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January 11, 2012
Howe and Why
A Possession Problem For The Ducks

by Robert Vollman and ESPN Insider

The Anaheim Ducks are off to their worst start in franchise history, and while the early struggles of some teams can be explained by having some bad puck luck, the disappointments in Anaheim are endemic and should be coming as absolutely no surprise. Will new coach Bruce Boudreau help? Probably not. In fact, the Ducks might finish as the league's worst team this season. However, the Ducks are onto something else that might help turn the franchise around.

Today's game is all about puck possession, which is an area the Ducks have been coming up short in ever since Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger left town. Until it's measured with computers and stopwatches, the closest estimation we have comes from shot-based metrics, a category in which the Ducks finish very poorly, especially once you account for score effects (teams sitting on either big or late leads take fewer shots). In fact, we estimate that the Ducks are consistently controlling the play only 43.5 percent of the time in close games, the worst rate in the entire league.

On a per game basis, the Ducks are currently dead last in shots, 26th in goals, 27th in goals against and 22nd in shots against, which is the main reason they have just seven wins in the 34 games since their 4-1 start. It's also why they have just three road wins all season -- three narrow 3-2 victories, in San Jose (twice) and Minnesota -- in which they were outshot by a combined total of 106 to 61.

Lucky Ducks

Despite their postseason appearance last year, none of this should actually come as a surprise. Last year they were also 27th in shots for and 27th in shots against but benefited from tremendously great fortune in every measurable way. Throughout 2010-11, the Ducks led the league with a 13-5 overtime and shootout record, had a .659 record in one-goal games, the fifth-fewest man-games lost to injury and finished with a team shooting percentage of 10.1 percent -- their highest since 1996-97 -- while their goalies all posted save percentages at or near their career highs. These are all feats with very few historical precedents of repeat performances.

Unfortunately, their shockingly good fortune has indeed come right back down to earth, with a team shooting percentage of 9.0 percent and an overtime and shootout record with already more losses than last year at 1-6. This statistical regression explains their current position in the standings almost entirely by itself.

The bigger question is this: Why can't they control the play? After all, the Ducks are front-loaded with exceptionally talented superstars like Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry, the ageless Teemu Selanne, Olympians Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan and star goalie Jonas Hiller, but their fundamental problem is a complete lack of depth. This absence of strong secondary talent capable of playing tough minutes especially hurts them on the road, where opponents can take advantage of the final line change to key in on their top young stars of Perry, Ryan and Getzlaf, whose scoring has consequently been far better at home.

On the blue line they have replaced Niedermayer and Pronger with players who match them in age only -- fringe NHLer Nate Guenin, at age 29, is actually the third-youngest defenseman to wear the black and gold this season, a situation that can't persist if they hope to reverse these trends anytime soon.

The fix

Fortunately there is help on the way, thanks to a carefully-assembled collection of young talent and prospects in the Ducks' system, one that is ranked 10th overall by Corey Pronman of Hockey Prospectus, and 13th by ESPN Insider's Grant Sonier. Their roster already includes young, developing players like Luca Sbisa, Cam Fowler, Devante Smith-Pelly and Brandon McMillan, with many more blue chippers to come, including Kyle Palmieri, Emerson Etem, Justin Schultz, a blonde figure skater and a fat goalie named Goldberg (if I've reviewed the game tapes correctly).

You can also credit GM Bob Murray and his staff for managing the contracts well, leaving them sufficient cap room to maneuver. The Ducks have few overpriced contracts expiring this year and are saddled with only two long-term commitments, both of which are reasonably priced and offered to developing stars Sbisa and Bobby Ryan. In fact, Murray's only questionable move recently has been firing bench boss Randy Carlyle so soon after he signed an extension and had a 273-182-61 regular-season record (1.18 points per game) and 7-4 postseason series record in his six-plus seasons in Anaheim. Carlyle may have been 7-13-4, but replacement Bruce Boudreau is just 4-9-2.

Will Boudreau help?

Despite his slow start, will Boudreau ultimately make a difference? First of all, there's no denying that he's a great coach -- the Washington Capitals shouldn't have dumped him because, unlike Anaheim, the Capitals were doing very well and merely the victims of some bad puck luck. They were outplaying and outshooting their opponents on a regular basis but getting stung by netminding woes that dropped the team's save percentage from last year's .920 to .898.

Given that the Caps have the seventh-best close-game shot metrics in the league, controlling the play well over half the time both at home and on the road, it is likely only a matter of time before they bubble up to the division lead, where Boudreau had them every single season he was behind the bench, including the 2007-08 season in which he inherited a last-place 6-14-1 team from Glen Hanlon. In fact, all other Washington coaches combined don't have as many first-place finishes as Boudreau.

Capitals coaches
How Bruce Boudreau ranked among Washington coaches before his firing
Coach		W-L-T		PTS	PTS/GP
Bruce Boudreau	201-88-40	442	1.34
Ron Wilson	192-129-47	434	1.17
Bryan Murray	343-246-83	769	1.14
Terry Murray	163-134-38	364	1.09
Jim Schoenfeld	113-102-34	260	1.04

Though his point totals are obviously padded by overtime losses and shootout wins in the post-lockout era, Boudreau clearly stood out as Washington's most successful regular-season coach. While it's true that the team's series record was 2-4 in the postseason, none of the other four coaches fared much better and combined for a record of 10-16 -- just one more playoff series win and Boudreau would have tied for the franchise record.

Great coach that he may be, it doesn't matter if Anaheim's coach is Bruce Boudreau, or Randy Carlyle or even Emilio Estevez. If a team doesn't have the depth up front or the young legs on the blue line to compete on the road, then it's not going to control the play, which means it's going to have to continue to rely on enjoying the same mind-blowing luck as last year. Unless Boudreau brought a pocket full of four-leaf clovers, the struggles in Anaheim are likely to continue until the Ducks' young talent is NHL-ready.

A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.

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staff member timoseppa
BP staff

Just so everyone knows, Rob, you had this article written a few weeks ago. Now the Ducks go on a winning streak!

Jan 19, 2012 06:09 AM
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