The Anaheim Ducks and goaltending controversy have gone hand-in-hand over the past three seasons, so the headlines being stolen by the men between the pipes this past road trip has been about as surprising as Jonas Hiller giving up a late goal through an unattended five-hole. Once again it comes back to the idea that two young goaltenders, while both very talented, are inconsistent and have shown signs of cracking late in the season, particularly after they combined for 12 goals against in two games to start the most recent East coast journey.
And while the headlines continue to dominate with insinuations that Frederik Andersen and John Gibson are the ones to blame for a sudden and alarming look on the back end, we can't forget that the guys in front of them have a lot to do with their performance. After all, how could an "elite" NHL goaltender like Jonathan Quick possibly have obtained his status with career numbers that fall pretty darn close to "average" for the rest of the NHL, save for one year?
Defense is a team effort, and while keeping the puck out of the net is the primary responsibility for the guy who wears the bear-attack suit for goalie pads, the five guys in front of him have to be committed, perfect, and reliable in order for an NHL team to truly be an elite squad.
This is not initially a bash on the Anaheim Ducks defense. Since the trade deadline and the swaps of Eric Brewer and Ben Lovejoy for James Wisniewski and Simon Despres, the blue line has looked considerably better. However, that being said they still are not really all that good, and I'm going to tell you why.
It's not for lack of talent; hell if anything they're one of the most talented six-man units out there when you consider the top-six as it stands (Despres, Wisniewski, Francois Beauchemin, Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, and Hampus Lindholm). The problem is these very talented defensemen are all so focused on blocking shots and turning the puck to the offense as quickly as they can that they consistently leave soft spots on the ice wide open in some of the most dangerous scoring areas. This has been an issue for years and has never been more of a problem than now when Anaheim appears to be using a strategy of putting the puck through the middle of their own low slot to clear their zone.
First a word on my opinion of this particular strategy (and while it's unconfirmed, I have heard it's being taught by assistant Trent Yawney). I cannot believe an NHL team actually teaches its defense to make one of two breakout pass options: a 50-to-80-foot prayer that rarely actually finds its target cleanly, or a short pass to a man standing literally on the top of the goal crease with forecheckers bearing down on them. Both of these options have one thing in common: they go straight up the middle of the ice in the Ducks' defensive zone with zero support or bail-out options. It leads to a ton of turnovers, has led to numerous goals against, and is something coaches in Pee-wee's bag-skate their players to death in order to drill into their heads that THEY SHOULD NOT BE DOING THAT. Yet it's being preached as a viable breakout strategy.
And likewise, thanks to a heavy shot-blocking mentality, the positioning of the Ducks defenders against both rushes and cycles places the defensemen in areas where they are neither hard on players attacking the goal crease, nor hard on the puck itself forcing movement and potentially a mistake from the attacking team. This team has a defense that is fast enough (note: statement only applies when Clayton Stoner is not in the lineup) to be able to pressure puck carriers pretty much anywhere in the bottom-half of the defensive zone (tops of the circles down to below the goal line). However they are consistently sticking somewhere in no-man's land waiting for the forwards to either proceed in closer or move the puck away, which is more or less unhindered due to a lack of commitment.
The results are almost exactly as you would think: the Ducks give up a lot of shots, and in turn goals, from extremely high-danger areas of the ice, particularly to teams who are faster and can exploit a flat-footed defense. And this, in turn, makes the goaltending look bad. It's not entirely their fault: yes they do give up an occasional softie just like any other goalies would (or at the very least "saveable goal"), but in many cases the bad performances of the last few weeks and the massive slump before that were all the result of Anaheim simply doing a frustratingly poor job protecting the spots on the ice they should be defending with everything they have.
This also serves to call attention to the biggest problem I have with using plain shot-attempts for and unblocked shot-attempts for numbers alone to determine how well or poorly a team is/is playing. While alone these numbers do an excellent job with demonstrating who is controlling the game in terms of possession, the argument for quality of possession also speaks volumes. When team A is controlling 80% of the shots but is taking all of them from a bad area of the ice, they're going to be far less likely to score than team B who controls only 20% of the shot attempts but gets them all from the most dangerous spots on the ice. I realize this is an impractical scenario, but in Anaheim's case, I think an argument can be made that while they may be out-possessing teams on a slightly more regular basis, the quality of the possession and chances they're giving up as a defensive unit is the reason for both A- so many one-goal wins, and B- so many blowout losses from teams who can exploit their weaknesses in these areas.
What exactly are these danger areas of the ice, you might ask? To sum it up: the front of the net out, as well as across at an angle that still leaves a decent amount to shoot at. The people at War-on-Ice have done an excellent job with their shot-plot tracking and just recently added a feature that outlines these areas for easier viewing.
As you can see there are two separate regions in this area, which for the purposes of this study I've designated the "Danger Area" and the "High-Danger Area." (Note: WOI uses the terms low -percentage, medium-percentage, and high-percentage scoring areas; I've gone with alternative names which I feel better suit this particular study.)
The high-danger area is obviously the most dangerous spot on the ice in terms of a shot's chance to score—shots from this area tend to score at a far higher rate than shots outside of it. As for the danger area, the chance is still higher than the rest of the ice, but isn't as high as the high-danger area.
Also, two very important bit of information on the outset. One- I will be using shot attempts in all situations for this study, as the Ducks have also at times been suspect with their defensive coverage and surrendering of shots from these danger areas of the ice while down a man, whereas opponents have been particularly good at shutting them away from these areas. So this is just as important when killing penalties as it is at 5-on-5. Two- I am in no way shape or form professing to be an expert on statistical analysis. Like many of the passionate hockey fans out there, I am just learning how many of these statistics work. I'm merely trying to offer up a hypothesis as to the flaws in Anaheim's play system using some numerical backup tools that are newly available to the hockey community. I'm not professing these numbers to be absolute or my conclusions to be indisputable, I'm merely trying to provide support for some trends I've been noticing.
So let's start out with a little bit of good news.
Anaheim actually isn't all that bad in terms of the pure amount of shots it gives up from these danger areas of the ice.
In fact when broken down, Anaheim actually gives up average-to-less than league average all through both the danger and high-danger areas of the ice in terms of shots on goal from these locations. While we consistently rip on this team's defensive strategy that consists of far more shot blocking than actual shot prevention, this provides a definitive argument that Boudreau and Yawney's passive shot-blocking actually does some good. This is particularly true down the right side, where both at the inside-top of the faceoff circle (a danger area) and low from the right are both significantly below league average in terms of shots on goal allowed. This can be attributed to the talent of the defensemen who do play down that side and do yeoman's work night after night blocking shots.
On top of that, another bit of good news is that Anaheim's only above-average area of the ice is in the top of the zone on the left, in no way a danger area of the ice. Now when this is the case, there is certainly danger of pucks from here getting through, particularly as this makes the goaltenders have to fight through screens and possible deflections to make stops. But that being said, on a percentage-basis these shots are far less to worry about than the rest of the danger zones.
However it's not all smiles and rainbows, as we move to the next hextally chart from War-on-ice: shooting percentage from these separate areas on the ice.
Despite having a pretty good record in terms of allowing shots from these danger areas, the Ducks system has a fatal flaw as its shooting percentages from these danger areas are either on par with or a good amount above league average. What does this mean? Well for starters, it could mean that Gibby and Freddo aren't as good as other tandems throughout the league at coming up with the huge save at the all-important time. However, I feel like this is a crap argument simply because a lot of the shots from this area are ones you can't necessarily blame the goaltender for—ones he has "no chance" at stopping. Rather, I choose to look at it this way: Anaheim's obsession with shot-blocking and cutting down the angle for the shot leaves additional men free to move into seams where they can release an even more dangerous shot almost unhindered. In simpler terms, because the Ducks try to block so many shots, they leave other guys open who then get shots on goal that are even more dangerous because the shot-blockers aren't covering them.
Think about how many times we see guys wide open in the mid-to-low slot in front of the Anaheim net. Look at where that area of the ice corresponds to on the "against" chart: 1.4.
This ends part one of the study. In part two I will start going game-by-game and exploring some situations where Anaheim did particularly well at defending these danger areas of the ice, as well as some games where they did not do particularly well. Keep your eyes peeled for part two tomorrow.