On October 1st, two days before the dawn of a new season, Anaheim Ducks’ General Manager Bob Murray made a curious move in acquiring a young Swedish right-winger by the name of Pontus Aberg off of waivers from the Edmonton Oilers.
While the team had three right wingers out at the time in Patrick Eaves, Ondrej Kase, and Corey Perry, it was pretty much a given that prospects Troy Terry and Kiefer Sherwood would join the likes of Jakob Silfverberg and Rickard Rakell to fill out the roster on that side.
The name Pontus Aberg rang an unpleasant bell for many Ducks fans, as memories of his game-winning goal in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals in 2017 essentially put the playoffs to bed for Anaheim, who would be knocked out the following game.
Was this a typical Bob Murray move to pick up a cheap winger as a hedge against the possibility that the prospects would not work out? Or did the GM see something many others didn’t?
After a lackluster Ducks debut in the season opener against San Jose, Aberg was assigned to the San Diego Gulls. He would play two games for them, picking up a goal and an assist, before being recalled on October 20th.
On October 21st, he was put onto the top line alongside Ryan Getzlaf. Since then, the 25-year-old former 2nd round pick has thrived in Anaheim, currently on pace for 41 points and almost 30 goals for the season. Not bad for a waiver-wire pickup.
Now, it’s important to note that, while Aberg certainly has skill and is having a great season with the Ducks so far, he is not exactly a first line superstar in the making. If anything, he’s an under-the-radar middle-six option with quick feet and a jumpy trigger finger. A guy who can give this team some much needed depth scoring in a role similar to Ondrej Kase.
Look at his production prior to arriving in Anaheim:
18 points (5G, 13A) in 84 games
46.60% of shot attempts
49.23% expected goals
45.51% scoring chances
Not exactly stellar numbers. However, many Nashville and Edmonton fans could tell you that he showed brief flashes of insane skill for a game or two that made fans wonder if Pavel Datsyuk has gotten an ankle transplant and somehow forged a Swedish birth certificate to come back to the NHL.
But ever since Aberg was recalled that fateful October night, all he’s done is lead the team in goals (6) as well as Corsi for percentage (51.58). This might be partially a function of the rest of the team having such abysmal numbers, of course. But it’s important to realize that this kind of production is coming out of a waiver pickup.
These players aren’t supposed to be 40-point secondary scoring threats. Waiver pickups are usually depth/role players who might be able to chip in a point here and there, not be a legitimate top-6 option. Yet, here we are.
Now, you might be thinking that Aberg is a product of playing alongside Ryan Getzlaf. This is a fair thought, as it’s pretty much common knowledge now that Getzlaf essentially banks pucks into the net off of whoever is playing on his wings.
Let’s look at the numbers of Rickard Rakell and Ryan Getzlaf with, and without Pontus Aberg, shall we?
With Aberg on the top line (5 on 5):
59.41% of shot attempts
57.14% of goals for
56.16% of scoring chances
62.07% of high danger chances
Without Aberg on the top line (5 on 5):
47.73% of shot attempts
57.14% of goals for
46.23% of scoring chances
40.38% of high danger chances
Outside of the goals-for percentage, a 10% drop in both shot attempts and scoring chances and a whopping 20% drop in high danger chances. The impact that Aberg has had alongside Getzlaf and Rakell is, quite frankly, staggering as far as on-ice play goes.
Why would a player like Pontus Aberg, who did not have particularly special numbers, have such an impact here?
There seem to be two main factors at play. The first, is that Aberg is shooting 19.4% on the season. This is obviously an unsustainable pace. But this affects the actual scoring, not as much the shot metrics cited above.
The great shot metric numbers are most likely due to Aberg’s style of play and how well it meshes with players like Getzlaf. The captain is one of the few forwards on the team who prefers to carry the puck into the zone with clean entries. Rakell is another one. Aberg may be the best of all of them, as his speed and tendency to hold onto the puck as he enters the zone forces defenses to their heels. Combine this with Getzlaf’s elite passing and awareness, and Rakell’s ability to get into dangerous position on the ice, and you’ve got a line that is very good at creating scoring chances for themselves.
Unfortunately for us, we likely won’t get to see this top line together for a few games at least, as Aberg was moved to the 2nd line with Adam Henrique and Nick Ritchie while Kase was elevated in his place Sunday night against the Colorado Avalanche.
Given the effect Aberg had on Getzlaf and Rakell, this may not be a bad thing. While Ritchie has looked solid early on this season, Henrique has certainly had his share of struggles. Having a guy on his right side who can create lanes and pressure in the offensive zone with his skating and shooting might have a net benefit to his play. We’ll just have to wait to find out.
In a world where waiver claims are generally used to fill holes due to injuries or to add bottom-six depth as needed, every once in awhile, a waiver pickup comes along that allows us to sit back and smile. Maybe even pull us out of our seat occasionally, such as this piece of art:
Aberg isn’t the answer to the Ducks problems this season. But he is a glimmering beacon of light in the darkness, something fans can use as a reminder that exciting hockey is still hanging on in Orange County.