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Ducks May Have Struck Gold With Revamped Defense

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Once plagued by defensive issues, the Anaheim Ducks finally have a legitimate top-four on the blueline. That makes them all the more scarier down the stretch.

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Anaheim Ducks v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Anaheim Ducks have been lauded for their depth on the blueline in recent years. It’s not hard to understand why, with names like Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, and Josh Manson appearing on the game sheet night in and night out.

General manager Bob Murray and his amateur scouting staff have built a steady pipeline in the process, with the likes of Brandon Montour making the jump to the NHL this season, while both Marcus Pettersson and Jacob Larsson don’t seem too far away from full-time NHL duty.

Actual on-ice results, however, just haven’t matched the raw talent of this group thoughout much of the 2017-18 campaign. Head coach Randy Carlyle has largely struggled to cobble together two pairings that push play in the right direction — let alone three.

Take a look at Anaheim’s three most-used pairings this season (all numbers are at five-on-five):

662.22 TOI, Hampus Lindholm-Josh Manson: 53.17 CF%, 61.54 GF%, 55.47 xGF%

583.03 TOI, Francois Beauchemin-Brandon Montour: 47.9 CF%, 54.55 GF%, 45.02 xGF%

478.22 TOI, Cam Fowler-Kevin Bieksa: 48.67 CF%, 35 GF%, 49.39 xGF%

First, and foremost: the Lindholm-Manson pairing has been phenomenal. They were fantastic last season as well, and that trend has maintained itself in 17-18. Anaheim essentially dominates play when the two are out there.

A look at the other two pairings reveals a far more barren landscape. Both pairings of Beauchemin-Montour and Fowler-Bieksa have had the ice tilted against them, bleeding shot attempts. The latter has been brutally out-scored, while the former has actually managed to out-score the other team while on the ice by a good margin.

Expected goal rates, however, reveal that Fowler-Bieksa’s actual goal numbers have far under-performed their expected, while the opposite can be said for Beauchemin-Montour. There’s a ton of noise in both numbers, but neither’s expected rate has the Ducks out-scoring the opposition. In short: bad.

Boil all the numbers, and here’s what Anaheim has gotten in the non-Lindholm-Manson minutes:

48.29 CF%, 44.78 GF%, 47.205 xGF%

Playing two-thirds of the game while getting out shot-attempted and out-scored doesn’t seem optimal, does it? It’s been an issue for Anaheim all season long, one that both data and the eye-test have been screaming existed since the beginning.

Recent changes, however, indicate that the Ducks may have actually identified this issue, and they stand to benefit incredibly from it.

New Pairings Provide Hope

Chicago Blackhawks v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

It’s unclear what exactly prompted the change. Was it Kevin Bieksa’s tape-to-tape turnover that led to a goal in Detroit just weeks ago? Was it the Beauchemin-Montour pairing getting shelled for the umpteenth time in a row?

Whatever the case may be, the organization seemed to collectively decide that the group they had assembled wasn’t going to cut it. Murray came out and left scathing comments the day of the Detroit game, some which seemed particularly pointed at his blueline. The young Marcus Pettersson was called up from San Diego the very same day. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Pettersson has been fine. His tall, lanky frame still needs some filling out, but he’s shown NHL-level passing and skating ability. The brand of hockey he brings stands in stark contrast to Bieksa and Beauchemin’s, in a positive way.

The 21-year old’s impact goes far beyond his own individual play, however. His presence has emboldened Carlyle to re-arrange the old pairings into a current group that has been objectively superior.

Fowler and Montour are now skating together, to mostly fantastic results. Their skills have meshed so well that they’ve been able to overcome their defensive shortcomings. Fowler, already an elite zone-exit defenseman, seems to have rubbed off on the younger Montour, who now seems more than willing to carry the puck up ice.

Alongside Beauchemin, Montour seemed hesitant to trust his natural instincts, often resorting to simply chipping the puck off the glass to exit the defensive zone. The swap has clearly benefitted Fowler as well, who struggled all season long next to Bieksa. Here’s how the new pairing has looked from a statistical standpoint (numbers current as of last Friday):

175.02 TOI, Cam Fowler-Brandon Montour: 53.27 CF%, 66.67 GF%, 48.67 xGF%

The expected goal percentage isn’t mesmerizing, but everything else checks out. They’re handily winning the shot attempt battle, currently out-scoring the competition, and generally looking competent. Needless to say, that’s a massive upgrade for Anaheim. For those who may have been concerned that this pairing would be a train-wreck in their zone, here’s a little something: the Fowler-Montour duo has actually posted one of the team’s best expected goals against per 60 minutes figure at 1.99.

Even so, it took a little time for this change to really reach its potential. Following Pettersson’s call-up, Carlyle would stagger Manson and Lindholm on different pairings. The former was tasked with carrying Pettersson, while the latter got the enviable task of carrying one of Beauchemin or Bieksa around the ice. Simply put: it didn’t really work. Pettersson and Manson floundered together, while even Lindholm couldn’t prop up his partners.

As great of players as Manson and Lindholm are individually, they’re just a cut above the rest when paired together. Carlyle re-united the two after a few games of watching them struggle away from each other. Often criticized during his tenure in Anaheim, this has to be a move that the Ducks’ head coach gets credit for.

For the first time in what feels like an eternity, Anaheim now has a legitimately great top-four on the back end, giving them a much better chance at playing hockey games both in late April and beyond.


All data cited was downloaded from Corsica.hockey.