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One of 29: Ducks Fell Short, But 2014-15 Was Another Season Of Improvement For Anaheim

The pain of another final home game elimination shouldn't cloud the fact that what Anaheim accomplished continues the upward trajectory of the franchise.

The Ducks are once again looking up at another team hoisting the Cup, but things are also looking up for the franchise.
The Ducks are once again looking up at another team hoisting the Cup, but things are also looking up for the franchise.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Perspective generally comes from having enough time or distance from the passing of an event to be able to appreciate its depth. Right now it's easy to be bombarded by narrative (Anaheim/Boudreau can't win a game seven), grave-dancing from opponents (there's a new San Jose), and general sadness that the Ducks fell short once more of claiming the Stanley Cup.

Guess what? There are currently 27 other fan bases that are feeling the exact same way, and in a matter of a few weeks you can add another either in the midwest or southeast with an even more painful sting. Some went in to the season hoping for pieces to build with in the future (Buffalo, Edmonton), some were left on the outside looking in at the 16 team playoff field (Hi Kings and Sharks), some had surprising successes to even make the second season (Calgary, Ottawa), and some saw the weight of expectation (St. Louis, Washington) crush their postseason hopes prematurely.

As disappointing as it is that the Ducks won't be hanging another orange banner in the Honda Center rafters next October, or even a second black one for the conference to go with the division title, the strides this team made in 2014-15 should not be overlooked. With that in mind, lets list off seven (yes, seven) reasons why Anaheim fans should be able to look back at this year with an on-balance positive feeling once they can climb from the current pit of end-of-playoff pain.

7. This Game 7 Loss Is Nowhere Near As Bad As The Previous Two

The heartbreak is the same, but when looking at the attempts as well as scoring chance numbers at even strength the Ducks had the better of play. Compare to last season against Los Angeles where the Ducks had their doors blown off out of the gate and only began to recover and push play once it was 4-0, or in 2013 against Detroit where from the end of the first period on the Red Wings dominated scoring chances in a major way while mostly keeping a healthy attempts edge.

This was a game that turned on a blown defensive coverage that left Jonathan Toews completely unchecked in front of the net to not only screen but easily place his shot off the rebound. Anaheim owned the first two minutes, with players buzzing the net and having pucks hop over sticks at the moment of truth or shots miss. What you aren't hearing (but should be) is that this Blackhawks performance was incredibly similar to the ones that the Ducks turned in during their 2007 Cup run, particularly against Detroit in the Conference Final, where Anaheim were clinical in finishing their chances despite the opposition having the majority of them.

6. The Kes-Effect

Radio show host Jim Rome had a term that he regularly used to describe 2002 World Series Champion Anaheim Angels center fielder Darin Erstad: a red ass. A guy that hustles hard and busts his hump with a high intensity to his game, having a knack for coming through in important moments and the ability to inspire his team. It's an apt description of Ryan Kesler, who spent the regular season scoring multiple game-winners and piling up points against Anaheim's in state division rivals, and finding the twine at important times in the playoffs while routinely facing the toughest defensive assignment.

There's something to be said for having multiple types of leadership in the dressing room, and the assured, burning fire of Kesler could be the perfect personality balance to those who already wear the letters. He'll turn 32 next season, a year older than the Twins and closer to the point of expected production decline. But as long as he can play the kind of game provided this year during the regular season and playoffs, and with a full season worth of experience and familiarity with the Ducks his value and impact will remain considerable.

5. Bob Murray's Terrific Trade Deadline

Considering the commentariat's history here (as well as writers under previous leadership) with the Ducks general manager this is sure to draw some eye rolls, but it was another important moment for the team. The deadline haul brought in the strong statured and strong skating 24-year old Simon Despres, the return of James Wisniewski, and more importantly jettisoned the likes of Rene Bourque and Eric Brewer. While seeing great character player Ben Lovejoy go was sad, he brought back a younger, larger defensemen with much greater upside. 'Wild Bill' William Karlsson became an early cult hero, but was beaten out by Rickard Rakell.

Some want to hold the fact that the likes of Bourque and Brewer were acquired in the first place are a reason to withhold credit. Bearing in mind that both were moves of necessity, Bourque coming in to send out expensive (and redundant thanks to Clayton Stoner) Bryan Allen and Brewer as an experienced body when the team was ravaged by injury and illness, it's akin to turning your nose up at someone who makes money flipping properties. So what if all they do is add granite counter tops and fancier fixtures, if they financially end up richer at the end the transaction was worth it, right? Murray turned the granite hands of Bourque and feet of Allen and Brewer in to a pair of defensemen that should figure in important roles for Anaheim moving forward.

4. Improving Possession Play = Fancier Stats

It's no secret that the Ducks have been a "yeah, but" team from the advanced stats community in recent years, but things began to turn around post-trade deadline. In the 64 games before the trade freeze the Ducks found themselves in the lower half of the middle third of the league for even strength shot attempt differential, taking an average of 50.5% of the unblocked tries. Over the course of the final 18 games the Ducks were fifth best in upping that mark to 53.8%.  If the Ducks could sustain that level over 82 games it would put them second best in the league, as only this past seasons defending champions were better. The scoring chance numbers follow a similar trajectory. Post trade deadline Anaheim generated a league second best 54.9% of scoring chances at even strength, after having sat 14th beforehand.

People can still try and waive their hand to dismiss the validity of these percentages, but once again the two teams playing for the Stanley Cup finished in the top 10 in both categories over the full regular season for the third year in a row. Two of the last three years both have finished top five in each category, and in five of the last seven years one team has finished top ten in both and the other top ten in one. It's really simple though, and you don't need percentages to say it- if your team is attempting more shots and getting more scoring chances than the other team, they're going to have more opportunities to score the goals that lead to wins. Nothing fancy about it.

3. Frederik Andersen: Legitimate NHL Goalie and Potential Star

For all the talk about Andersen's struggles in the final games of the playoffs, it's worth noting that this was his first full season as a starter in the NHL, and there were loads of questions surrounding the goaltending position in Anaheim before the start of the regular season. While his final save percentage numbers of .914 for the regular season and .913 in the playoffs are both slightly below the league average, it's worth noting that in the playoffs his even strength 93.35 SV% is fifth best among starters (fourth among starters who went more than one round) and his adjusted 91.90 SV% in all situations is also fifth amongst starters. In the Conference Final alone he actually posted slightly better five-on-five (92.35 vs 92.14) SV% numbers than Corey Crawford over the length of the series.

Another point worth nothing is that before suffering the head injury in the game at Tampa Bay on February 8, Andersen had appeared in 44 of the Ducks 53 games and despite that heavy reliance his save percentage numbers were .922 at even strength and .916 for all situations. It's the kind of deployment he'd never seen before in his young career, thanks to the combination of injuries to 21-year old John Gibson as well as unreliable play from Jason LaBarbera and Ilya Bryzgalov. With pending restricted free agent status after next season, Andersen will enter the year knowing the rigors he'll be facing as an NHL starter, and can better prepare to sustain the high level of play he gave the Ducks in the opening months of the season. Anaheim would do well to bring in a higher caliber back up to lighten the load too.

2. The Defense Is Alright With The Kids

Of the total amount of minutes played by Ducks defensemen this playoff, it's astounding that 66.9% came from blue liners under 24 years old. The pairing of Francois Beauchemin and Hampus Lindholm saw heaviest use at 39.9% of the team total, with the 34 year old himself playing the most of the unit at 19.3% of all-strength minutes. Every defense pairing save for Sami Vatanen and Clayton Stoner finished above 50% in five-on-five shot differential for the playoffs, but only Beauchemin and Lindholm were better than break even in the Conference Final.

While the catastrophic breakdowns in game seven early on came with Beauchemin and Lindholm on the ice (Toews left alone on goal one, Beauchemin's pinch leading to the penalty that goal two came on) they were also the best statistical unit. Anaheim has a decision to make in the offseason with Wisniewski's $5.5 mil. cap hit now an everyday part of the corps, and one has to wonder if he may be a built in replacement for Beauchemin. With how well the youngsters played, plus the flashes shown by Josh Manson in limited looks in the regular season, there's plenty of reason to believe this unit can and should become even better next season.

1. Another Year Of Playoff Improvement, With The Window Fully Open Next Year

In the past three seasons the Ducks have lost to the team with more consecutive playoff appearances than any in the league, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, and a two-time champion who has been a Conference Final fixture the majority of the past six seasons. The 'mystique' of Kings or Blackhawks is gone, the Ducks have faced them and gone the distance with both. Whether or not the rest of the league considers Anaheim as 'elite' doesn't matter, they now know that they can play with and beat both of them in the playoffs.

There is no reason to believe the Ducks will be worse off next season with the young defensemen having gained even more high level playoff experience, especially after combining for 37 points. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are coming off record postseasons (Getzlaf setting franchise single playoff point record and Perry equalling Andy McDonald's goal record), with Jakob Silfverberg and Patrick Maroon raising their level of play in both seasons. There's the promise shown from the likes of Rakell, Emerson Etem, and Jiri Sekac too.

While Silfverberg and Etem are both restricted free agents, and there's also the question of just how big the sack of money someone (Hi Toronto) will throw at Matt Beleskey, the Ducks return a core that is a year stronger, wiser, and seasoned. Next year has to be the year, considering the number of RFAs coming due after 15-16.

Don't Miss The Forest For The Trees

While the Ducks were exceedingly fortunate with how the playoff match ups broke this year, facing teams that would've been seeded 7th (Winnipeg) and 8th (Calgary) in the old 1-8 system to reach the Conference Final, it's still another year of improvement as far as advancement. As the underlying numbers show, the personnel the Ducks have assembled are enabling them to seriously compete with the twin powers of the last five seasons (who face tough decisions with cap issues of their own), and the younger secondary and role players surrounding the Twins continue to gain experience and improve. If the play from the trade deadline on can translate to a full 82 next season, there's plenty of reason to believe that Anaheim will be right there again as a serious challenger.

Pessimism is an incredibly easy self defense against disappointment, because it's making the percentage-safe bet that your team will be one of the 29 that doesn't end the year with the trophy. But there should be far less difficulty this season in finding the silver linings to another, later, cloudy ending to Orange County's hockey season. Just because it ended in a way that feels so familiar doesn't mean next year will as well.

Every Cup champion, dynasty or not, has had to go through seasons of 'so close' empty feelings before they could ultimately claim the chalice. This is another campaign emphasizing why years like 2007 are so special, and how much it takes an organization to have a season like that. 14-15 for the Ducks wasn't, but it was another improvement that reminds us the road there is much shorter than it was before.