Miraculously. Amazingly. The Ducks have made the postseason. Looking back there have been many great storylines: Elite #1 centre Derek Grant; Kase coming of age to be the second leading goal scorer on the Ducks; Gibson taking the mantle of leagues best net-minder; The #FREETERRY movement. But this isn’t about the past. Very, very soon, the Ducks will line up against a former heavyweight of the Pacific Division in the San Jose Sharks. This piece of the puzzle is about the predicting the future.
At face value, this showdown looks very much like it will have the hallmarks of a defensive extravaganza. The Ducks finished the regular season ranked 4th in the league for goals-allowed (209 GA), with the Sharks only just trailing them in the 9th spot (226 GA). Similarly, both teams finished in the top 5 on the penalty kill, with the Sharks finishing 2nd overall (84.8%), and the Ducks finishing 5th (83.2%). Sure Ducks fans will know that much of this success came down to John Gibson, and Sharks fans will know that Martin Jones had almost nothing to do with their success. But they’re the net-minders, and this is about the defence.
A Tale of Two Seasons
It isn’t necessarily fair to either team for one to just jump on any old website and look at the season in completion results. It will come as no surprise to most hockey fans that the Ducks season is made of two different stories: The winged Ducks, to start the season, and the magnificent soaring Ducks that got themselves healthy to finish the season off. So of course they may not look as good by those metrics as their newfound second in division place would suggest. Similarly, and for no apparent reason, the Sharks also had a season of two halves. Or rather a season of four quarters.
As expected, the chart above shows that Ducks first half of the season was a mess. Surprisingly, given that they were flirting with a playoff position even at the Christmas break, the team was ranked 31st for each of the CA, SCA, and HDCA categories. Perhaps more surprisingly is that the second half resurgence ranked them no higher than 15th in the league (corsi against), across these same categories. For scoring chances they sat at 21st, and for HDCA they sat in 19th place, comparative to their peers. They improved, but perhaps so to did their peers? Nonetheless, the 3.3 decrease in corsi-against equated, near enough, to an ~3-4 goals against (for the better) difference* between the two halves of the season. On the other hand, the Sharks went into freefall, dropping from the top 5 into the bottom 5. A very stark difference in trajectories.
Unfortunately, the second half resurgence for the Ducks is a little bit of a mirage in itself, and the Ducks haven’t quite been able to close the season out strongly despite the winning record. Certainly they improved astronomically from October, and winning cures all ills, however the underlying numbers from a defensive standpoint are not as strong as they may appear at first blush. Splitting the final 42 games into 21 game halves (1st Jan - 26th Feb & 26th Feb to 9th Apr), the Ducks continued their Corsi-against improvements going from a league rank of 21st to 17th (per 60). Unfortunately, scoring chances and high danger attempts went from (per 60) 14th and 16th, to 27th and 23rd, respectively. As was the catch cry for a number of people:
1st Period: Ducks play hockey
2nd Period: Ducks play hockey
3rd Period: Ducks watch Gibson play hockey
As a point of difference, the Sharks rebounded nicely in the last quarter of the season, from their third quarter woes. While they did still wallow in Corsi attempts against (24th to 23rd) comparative to their peers (per 60), they saw a big improvement in preventing scoring chances, and high danger attempts. Specifically, SCA rebounded from 21st to 10th, and HDCA from 25th to 11th (per 60).
Which leads fans to ask a very good question: Which team is my team? Given both teams had one quarter of the season in which they completely differed from their otherwise typical play, which team will show up in the playoffs? In the case of the Ducks, they had a relatively easy finish to the season, with most of the big road trips out of the way earlier in the year. Is their relative decline a regression to the norm, a result of playing down to their (relatively weaker) opposition, a combination of those factors, or simply the wear and tear of a long season on already tired, sore and injured bodies. What of the Sharks? They started the season with a bang, and clung desperately to one of the top #2 and #3 division spots behind the new upstarts in the division. For a short moment, it even looked like the Sharks would catch them. Is this team that appears to have rebounded (by the metrics mentioned), the team of early season that was a monster in the west, or is it an aging ex-champion on its last punch drunk legs awaiting the inevitable knockout blow?
Back to the tale of the tape. Over the last half of the season, the Ducks decreased the number of scoring chances their goaltenders saw by 2.1 per game between the start of the season and the end of the second. Accordingly, the save percentages seen from these shots climbed nearly a full percentage point. The Sharks saw the opposite affect, with an increase in scoring chances against effecting saves.
For the Ducks, the same can be said for high danger attempts as it could for scoring chances. As the season went on and the Ducks got healthier, the attempts from in close decreased. In return for the better defensive effort, John Gibson turned god amongst mortals and posted a ridiculous save percentage from these shots. The question should be asked, whether this was a symbiotic relationship and did Gibson benefit from the improved defensive effort, or would he have put the team on his back and ploughed forward to his inevitable Vezina trophy nomination without them?
The Sharks too improved their defensive rating in this respect, although by an insignificant amount (0.3 per game). One wonders if their uptick was a result of placing Paul Martin on waivers? Or whether they benefited from his steady play when he returned? Nonetheless, the improvement in HDCA did not appear to help out the sharks net-minders a great deal, as their save percentages took a dip.
Despite discussing the vast improvement from the Ducks over the season and the corresponding dip from the Sharks, it should be noted that while the Ducks allowed fewer corsi attempts against, they still allowed more scoring chances and attempts from high-danger areas than their counterparts. How this plays out on the ice is hard to say, and the regular series matchups provide little clue given how different each team was at each meeting. This wont be the first time the Ducks defence meets a Thornton-less Sharks outfit, but it will be the first time they see Evander Kane in teal.
* 3.74 corsi attempts is equal to roughly 1 shot on net, thus a 3.3 improvement in corsi against is an extra 72.35 less shots on net (over the full season) at a 91.5% average save percentage is an extra 6.15 goals a season. Divided by 2 (for 41 games) is a 3 goal advantage on the previous half of the season. Gibson was an amazing .926, but you get the drift.
The Thin Blue Line
With injuries abounding, the closest guess to the first game blue lines are those of the last played game. As such:
Josh Manson - Hampus Lindholm
Francois Beauchemin - Brandon Montour
Marcus Pettersson - Andy Welinski
Paul Martin - Brent Burns
Marc-Edouard Vlasic - Justin Braun
Brenden Dillion - Dylan DeMelo
Camerica & The Warrior
It was meant to be the swan song for Francois Beauchemin. The final go around as the small part of a bigger whole. Thoughts of retirements mostly assuredly crossed his mind at the close of last season, yet, he pushed those thoughts aside to play out the final year of his NHL career with the team he once won a cup with. Along with the other seasoned veteran on the roster, Kevin Bieksa, Beauch would provide some mentorship and third pairing minutes to the fleet of under-26 year-old defencemen the Ducks would ice. Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, and Brandon Montour would all be able to pick some knowledge and allow themselves to show their offensive flair as Beauchemin provided safe minutes on the back end. However, as the season came to a close, the Ducks first lost Kevin Bieksa to injury and now more recently Cam Fowler. With Fowler likely to miss all of the first round of the playoffs, fans of both teams are sure to beg the question of whether the Ducks can maintain the improvements seen in their second half of the season.
Enter Francois Beauchemin. When Fowler went down, rather than re-jig the pairings overly much, Coach Randy Carlyle opted to keep the Ducks strongest pairing in Lindholm-Manson together and move Beauchemin up to provide a foil for the developing Montour. Using the past three games as a sample, it appears that this pairing could work. At least long enough to get into the second round, and Fowlers’ hopeful return.
Sure they had one game that wasn't quite as good as the others, but they provided 2 excellent performances as well. On that basis alone, its likely that the Ducks will continue to see relatively similar shot related metrics, to the overall totals of the last half of the season.
The current top 4 of Lindholm-Manson, and Beauchemin-Montour, does leave the inexperienced duo of Pettersson-Welinski to round out the line-up. However, with the traditionally short bench in the post-season this “weaker” pairing is less likely to cause the Ducks any major problems. At least not against a middle of the pack scoring team such as the Sharks.
Traditionally kept statistics are a lightning rod for criticism, and the calling cards of hard work. With a seemingly old-school coach like Randy Carlyle, one would expect that the Ducks traditional statistics like blocked shots and hits would be off the charts. However this doesn't appear to be the case, at least so far as the blue line is concerned. In fact, it appears that the Sharks defence is likely to be far more engaged in this aspect of the game than the their Duck counterparts; a small surprise given the Sharks as an entirety finished the season in first place for number of blocks (with 1381, compared to the 11th placed Ducks 1233)
For the most part, the Sharks defensemen have “out-blocked” their Ducks counterparts, to lead in this category by a total of 221 more, and a 0.3 difference (between the means) of blocks per game. Given the near non-existent relationship between blocks and goal scoring (GA, r = 0.05; GF, r = -0.06), its unclear whether this matters overly much. Nonetheless, Jones has (compared to God-King Gibson) a pretty mediocre save percentage, and the players directly in front of him block significantly more shots. I think we can pull out the causation doesn't equal correlation comments, and low-key suspect that the Sharks defence is bad and should feel bad for this horrible slight against goaltenders everywhere.
With respect to hits, a small margin of 35 separates the two teams. with the Sharks once again leading the Ducks. The advantage on blue line hits to the Sharks is somewhat surprising, given that the Ducks as a team out-hit the Sharks team by nearly 600 over the season (Ducks, 7th overall with 1949; Sharks, 29th overall with 1380). This lead in hits by defencemen would hold true, however, even should Fowler not have been injured for this season - his 21 hits on the season, would have had no tangible impact. Given the parity between both teams, there seems to be little in the way of advantage to either team. While the relationship between hits and goal scoring is negligible (GA, r = 0.04; GF, r = -0.17), it’s unclear whether this matters, or whether one team should focus on it as a point of difference. Certainly, we’ll hear from the coaches at one point or another that they need to get more physical, but it seems that this is more a psychological arousal aspect than having any tangible impact on the game. Coach speak, so to say.
That said, the Ducks defence appears to be fresher than that of the Sharks, given that theyve been on the recieving end of nearly 150 less hits over the course of the season. Should Fowler and Bieksa dress this number shrinks dramatically.
As the NHL game has become more skilled, the importance of holding onto the puck has become paramount. Although not true indications of possession, statistics such as giveaways (GA, r = 0.20; GF, r = -0.05) and takeaways (GA, r = -0,03; GF, r = -0.24) can tell us a little about the team, despite the relatively low (but higher than blocks and hits) correlation with goal scoring. As a team, the Ducks ranked 21st for giveaways and 26th for takeaways, compared to the Sharks 20th for giveaways and 5th for takeaways.
With respect to the defensive players, the Sharks defencemen produced 54 more takeaways and gave the puck up 26 more times than their Duck contemporaries.* When taken with the above information on hits and blocks, we can assume that the Sharks will activate their D to a far greater degree than the Ducks. This is almost entirely based on the unique abilities of Brent Burns, and his manner of high event hockey, compared to the Duck’s excellent but unobtrusive Lindholm. As with all high event hockey, this could come back to bite them.
Additionally, and perhaps more exciting for some, the Ducks blue line has produced this marvel...
A total of +87 in comparison to the Sharks pitiful -5. The railing and complaints against using +/- as a statistic are long and storied, but I’d have felt bad leaving it out. It does however suggest that the Sharks had some difficulties keeping the puck out at even strength. A theory that is somewhat born out by ES-GF% (correlation between +/- and GF% is .75).
Specifically, the Sharks were ranked 19th in the league for ES-GA, letting in 30 more than the 5th ranked Ducks. This is perhaps notable given that there was only a 4 goal difference in goal scoring at ES between the 15th and 18th ranked teams. Given that the Sharks were #1 and #3 for total goals against on the penalty kill, and power play, it behoves that the Ducks activate at ES and try to keep penalties to a minimum.
* For those interested Fowler had 47, and Bieksa 41, giveaways this season.
Scoring From The Blue Line
There is a school of thought that defensemen in the nhl no longer play traditional defense, and that their job is more to transition the offense. In contrast to Anaheim’s stable of beardless welps, the one thing that the Sharks can boast of, is having the most rugged and manly beard in the game patrolling their blue line. The 2016-17 Norris Trophy winner once again paces the Sharks for scoring from the blue line, near doubling the highest scoring Ducks defenceman, and only just being pipped at the post by Rickard Rakell for total points. A scary thought for Anaheim given - like Ducks captain, Ryan Getzlaf - Burns elevates his play and scores more in the postseason than he does in the regular season. With Fowler sitting this series out, the Ducks are missing their equal-second highest scoring defenceman from the line up. So that said how do the two teams blue lines compare?
Surprisingly the Ducks very nearly match up with the Sharks in scoring from the blue line. In fact should Fowler have been able to play they would have exceeded the Sharks goal-scoring totals, and nearly matched their power play points totals. Alas, Fowler is out for the series, giving the Sharks a 246 shots on net advantage over the Ducks, and a subsequent 53 point buffer.
Although Burns stands out from the pack, both teams have three players contributing over 30 points from the blue line, have exactly 33 goals scored by their defencemen, and have their lowest scoring defenseman with exactly 2 points (all from assists). However, there is a clear difference in third pairing scoring from both teams. While Burns provides the buffer in scoring amongst the top 3 scorers of both teams (+42 for the Sharks), their bottom 3 scorers also exceed those of the Ducks. The Sharks have two 20 point scorers in the bottom 3 of blue line scoring, whereas Beauchemin’s 17 points are the highest of the Ducks in that category. A scoring differential reflected in shots on net, with the Sharks blue line holding a 46 shot advantage.
The Sharks are much better at creating rebound opportunities from the blue line, an advantage that is even more pronounced with Fowler (22 rebounds created - most on the Ducks, and 3rd most in this series) not suiting up for this series. Should Fowler have been healthy, the Sharks would have had the slight advantage on scoring from the blue line. However, with the Ducks having 32 points in the casualty ward, the difference is more pronounced.
What’s the Rub?
Overall, given the current construction of the two blue lines (sans Fowler), I give the tip to the Sharks. Currently, the Sharks are without Joe Thornton, but we all remember last season’s run, so he could return. With Sami Vatanen having been traded away, the Ducks no longer have the depth with which to absorb the loss of a top 4 defenceman of Fowlers calibre - Montour and Beauchemin are doing well, but it may be a rear-guard action. Likely due to a combination of injuries throughout the season (Lindholm too is unlikely to be 100% yet), and systemic issues, the Ducks current blue line is amongst the worst in the league at preventing scoring opportunities. This issue appeared to have been solved following the Vatanen trade, and the return of Ryan Kesler (as the last remaining injured person), however the last quarter of the season has seen them fall back into poor habits.
My heart wants to say the Ducks are a clear leader of the defensive 6, despite how closely the two groups appear to match up on paper. If Fowler was going to play this may be a different conclusion.... However, with one of these two teams being the clear leaders in scoring from the blue line, being stronger on special teams (with the other’s propensity to take penalties also considered), and being in the top tier of teams in the league for scoring chance prevention over the last 21 games, the advantage on the aspect of the team is clearly in San Jose’s favour. How great that advantage is, remains to be seen. It could be an inch, it could be a mile.
As the second seed in the Division, and with home ice advantage, the Ducks should be favourites to win this series. However, for the first time in recent memory it wont be due to an abundance of riches on the blue line.
Who’s D is better?
This poll is closed