Where do Ducks go from here?

The Anaheim Ducks have badly struggled this season. Why has that been the case, and where do they go from here?

The Anaheim Ducks are the worst team in the National Hockey League. The same National Hockey League that the Arizona Coyotes and their thinly veiled tanking efforts play in. The Ducks are dead last in the standings with 17 points in 30 games, a 46-point pace over the course of 82 games. That 46-point mark would be the lowest in franchise history in an 82 game season by a whopping 19 point margin, as the record for lowest points in a season is currently held by the 1997-98 (then Mighty) Ducks with 65.

However, when including lockout-shortened seasons, these current Ducks are also on pace to have the lowest points percentage of any team in franchise history. The 2021-shortened season saw the Ducks pick up points in a dismal 38.4 percent of contests, which is the current record. This year’s Ducks have picked up points in an astronomically low 28.3 percent of games. No other team in franchise history has ever been below 38, let alone 30.

The Ducks are as bad as their record shows. Here’s how they rank in all major five-on-five categories per 60 minutes, according to Evolving Hockey:

Essentially, the Ducks are either the very worst or close to it in every significant shot-based metric at five-on-five. Their in-zone defensive coverage has been a mess all season, as it appears that they have been attempting a man-on-man system, but failing miserably in the process, routinely leaving attackers open and losing assignments in traffic.

Five-on-five is where the grand majority of the game is played, and as such should occupy the bulk of any analysis, especially considering that playoff hockey remains a five-on-five game into overtime, and where officials notoriously are less keen on calling penalties. Even still, special teams are an important element of the game as well, another area that has absolutely crushed the Ducks.

Much like at five-on-five, the Ducks in-zone coverage has been atrocious while shorthanded, with mistake after mistake costing them back-breaking goals against. To compound the penalty killing issue, the Ducks rank 29th in minor penalties against per 60 minutes at five-on-five, and have taken the most minor penalties in the entire NHL in that regard. So not only is their penalty kill not doing them any favors, but it’s being constantly asked to cover up for what has been an alarming lack of discipline. Of course, when a team is constantly chasing games because it cannot keep up with the opposition at even strength, penalties are bound to follow.

None of Anaheim’s goaltenders have a positive goals-saved above expected according to Evolving Hockey, a metric that attempts to calculate how an average NHL netminder would fare against the shot type and volume faced. For Gibson, Stolarz, and now Dostal to only be at negative 1.82, 1.4, and 1.91 GSAx is almost impressive given how horrid of an environment they have had to play in. Sure, those numbers indicate that they have not been better than what would be expected. But, given just how bad the team in front of them has been, and how pre-shot movement isn’t fully accounted for into the end number, Anaheim’s goalies should get a pass, and even maybe some praise for not falling so far below expected. In short, the fact that the Ducks only have one regulation win so far is completely warranted.

Has Anything Gone Right?

Given the aforementioned woes, it would be fair to wonder if anything has actually gone right for this Anaheim team. Yes, in fact, some things have gone “right”, as few and far between as they may be. From a team-wide perspective, the power play has actually become a bright spot. Really, things have improved ever since Trevor Zegras was flipped from the right flank to the left, and Mason McTavish was placed on the right flank. Troy Terry has been a puck hound in either the bumper or goal line area, with Adam Henrique chipping in as well.

For as good as that first unit has been, it should still be playing more. Typically it will come off at the minute mark of a two-minute power play, where the second unit, which has been almost completely inept, comes on to stifle any momentum. The first unit has been great, and unless the second unit becomes an area for other young players to develop, there’s no to give significant minutes to a unit that typically features Kevin Shattenkirk and Jakob Silfverberg. The drop off in expected goal rates according to Evolving Hockey is startling when the non-first unit players are on the ice:

From an individual perspective, Zegras, Terry, McTavish have been true bright spots. Zegras continues to show that he is a play-making dynamo while growing his two-way game, Terry is showing that last year’s breakout was no fluke, and McTavish is looking more and more like a bona-fide top-six center in the NHL. Henrique has also been a quietly great story, staving off father time at age 32 by being a key contributor to Anaheim’s top line in all three zones, and being on pace for just over 20 goals. Despite these positives, though, the disaster that has been this season requires further inquiry.

Who Gets the Blame?

The issue of blameworthiness in a spectacularly poor season is thorny, but necessary to sort through in order for Anaheim to ultimately progress and ensure that a season like this does not happen again. Before analyzing that issue though, a disclaimer: yes, the Ducks finishing near the bottom of the standings is great for their draft positioning. Yes, the 2023 class is a loaded one, headlined by a generational talent in Connor Bedard, among others. Yes, a top-five pick in the ’23 draft would absolutely alter the franchise’s trajectory for the better. These facts are not in dispute.

However, is it in Anaheim’s best interest to be as bad as they have been in this specific fashion? Is it in their best interest to get absolutely trounced over and over, with no semblance of a plan or strategy on the ice? Is it in their best interest to go through a season in which they get so absolutely beat down, that when a Bedard joins the team, there isn’t a team foundation for them to build on? Arguably, the way in which a team loses doesn’t matter, so long as they do, and so long as it secures them that all-important pick. Once the generational talent arrives, then they become the de facto foundation for the team to build upon. That would be the utilitarian view, and it is a defensible one, but it is also incomplete. The more complete argument is that yes, a generational talent changes everything, but if it requires this level of ineptitude to where a team has no foundation to build on, the rebuilding process is unnecessarily prolonged and mangled. Anaheim is in jeopardy of fulfilling that latter argument, the way things are going.

Pat Verbeek is the man in charge, and so he is the first to be placed under the microscope. None of his major off-season additions have panned out. Ryan Strome has been one of the biggest offenders in the defensive zone, John Klingberg has looked largely out of place, and Frank Vatrano has been equally abhorrent defensively. The addition of Nathan Beaulieu was always a puzzling one, and has played out as expected (poorly). Colton White has been a fine depth piece, but has not played enough. However, Verbeek’s free agent decisions were defensible at the time, and Klingberg remains a solid trade asset at the deadline. Given how early he still is in his tenure, the team isn’t close to being truly “his” yet,. However, the decision to bring back head coach Dallas Eakins for one more season is looking like his biggest misstep, and for that, there is blame to be levied his way, especially if the Ducks keep playing this way and Eakins remains the coach. On balance, though, Verbeek’s long term view still seems sound, and still looks to be a solid candidate to lead Anaheim back to competitiveness.

The same cannot be said for Anaheim’s head coach. Eakins’ decisions continue to mar this team. Strome and Vatrano have simply not worked together and are actively harming the team defensively, and yet Eakins has steadfastly refused to split them up. The team’s total lack of any semblance of structure lands squarely at his feet, as it is the one area where we can see some evidence of a coach’s influence on a team.

True, the players on the ice have clearly not even come close to executing whatever plan may be in place, but when it’s so difficult to decipher what the plan even is, criticism of the coach is warranted. From a long term perspective, can it really be said in good faith that Eakins is helping the development of his younger players? In what world is the current on-ice environment one in which a young player will learn anything of value when it comes to winning games? Scott Niedermayer said in a recent interview that Eakins has been good at keeping his players positive in the face of losing, and surely there is value to that. However, Eakins’ skills as a communicator and off-ice leader have never been in question.

By all accounts, he is excellent in those categories. But when there is little to no evidence of those skills transferring to on-ice play, how much do they end up mattering? It’s an open question, to which there may not be a truly right or wrong answer. Simply making a change behind the bench for the sake of change isn’t the answer for Anaheim here, despite how rough the recent string of games has been. A change should only be made if Verbeek feels like Eakins’ replacement would be someone who will truly lead the next chapter of Ducks’ hockey, not a mere gap filler. Martin St. Louis in Montreal and Don Granato in Buffalo are good examples of this: coaches who are clearly fostering a competitive environment and aiding their players’ on-ice development.

Should Eakins remain the man to call the shots, then the top-down instruction needs to change. No longer should trying to squeeze out points by playing “safe” veteran players in top roles be the goal, but instead to prioritize the development of younger players. Call up youngsters from the American Hockey League, provide more ice time for McTavish, give Max Comtois and Pavol Regenda more rope when they are in the lineup, and generally allow young players to work through mistakes. Eakins has shown that he can in fact do this, looking back to the end of the 2021 season where Anaheim was playing out the string. That was where he first united the Zegras and Terry with Max Comtois, to great results. Combine that approach with Eakins’ off-ice strengths, and the good “vibes” may in fact return to Anaheim. At this rate, it won’t compromise their quest for a high-end pick. If you’re going to be this bad, at least have some fun with it, and take some chances along the way.

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