It’s a new era in Anaheim, and with change comes an opportunity to alter a culture that for far too long has set itself back with undisciplined play. While the Ducks have been one of the NHL’s best over the last 15 years in terms of wins and losses, they’ve been one of the worst at avoiding the penalty box.
Since 2005-06, the Ducks lead the NHL in minor penalties taken, major penalties taken, and are second only to the Philadelphia Flyers in total PIMs (the Flyers have been charged with more misconducts, which inflates their total).
The last time Anaheim finished outside the top five in times shorthanded was 2014-15, and that year the Ducks finished sixth. The Ducks haven’t landed outside the top 15 in times shorthanded since, strangely enough, 2006-07, when Anaheim bullied its way to a Stanley Cup championship.
That style of play — physical, mean, nasty — that carried the Ducks to a title remained for most of the next decade, which led to a reputation for officials and more penalties taken. Anaheim took a brief hiatus from being one of the most penalized teams in the NHL when Bruce Boudreau arrived in 2011, but the Ducks returned to their penalty-loving ways the last three years under Randy Carlyle.
One of the challenges for first-year head coach Dallas Eakins will be ensuring his team spends less time in the penalty box. In the past, Anaheim had the personnel to overcome its proneness for penalties — the Ducks are third in the NHL in PK% since 2012-13 — but with stingy penalty killers like Andrew Cogliano and Ryan Kesler out of the picture, that’s no longer the case. The Ducks dropped to 20th in the NHL in PK% last year, which is a bad recipe for a team that had the second-most shorthanded occurrences.
The motivation for staying out of the box should be simple. Anaheim’s forward group is unproven and likely not as dangerous as the teams that reeled off five straight Pacific Division titles, so why limit your 5-on-5 time by taking so many penalties?
One statistic that deserves more attention is penalties drawn vs. penalties taken, or penalty plus-minus. Generally, players that draw the most penalties are the ones who have the puck the most in dangerous scoring areas, like the Nathan MacKinnons and Connor McDavids of the league. On the flip side, players that take the most penalties are either A) defensemen who often draw tough match-ups or B) players who need to break the rules to recover the puck.
Unsurprisingly, the Ducks had the league’s worst penalty plus-minus over the last three years under Randy Carlyle at -147. For context, the second-worst team was the Washington Capitals at -84 (Looking at you, Tom Wilson). That’s a major difference. In fact, only three teams in the NHL — Anaheim, Washington and Dallas — are worse than -50 since 2016-17.
The Ducks simply spend too much time on the negative side of the special teams battle. Fortunately, some of the worst culprits of penalty plus-minus, like Kesler, Brandon Montour, Kevin Bieksa, are no longer with the team.
However, the worst of the bunch is Nick Ritchie, and it will be imperative that Ritchie improve his habits, especially in the offensive end, if he’s going to be a top line player. Since becoming a full-time NHLer in 2016-17, Ritchie is -45 in penalty plus-minus, which is not only worst on the Ducks, but tied for worst among all NHL forwards with San Jose’s Evander Kane.
Kane, unlike Ritchie, scores almost 30 goals a year and plays over 18 minutes a night.
Consider that Ritchie took 22 minor penalties in 2018-19, and opposing teams scored five times when Ritchie was in the box serving a penalty. That might not seem like a large total, but take away the five power-play goals against last year and the Ducks’ PK% jumps from 79.7% (20th in the NHL) to 81.2% (11th in the NHL).
Eakins does have some players to work with on the positive side. Rickard Rakell, a +30 in penalty plus-minus since 2015-16, is returning after a down season in 2018-19. Ondrej Kase, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, is +14 since becoming a full-time NHLer and he should play a prominent role this year.
Perhaps the most intriguing player in this regard is Troy Terry, who drew 10 penalties and only took one in 34 games. It’s a small sample, but that’s a penalty drawn in 29% of his games — if you extrapolate Sidney Crosby’s penalties drawn per games played over the last five years, he comes out to…29%.
When Eakins was head coach in Edmonton, the Oilers ranked ninth in times shorthanded and were 14th in penalty plus-minus at -1, and both would be significant improvements for the Ducks. Since taking over the Ducks’ AHL affiliate in San Diego in 2015-16, Eakins’ Gulls were +5 in penalty plus-minus, though that total is deflated by the -30 in his first year at the helm. San Diego has finished in the positives each of the last three years.
Eakins will face a number of challenges with a Ducks roster that figures to be one of the youngest in the NHL, but changing the undisciplined culture might be his biggest obstacle. Asking to be one of the NHL’s best in penalty plus-minus in his first year is likely an unobtainable goal, but if the Ducks can just be average in this area, it’ll be a major benefit for a team historically addicted to the penalty box.