Sabres 3, Ducks 1
Anaheim seemed to make do with a cobbled-together roster for a brief moment, but things are starting to unravel. It’s hard to blame them, given that names like Ryan Getzlaf, Hampus Lindholm, Patrick Eaves, Ondrej Kase, Sami Vatanen, and Ryan Kesler dot the injured reserve. For now, head coach Randy Carlyle gets the benefit of the doubt. To perhaps no one’s surprise, he’s tried to weather the injury storm with an ultra-conservative approach.
Instead of dipping into the AHL reserves for some scoring help, he’s entrusted his third line of Chris Wagner-Dennis Ramussen/Derek Grant-Logan Shaw to shoulder a heavier burden, while the fourth line plays extremely limited minutes. The same goes for the blueline, where Cam Fowler has seriously carried the mail, logging 27:25 of ice time against Buffalo. In times of despair, it’s understandable that a coach would simply go to his top-line guys. That being said, it’s a bit puzzling why the Ducks — who have essentially zero offense after the second line — don’t give someone from San Diego a shot. A number of Gulls had strong showings in training camp — Austin Ortega, Kalle Kossila, Mitch Hults, to name a few — and now would be a perfect time to see if they can provide any type of spark.
The Penalty Kill Might Still Be Bad
As of Friday night, Anaheim ranked 20th in the league in 4v5 shot attempts against, allowing 107.62 per 60 minutes. They rank 22nd in 4v5 expected goals against per 60 as well (7.96 xGA/60). What do all those numbers mean? Essentially, they’re allowing a high volume of shot attempts, with many of those attempts coming from higher-danger shot types/locations. By comparison, the 2016-17 Ducks ranked 16th in 4v5 shot attempts against, as well as 28th in 4v5 expected goals against (both per 60). So perhaps this year’s group is doing a better job of sealing off certain looks, but the sheer shot volume has clearly spiked.
Injuries aren’t necessarily to blame here. Cam Fowler and Josh Manson ate up most of the 4v5 ice time in 16-17, and that has remained the case in the early going of 2017-18. One might assume that Kesler’s absence is having a major impact, as the 4v5 minutes once dominated by him, Andrew Cogliano, and Jakob Silfverberg have been infiltrated by Wagner and Logan Shaw. Kesler — heralded as a faceoff ace -- registered a 49.8 percent winning percentage last year, not exactly anything to write home about. In his place thus far, Wagner has broken even at the dot, while Antoine Vermette has once again been his dominant self. Faceoffs might not be the issue. We’ll see if Kesler’s eventual return changes anything, but the early indicators don’t paint a favorable picture of Anaheim’s much-maligned penalty kill unit.
The Power Play Remains An Issue — On The Surface
Since we’re on the topic of special teams, let’s discuss the Anaheim power play, which has yet to score this season and failed to convert once again against Buffalo. Getting pucks on net hasn’t been the issue, as the Ducks rank third in the league in unblocked 5v4 shot attempts per 60. They drop to tenth in expected goals per 60, but this is obviously a group that has no issues getting into its flow.
So why the slump? Puck luck — or a lack thereof — can’t be overlooked, but there may be greater forces at play. Tyler Dellow of The Athletic has long advocated for the four-forwards-one-defenseman (4F1D) setup on the power play, pointing to troves of data that show its superiority to the traditional three forwards, two defensmen setup (3F2D). As of Friday night, the Ducks were 29th in the NHL in 4F1D usage.
Anaheim could certainly benefit from that more modern approach, and they may already be trying to make the switch. They’ve had one of the largest increases in 4F1D minutes this season (tenth highest, to be exact). Brandon Montour looks like a killer in that Ovechkin-territory left faceoff dot, seemingly demanding to be fed the puck for one-timers. Should Carlyle and his staff continue shifting to 4F1D, the Ducks may very well have a potent unit by the end of the season given their already impressive shot attempt and expected-goal numbers. The goals will come sooner or later by sheer reversal of bad puck luck, but embracing 4F1D could lead to a much more remarkable change.