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No one knew what to expect from the 2016-17 Anaheim Ducks.
Fresh off of another traumatizing Game 7 defeat at home, management predictably went into full “sandpaper” mode — signing a slew of gritty veterans, while bringing back “bad cop” coach Randy Carlyle.
The message sent from the front office was loud and clear: this team needed a kick in the ass.
But what were you supposed to make of a roster dotted with declining veterans, a questionable coaching hire, and perhaps the best crop of young defensemen in the entire league? Optimism because of the youth, or pessimism because of everything else?
Flash forward nearly a year later, and just like I’m sure everyone expected, Anaheim finds itself atop the Pacific Division. It hasn't been the march to the top of 2015-16, where the Ducks were the best team in the league from Christmas onward.
This iteration has slogged through the regular season, never looking like a dominant force, but competent enough to notch points in the standings on a regular basis. That is, until a recent hot streak that all of a sudden has them looking like a team that might actually win a Game 7.
How did we get here? Why should anyone be optimistic about a club that’s become defined by its playoff failures? Here’s five reasons:
1. Oh Captain, My Captain
In a word, Ryan Getzlaf looks dominant. Since the All-Star break, he’s notched an impressive 28 points in 23 games. He’s fourth in the league in assists, and looks every bit the force of nature that Ducks fans have become accustomed to over the years.
It’s not just the production that should have people excited though — though it’s certainly a big piece of the puzzle — it’s the overall effort that he’s brought to the table.
When he’s flanked by Patrick Eaves and Rickard Rakell, Anaheim controls play to the tune of a 56.7 Corsi For percentage — the best mark of any Ducks’ forward line. The three have posted a 4.37 expected goals per 60 minutes of even strength play — also a team best.
Simply put, Anaheim looks like a different team when Getzlaf is on his game — a much more dangerous one.
2. Corey Perry Is Back
Perry’s come under some serious scrutiny this season. With a paltry nine goals prior to the All-Star break, fans and media were quick to blame the former MVP for the team’s lack of consistency.
To say there isn’t something to that would be irresponsible. No team looks nearly as scary when it best goal-scorer can’t find the back of the net. Factor in Perry’s gargantuan contract, and you have the makings of a full-fledged smear campaign.
Corey Perry makes a sweet little move that fools everyone to score on the powerplay. pic.twitter.com/5sit8XmbHF— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) March 31, 2017
If one thing is certain, it’s that the veteran winger’s struggles weren’t due to a lack of opportunity. He’s on pace for the same amount of shots and shot attempts that he notched last year, with the majority of those opportunities coming from the slot.
Yet, like when any goal-scorer’s struggles, narratives get inserted, and perhaps find their way into the players’ own psyche. Perry seems to be well past that, finding the back of the net seven times in his last 11 games. His luck is turning at just the right time, which is bad news for the rest of the league.
3. John Gibson Is Actually Good
Gibson can’t seem to catch a break. All he’s done in his NHL career is post solid numbers...and find himself involved in goalie controversies. This season has been no exception — after a red hot stretch to kick off 2017, injuries sidelined him long enough to make way for the now equally red-hot Jonathan Bernier.
Let’s be clear: Gibson has been the better goalie for the grand majority of the season. His .921 save percentage in all situations has him in the top ten in the league, but that would almost sell him short.
2016-17 4v5 Save Percentage
Remarkably, the 23-year old has the best save percentage on the penalty kill of any goalie who’s played at least 200 minutes at four-on-five, with a .909 mark. That’s kept afloat a penalty kill unit that’s featured the likes of Korbinian Holzer and Kevin Bieksa — not exactly stout defenders. Bernier’s been good in that respect as well, albeit in roughly 100 less minutes and against weaker competition earlier in the year.
Gibson is as good as, if not better, than any potential opponent’s starting goaltender in rounds one and two. He’ll be rested going into the post-season, which should only mean good things for Anaheim.
4. The “Shutdown” Line
Since arriving to Anaheim, Ryan Kesler has almost exclusively played with Andrew Cogliano and Jakob Silfverberg. They’ve developed a reputation as one of the best shutdown lines in hockey in the process, but reputations tend to be duplicitous around the NHL.
In their case, it’s absolutely warranted. You often hear the phrase, “they face the other’s teams best on a nightly basis” thrown around on broadcasts, but the numbers do back it up.
Their competition tends to have the highest ice time and expected goals of any lines faced, which makes their cumulative 54.21 Corsi For percentage at even strength all the more impressive.
In the playoffs, when coaches tend to double down on the matchup game, Carlyle can feel confident in sending those three out and coming out on the better end of it. That’s a nice option to have.
5. The Youth
It says a lot about this team that it took four bullet points before getting to perhaps its biggest strength: the youth. On the back end alone, Anaheim possesses a glut of solid puck-moving defensemen.
Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson have formed a dominant puck possession pairing, routinely shutting the opposition down by simply having the puck all the time. When things do get hairy, though, Manson cleans up pretty well thanks to his bone-crushing body-checks.
The real surprise for the Ducks has been the young talent that’s blossomed up front. Nick Ritchie — who’s one consistent knock throughout his career has been his lack of foot-speed — has improved his skating stride by leaps and bounds, leading to some excellent puck possession numbers.
Then there’s Rakell, who everyone knew was talented, but has hit another level this season, notching an incredible 32 goals in 66 games. Thanks to a set of hands that has him trying every possible deke in open ice, he opens up a ton of space for his linemates. Factor in another standout in Ondrej Kase, and Anaheim has a respectable crop of talent up front, fourth line notwithstanding.
The Ducks are by no means perfect. Their fourth line continues to be a non-factor, and the power play just can’t seem to get anything going. But they’ve developed a passable five-on-five game — now clicking at a 50.54 Corsi For percentage mark in the last 25 games, which puts them right behind the Chicago Blackhawks.
Not an elite number by any means, but considering the spent a large portion of the season under break-even, and all of a sudden it seems tolerable. How a team plays in its final stretch of games tends to be more predictive of playoff success, so these could very well be the real 2016-17 Ducks. At least, that’s the hope.