In recent weeks, the Anaheim Ducks have simultaneously started returning to health, and have snuck their way into a wild card playoff position. Almost, as if by magic, the cries to sack the coach, and in some small part the general manager, have grown steadily louder.
So how the hell did we get here?
A season and a half ago, General Manager Bob Murray decided to let coach Bruce Boudreau go following another game 7 playoff loss. As Billy Birmingham would say, Bruce was ‘Boned.’ Coach Boudreau had a charmed run with injuries over his tenure, and had subsequently taken the Ducks team to back to back to back to back Division titles, and game 7 of the Conference finals, in previous seasons. However, this wasn't enough to sate the disappointment of fans and management who were eager for playoff success. Thus the die was cast, and the “search” was on for a new coach.
Given how close the Ducks were perceived to be to challenging for a Cup, an experienced coach who would come in and implement their system immediately was the desired outcome. To the fans of the team, who may have thought this was actually a search and not predetermined, the picks of the experienced coaches were Guy Boucher and Marc Crawford. Unfortunately both of these coaches were picked up early and by the same team. While the Senators have crashed back down to earth this current season, it shouldn't be forgotten that after implementing the “system,” they took what was largely a god-awful team to very nearly a Stanley Cup appearance in their first year. Following the removal of these men from the coaching sphere - and the reluctance of NHL teams in general to look outside the box - the remaining names in the mix, essentially boiled down to successful AHL coach Travis Green and Randy Carlyle.
For those that have been around Anaheim Calling a while, you may remember this fan-post written prior to the decision. Given the troubles Vancouver have had since they hired Travis Green, its not unfair to suggest that Green wasn't likely to be the answer in Anaheim. More than that, Randy Carlyle steered the Ducks to the Conference Final in his first year at the helm. In doing so he steered the Ducks/Edmonton Oilers series to a game 7, and then defeated them, a feat that Bruce Boudreau never achieved.
So why discuss Randy Carlyle now? Sports fans are notoriously fickle creatures (yes you, you fickle reader you), and despite the Ducks being in a playoff spot entering the 2018 calendar year, the calls for Carlyle being shown the axe again are coming louder and more frequently. These calls are coming despite the lengthy injury list that the Ducks have had to contend with already this season. Ryan Getzlaf, Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm, and Ryan Kesler headline the list of the walking wounded this season thus far. Many more have bounced in and out of that list, including long time scoring star Corey Perry, and last seasons fan favourite Patrick Eaves. To put it in perspective, current fourth liner Derek Grant was the number one pivot in town for a great part of the current season. All of that and the Ducks are still in a playoff position. So, are the calls for Carlyle to be removed premature or is there substance behind the derision?
In my personal opinion, both yes and no. This article, and those that will inevitably follow it, will somewhat attempt to clarify this position and illuminate what Carlyle is as a coach. That said, in advance and in spite of what future articles will suggest, no one should be fired after having your two best defencemen and both top-six pivots on the shelf for most of a season. When you include the teams long time top scoring right wing, and last seasons 30 goal scorer, its more likely that the coach should get an extension than the sack. General Manager Bob Murray and Special-Assignment-Scout/Consultant-to-the-GM Dave Nonis somewhat agreed, by handing out said extension in June, even knowing that the Ducks injury list would be long and distinguished. The Ducks at time of writing (1/1/18) sit second in the league for standings points lost due to injuries behind the Las Vegas Golden Knights (LV = 16 points, Ana = 13.2, Bos = 7.6, StL = 6.3, Ari = 5.2). To be clear, assuming full health of all teams, the Ducks would currently be projected to be sitting on 57 points, and 2nd in the Western Conference.
Nonetheless, criticism requires some analysis. Currently the Ducks sit 4th in the Pacific Division. However it should be noted that the San Jose Sharks have equal standings points and 4 games in hand, the Los Angeles Kings have 7 more standings points and 1 game in hand, and the Division leader Vegas has 10 standing points and 3 games in hand. Of the teams directly behind the Ducks, the Calgary Flames are on 2 points less and with a game in hand, while the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks are both 7 points behind with a game in hand. As things currently stand, the Ducks could go on a winning streak (the hope, the dream) and take one of those top 3 spots and a playoff spot for certain, but it may be more likely that they’ll battle for a wildcard entry. Currently 4 teams are within spitting distance of the Ducks: the Minnesota Wild are 1 point behind and have 1 game in hand; The Chicago Blackhawks are 2 points behind with 2 games in hand; Calgary as mentioned above; and last seasons easy-beats, the Colorado Avalanche are 3 points behind with 2 games in hand. Taken together, sportsclubstats.com currently rates the Ducks as a 32.8 chance of making the playoffs, with a 0% chance of winning the Presidents trophy, and a 0.3% chance of winning the cup. Although if the cup team the current version of the Ducks emulates the most (the Kings) has shown us, just getting into the big dance can open up a world of opportunity.
The numbers underlying the Ducks play, are simultaneously not as kind as the standings points may suggest, but not as doom and gloom as it could be. Currently, the Ducks sit 25th in the league for goals-for (2.67, -.01 from last season) 20th for goals-against (2.77, +.37 from last season), 21st on the power play (17.1%, -1.6 from last season), and 11th on the penalty kill (82.3, -2.4 from last season). As seen, missing the top scorers from last season has done near naught for overall goal scoring for the Ducks. The biggest difference has been on defence, with goals against increasing at both even strength and on the penalty kill. Astounding, given the Ducks currently have the leagues 8th best even strength save percentage (92.24%). In addition to the stellar save percentage, the Ducks are currently sitting on an overall PDO of 101%, with the final piece being 8.73% shooting (12th). That's not bad and while it may suggest the Ducks are only slightly above where they should be with respect to the base numbers, the hope would be that the returning talent evens the ship and the Ducks maintain these numbers.
It is some what ironic, given that Carlyles reputation as a coach is founded on defensive acumen, that the biggest decline in team performance has come on the defensive end. This despite the team missing their top 2 centre-icemen, at times the complementary wingmen, and with John Gibson placing firmly in the top 10 in the league ranks for goaltending. A great deal of this has to do the sheer number of chances that Carlyles teams are want to give up.
Greater analysis will come in future articles attempting to break down Caryle’s systems, however it is important to set the table. While it is likely greatly influenced by the missing players this season, it should be noted that the Ducks improved their corsi-for (CF%) by ~4.5% when Carlyle was replaced by Boudreau, and that the Maple Leafs also saw a ~4.5% drop in CF% when Carlyle replaced Ron Wilson. I have spoken before about this differential being equivalent to nearly 27 goals, or 9 standing points, in the past (see link to fan post in higher in this article), and it’s pertinent to the Ducks current season as well. Currently the Ducks sit 30th in the league for CF% at 46.8%, which is a clear drop from 49.67% last season, and the 52.37% and 51.25% the two season prior to that. The increase is predominantly seen in the attempts the Ducks are giving up - nearly 48.5 per game - rather than a change in attempts for. Although this too has suffered a little. The Ducks are currently on track to reach 3975 corsi attempts against (CA) this season, which is a an increase on the 3551 seen last season, and the 3313 seen in the final season under Boudreau. Just to really nail this point home, the increase in CA have corresponded to an increase of 367 scoring chances against (SCA), and a subsequent increase of 221 high danger scoring chances against (HDSCA), over a season. That's just at even strength! At this point everyone who hasn’t been, should start praising John Gibson.
On the penalty kill, the Ducks are on track to give up 898 attempts against, nearly 100 more than their league last 800 attempts last season. Which is nearly 50 more again than what was given up per average year under coach Boudreau’s more aggressively offensive penalty killing system. Notably the increase in CA has corresponded with an increase in a 31st in league ranked SCA. Currently the Ducks on are pace to beat last years league worst numbers in this metric by 37 (525-488), which was already up from 440 the season prior. Naturally HDSCA have also climbed from 157 under Boudreau, to 214 under Carlyle’s first season back, to the projected pace of 232 this season.
While these numbers are somewhat handpicked to prove a point, the Ducks did reach the conference finals last season under Carlyle’s stewardship. Once again, I’d have to come back and say that a great deal of our current troubles are a result of the man-games lost to injury this season. However the numbers were sliding last season, as did the raw totals. There may be some very good aspects to why these slide and the success came, although at this point in Carlyle’s career he has had his systems thoroughly analysed, and its hard to imagine what they might be.
Over the next couple of posts (and full disclosure they may be some time apart, as I’ll be stuck in the remote wilds of Papua New Guinea until the end of February) I hope to break the offensive and defensive systems used by Carlyle, and to determine the facts and fiction of his coaching tenure here. If the above writing hasn’t quite given you a taste of what to expect, I would invite you to read Puck Daddy’s 2012-2013 Maple Leafs Eulogy and draw your own parallels to todays Ducks. With highlights such as “developing Jake Gardiner from the press box” and buzz words such as “team toughness,” there can be little doubt that history is a great learning tool.