficult. Alongside Despres, Fowler was averaging a 55.7% Shot-Attempt-for percentage. Since Despres went down, that possession metric has fallen to 48.8%.

And that's just one injury.

Let's not forget that Rickard Rakell left the game agains the Florida Panthers and has now missed three games. And his line partner, who much like Fowler and Despres, he has so much chemistry with it's downright electrifying, Jiri Sekac, has now missed four games. Perhaps even worse, Sekac has no timetable set for his return and the injury sounds like it's going to be a lengthy one. Rakell is one of the team's best possession driving players, and Jiri Sekac is a perfect foil to his style, making for a third line that was looking very solid along with newcomer Chris Stewart... until they both got hurt.

Oh, and there's a guy named Ryan Getzlaf who missed a few games due to an emergency appendectomy. He's kind of a good player.

There's reason to be optimistic for this team when the dreaded injury bug finally gets shooed away from it's annual early-season trip to Orange County. They have been playing fairly well under certain stretches even without these key players. But that being said the faster they can get healthy and this team can get back to some sense of normality in its roster, the better.

2. Fix The Passing

One theme has been common across every single Ducks game this season: the team has struggled so badly to get offense together because the passes in every single section of the ice have been downright awful.

Go back and watch any game from this season so far and you'll notice a ton of pucks going to guys who aren't moving their feet (allowing forecheckers to attack them more or less at-will with a humongous advantage), or they're out of the target's wheelhouse and in their skates, behind them, over their stick, or just generally five or six feet out of reach, or perhaps the worst--to absolutely nobody at all.

The offense isn't clicking at the danger rate it used to and the team is struggling so badly to generate chances so far this season quite simply because they can't seem to string more than two passes together in a tape-to-tape fashion.

When you think about it, these guys are professionals so moving the puck between them should be something they're adept at, and yet Anaheim seems baffled by it. And this is even further emphasized when you see how well Anaheim's opponents are able to pass around them every night; passes find sticks, they adequately lead their target, they control them with the first touch, and their targets are moving.

Oh, and for the most part, Anaheim's passes are high-risk passes that are getting picked off because they're either very long or try to get through two or three opposition defenders. Pretty much under no circumstances is that ever a "safe" pass.

Passing is a fundamental skill in hockey and there is absolutely no excuse why a team playing in its best league at its highest level, let alone one that's supposed to be contending for its championship,  should struggle so badly with something so simple.

3. Fix the Discipline

One of the biggest bright spots of this year's team has been their lights-out penalty killing that currently sits atop the NHL, clicking at over 90%. Let's be real... that won't last. The NHL's best penalty killing team annually sits somewhere in the high-80's so this team is about to give up some power play goals.

And that's most certainly going to happen sooner rather than later if this team keeps taking the insane number of penalties it currently is. Corey Perry, Kevin Bieksa, and Ryan Kesler have all taken seven minor penalties each thus far through the season, Jakob Silfverberg has taken five, and Clayton Stoner and Ryan Getzlaf have each taken four.

All in all, Anaheim has been shorthanded 53 times already this season, seventh-most in the NHL. That's an average of 3.53 times short every single game, and while seventh-most is in the bottom third of the league, consider this: they've only been short four fewer times than the league-leading St. Louis Blues. So really, they're right up there with the worst offenders. Their -11 penalty differential so far this season is second-worst in the NHL as well.

Let's imagine it this way: say Anaheim's opponents were to score at right about league average 18%, the Ducks would be giving up a power play goal a little more than once every two games. And when your offense is struggling to score, that's a lot of goals you can't afford to give up.

And to dig a little deeper, they're going short for far longer than most. Anaheim has been at least one man down for 88:32 so far this season, fourth most in the league. That's just under six minutes every single game.

And to top it off Anaheim is also one of the worst teams in the league in terms of scoring chances surrendered in 4-on-5 situations, surrendering at a rate of 44 scoring chances against per 60 minutes of short-handed time. Where does that sit? 11th. Not what you'd expect from a team currently leading the league in their penalty killing.

When you add all this together and consider that the penalty kill is riding high at over 90%, I think you can find where the team's luck for this season has drained into.

Stop taking so many damn penalties every game and you'll set yourself up for a better chance to win more games.

4. Figure Second Periods the Hell Out

There really is zero excuse for this.

Last season, Anaheim was the worst team in the league in second periods, surrendering 97 times in the middle frame in the regular season. That's a -23 differential on the year.

This year, they've already surrendered 21 goals and only scored five. That's right, 15 games into the season your Anaheim Ducks have a -16 goal differential in second periods. THAT'S A PALTRY SEVEN GOALS BETTER THAN THE ENTIRETY OF LAST SEASON AND WE'RE ONLY 15 GAMES IN.

And once again I reiterate that these guys are professional hockey players. The long change, while it does have a significant effect on the game, is not that big of an obstacle to overcome. Quite honestly, night after night it looks like the team takes a break and stops playing after getting out to a reasonable start in the first period (their best period with a +6 differential) and the effort disappears. As a result, the team who just got outworked in the first, and inevitably heard about it in the locker room, comes out hard and wipes the floor with Anaheim. That's team mentality. To me, this is an effort problem. The coaching staff has got to figure this out.

I believe I can say that as fans we expected last year's seemingly fluky second period tendencies to be a one-year thing but now it's become consistent, and even more worrying, much worse. And now that the third period comeback magic has essentially disappeared as well, the Ducks have found themselves on the losing end of ten of the first fifteen games.

5. Solidify the Slot and Limit Chances Against

Even the most casual of hockey fans can tell you that shots from right on top of the goal crease have a far better chance at scoring than a shot from way out at the point or from a very bad angle. So logic then dictates that teams who want to maximize their offensive efficiency should focus on getting as many shots from this so-called "high danger" area of the ice.

Conversely, teams defensively should focus on doing everything in their power to keep the puck away from this area of the ice and force shots to come from less threatening areas.

Last year's Ducks were excellent at generating these high-danger scoring chances and were relentless at pushing to get the puck into this area. However, they were also pretty good at keeping the puck away from the front of their net. This meant night after night the Ducks out-chanced their opponents and scored a ton of goals, while just hanging on enough defensively to earn the points.

This season, Anaheim is a completely different story. Let's look at some numbers really quick, shall we?

SCF

SCF%

SCF +/-

SCF/60

HSCF

HSCF%

HSCF +/-

HCSF/60

2014-15 Ducks (82 gms)

1692 (17th)

52.2 (10th)

+144 (10th)

25.6 (17th)

693 (14th)

52.0 (11th)

+53 (12th)

10.5 (18th)

2015-16 Ducks (15 gms)

256 (25th)

44.4 (30th)

-65 (30th)

21.7 (27th)

108 (24th)

42.2 (29th)

-40 (29th)

9.2 (26th)

(all stats via War-On-Ice)

Last year's Ducks, while not the most dangerous offense in the league in terms of chance generation, at least hovered around the middle of the pack in pretty much every major category, and right around the top 10 in terms of both Scoring Chance percentage and High Danger Scoring Chance Percentage. This year's Ducks aren't even out of the bottom five in any of them.

While the team has recently come awake and found life offensively, a lot of the scoring chance for numbers are going to be held down a fair amount by the abhorrent 10-game start. I'm not as concerned about those in terms of offense as they will increase as the team continues to improve.

What really terrifies me are the Scoring Chances For Percentage and High Danger Scoring Chances For percentages, in which the Ducks are respectively dead last and second to last in the NHL. To take it even a step further, last year's Ducks finished their 82 game season with 144 more scoring chances than their opponents, 53 of them being of the high-danger quality. Thus you can say for the vast majority of last season, the Ducks offense was made to be more dangerous than their opponents due in large part to the fact that their defense kept more chances away from their net.

This season is exactly the opposite. The Ducks defense has been so leaky through the middle of the ice (something I yelled at them for a lot over a massive three-piece post last season) and so unbelievably inept at preventing chances that the offense has not been able to generate enough to overcome it.

What needs to be done? The team needs to commit to playing a better game in its own zone in an effort to keep shots to the outside and limit the number of high quality scoring chances against. When they can do that they'll finally start regularly winning and compete for the Stanley Cup like they're supposed to. Until then it's honestly a coin toss how they're going to finish every night.

6. Support The Puck

The Ducks appear to have no clue what to do on a carry-in zone entry due largely to the fact that when they do have to be the one to walk over the blue line into the middle of four opposing jerseys, they have no lifeline for when the puck eventually gets knocked away from them.

As a result, Anaheim turns a ton of pucks over just inside their opponents blue line because they're asking one guy to do far too much.

What could change this? Simply send another player in to follow the puck carrier over the blue line and support him. That way when the puck gets knocked away the play isn't necessarily dead. The supporting player has the opportunity to jump in and recover the puck and keep possession in the offensive zone. At the very least, this second player can begin pressuring the opposing defense if he's unable to recover the puck. Anaheim's forechecking is one of its strongest attributes and when it's really clicking at full-effectiveness, Patrick Maroon, Andrew Cogliano, and Ryan Kesler can get even the best defenses to cough up pucks.

However, the Ducks are currently struggling with a -79 turnover differential on the season already due largely to the fact that they just can't seem to keep possession. Guys are crossing the blue line and walking right into a trap with no lifeline or support to bail them out. Should the offense manage to fix this problem, the Ducks will definitely see a major uptick in both their offensive production as well as their turnover ratio and even down the line their discipline as they won't be forced to take so many crappy penalties due to turnovers and mistakes.

7. Fix the Breakout

The Anaheim Ducks have 146 giveaway so far this season. That's fifth-most in the entire NHL. While these are not statistically tracked by zone (unfortunately), a simple eye test can tell you that a large number of them have come either inside the Anaheim blueline or in the neutral zone.

The simplest reason for this is because the team's breakout is crap.

The Ducks frequently shoot for a long-distance home-run style pass to a forward somewhere in between the red line and the opposition blue line. When that option isn't taken, the pass frequently is headed towards a winger who is sitting at the top of the Ducks zone, usually right on the blue line, who is standing completely stationary. Not only is this ridiculous in that the pass alone becomes high-risk due to the fact it's roughly a 70' pass attempted through forecheckers, but it's easily picked off should it even reach it's destination because the target isn't moving.

This results in a ton of giveaways and turnovers that frequently are turned right back into the Anaheim end, and with the team's defense struggling to contain chances in the middle of the ice as is, well, we've all seen the instances where Frederik Andersen has needed to come up with two or three point-blank saves in a row because one stupid mistake put him in a tight spot.

The Ducks have talked about it before yet I've seen zero evidence in which to support the notion that this team is aware that its breakout is awful and that they need to shorten up their breakout passes. The team has the skill to be able to carry the puck out of their own end, and getting past the first line of forecheckers would do wonders to this team's ability to carry through the neutral zone and over the opposition blue line with speed, and thus its shot attempt generation ability.

8. Develop a Plan for Speed

Both games thus far against Arizona have demonstrated that much like last season, the Ducks have no answers for teams who come at them with relentless speed. To a certain extent, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks games also tell the story.

We saw it numerous times last season as the Ducks were torn apart by the New York Rangers, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and even once by the hapless, but still somewhat-speedy Toronto Maple Leafs. So despite the fact that the Ducks went out and acquired Mike Santorelli and Carl Hagelin, two guys who much like Andrew Cogliano, Rickard Rakell, and Jiri Sekac are certainly not slow, the Ducks really appear to have no plan for a team with a high-pressure forecheck and top-tier team speed. As a result, they've taken just 14 points of a possible 34 in the last two seasons from all of the teams I just mentioned.

And I keep referencing back to last season because it was a problem then too that the team clearly has not fixed at all. In fact with the defensive woes to this point, you'd have to think they've actually become worse at it.

Remember how earlier I mentioned that the Ducks are bleeding high-danger chances in their own slot? Well let's let's take a look at some charts from these games versus some opponents known for their speed.

This is not good. This is really truly very not good.

Just for contrast purposes, let's take a look at a game where the team supposedly did well in its defense and actually out-chanced its opponent to see how they fared.

Even this shows an alarming number of chances right in on top of the goaltender. The only reason this one seemed okay was the fact that the Ducks got production out of their offense and actually generated more chances than their opponent, something that has happened very infrequently this season.

Bruce Boudreau and the coaching staff need to come up with a plan to slow their opponents down or they're going to continue to get ripped apart at the seams by players like Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Mike Ribeiro, and Jamie Benn. And if they're allowing that to happen consistently, then they better start making plans for a long summer.

9. Keep Lines That Work TOGETHER

We've finally started to see Bruce Boudreau putting lines together that have developed some pre-existing chemistry and as a result the Ducks have started to see some results in terms of offensive output. Perhaps the biggest boost to Corey Perry's season was being reunited with Patrick Maroon on the far wing. Carl Hagelin never really seemed to blend there.

Meanwhile, Hagelin has seemed to find a niche on the second line with Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg, much like pretty much everybody even vaguely familiar with the Ducks predicted.

Chris Stewart has proven to be the finisher on the third line, and if he's going to continue to get chances thanks to the possession and chance-driving play of Rickard Rakell and Jiri Sekac, then that line will start contributing goals far more regularly this season.

And the fourth line with Shawn Horcoff, Mike Santorelli, and Andrew Cogliano has done an excellent job as a speedy checking line. Once again the Ducks have a fourth line who can buzz around all night and occasionally chip in and contribute as all three have goals this season. Chris Wagner hasn't yet scored, but definitely has had his chances and does a great job keeping the puck down in the opposition end and is arguably one of this team's best hitters.

And to top this off, despite the offense coming to life over the last few games, Anaheim currently still has the worst shooting percentage in the league at only 4.7%. That will improve so long as they keep generating chances, and the team finally seems to have figured out lines that can do that.

Yet when the team starts struggling to find any offensive success, what does coach Bruce do? Throws everything out of whack by pairing random guys together in hopes something sparks. Occasionally it works, more often than not it makes what little flow the team has generated disappear entirely.

Put the line blender away, Bruce. More often than not changing the matchup for a particular line can be far more effective in providing a spark for a team offensively than scrambling the chemistry ever is.

10. Tell Freddie to Stop Trying to Play the Puck Forward So Much

Frederik Andersen has been sensational this season. And that's being humble. If Andersen were even just above-average this season, Anaheim is already out of the playoffs and probably has one, maybe two wins this year. The team in front of him has been that bad, and he's been that unbelievably good.

However, there is one aspect to his game that's new this year: Freddie is attempting to pass pucks forward on his own far more often this year. This would be fine if the passes were safe, shorter, or not under pressure. However, Freddie has tried to make passes with two, sometimes three opposing players bearing down on him and he's on several occasions fired it right into them, essentially giving them the puck when they're already right in a high-danger scoring chances.

Pee-wee defensemen are taught never to pass the puck through the middle of the ice unless they're 100% sure it's safe. Andersen is attempting it far more frequently and at least once per game he turns it over.

And here's the other thing, the pass is usually a stretch pass to a player standing at the red line; a nearly 100 foot pass. By a goaltender. No wonder they're getting picked off just like the passes from the defense.

So while this could very easily be rectified by shortening up the first breakout pass and carrying the puck out of danger more often, the coaching staff should still be telling Andersen to start either freezing more pucks or feed more of them to his defense to let them make the breakout pass in hopefully what is a safer method.