What We Learned: Anaheim’s lucky Ducks defy hockey logic
(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)
People don't like to hear it or think about it very much, but such a huge portion of what happens in the NHL over the course of a season is driven by luck, and luck alone, that it boggles the mind.
When it comes to setting where each team finishes in the standings, luck — or rather, things that cannot be quantified or depended upon or predicted accurately — makes up 38 percent of results. Nearly two-fifths.
If a defenseman's stick breaks on a point shot attempt and a 2-on-0 goes the other way and scores, that's luck. Luck that the stick broke, luck that the puck went to an opponent, luck that no one could get back to defend, luck that the puck went in. If the same play happens and the 2-on-0 results in a pass that gets flubbed, or a shot that somehow misses the net, or gets saved, or hits the post, that's also luck,. Depending on which side you're on, either one is good or bad. It all boils down to probabilities. An x percent chance a stick breaks, a y percent chance a shot goes off as planned, etc. This kind of thing happens literally millions of times over the course of a season, league-wide.
Luck, viewed thusly, can manifest itself in a lot of ways. Over the course of a season, a goalie might have a much higher or lower save percentage than their career average. A single player, entire line, or even a whole team can shoot well above or below what is considered a reasonable save percentage for an entire year, or just part of one. There's not really much explaining it when it happens. Guys can get “hot” or “cold” for any reason, or no reason at all. Injuries pile up. And this contributes, a lot, to wins and losses.
Hockey is a low-event sport, in terms of what we can measure and track. There just aren't many goals scored per game, or even a particularly huge amount of shots recorded in any given 60 minutes of hockey. We think 30 is a lot, for instance, but that's only because we've come to know that 30 is a lot. If a few tweaks were made to the rules, the ice dimensions, roster sizes, etc. 100 years ago, maybe 30 would be a small number, and 40 more in line with the league average at this point. But these numbers are in and of themselves not necessarily conducive to really being able to level the playing field to where it “should be” according to analytics, even over an 82-game schedule.
And that's why when teams rise through the standings, analytics sometimes say that the methods they use to do so are “unrepeatable.” Whether it's because they have a sky-high PDO but bad possession numbers, or because they win a lot of shootouts, or because they have a good record in one-goal games, we are given reason to doubt that a team is as good as the won-lost record says.
But one team in particular seems to buck this trend. On Friday night, the Ducks beat the Blues 4-3 in Anaheim, giving them yet another one-goal win. That bumped their record in one-goal games to 19-0-6 on the year; 25 one-goal games, and only six points missing from a possible 50. That is an insane number. Absolutely bonkers. Even the most stats-averse observer has to say that no team is that good at playing in tight games. They should have lost one by that point. (Update: The Ducks are now 20-0-6 in one-goal games after beating Nashille 4-3 in a shootout on Sunday.)
And so it's not really a surprise that they should be the best team in the league through Saturday's games. When you've taken 44 of your points in one-goal games — a number which doesn't count four times they've scored into an empty net, or the three times the other team has, bringing them to a total of 32 of their 40 games effectively being decided by a single goal — you tend to rocket up the table, and you seem to be doing so in an unsustainable way.
But where the Anaheim Ducks are concerned, this is actually not the case.
Somehow, since 2009-10, the Ducks have gone 73-30 in one-goal games that were decided in regulation. That winning percentage (.708) dwarfs the next-closest team's .580. And so at some point, you perhaps have to say that this is something of a repeatable skill the Ducks have for themselves. An odds-defying, almost inexplicable skill, but a skill nonetheless.
Prior to last night's home game against Nashville, that means the Ducks had played in 416 regular-season games, 103 of which were decided by a single goal in regulation. The 146 points they wrung from them accounts for nearly 30 percent of their 506 points over what would be slightly more than five 82-game seasons. But the thing is, almost everything about the team has changed in that time. Randy Carlyle got the boot in 2011-12, when he drove the team into the ground possession-wise and basically cratered the club at just 80 points in 82 games. Since Bruce Boudreau took over, though, there's been almost no interruption of the run of success in one-goal games, and if anything it's intensified.
That 2009-10 team featured just three players that are still with the club (Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, obviously, but also Matt Beleskey). None of the goalies are still around, none of the defensemen, and only three forwards. Two of whom are basically irreplaceable. And since the coach has also changed, it's safe to say that of the major players in the organization who are still around and would be able to influence on-ice play, it's really just those three guys and GM Bob Murray. And Murray certainly probably doesn't have the secret formula to a type of roster construction that guarantees that type of success in close games.
Because here's the other thing about the Ducks: They're 25th in the league in corsi over that time (roughly 16,800 for, and 18,300 against, so this is a huge sample). Now, a lot of that play comes under Carlyle, who is a demonstrably awful coach, and their CF% under him was a lot worse (45.9 percent) than it is under Boudreau. But the current 49.6 percent since the coaching change on Nov. 30, 2011, is still 19th over that time, so while it's a huge improvement, they're still not where you'd conceivably like them to be.
The thing is, there really isn't a score situation in which the Ducks are a dominant possession team, meaning that we have to take their high PDO both overall during this time (100.8, tied for third in the league) in more recent years (a league-leading 101.3 since Boudreau took over) at face value. Their even-strength shooting percentage since 2009-10 is tied for fourth in the league, and their save percentage is tied for 10th. That's a pretty good recipe for success over five seasons' worth of games, and under Boudreau both numbers have actually increased.
A good save percentage is, of course, sustainable, as long as you have good goaltenders, and the Ducks have become the Predators in terms of churning out good goaltenders (Jonas Hiller to Viktor Fasth to Frederik Andersen and John Gibson is a pretty solid run of both high-quality netminding and good goalies). Likewise, players of Perry and Getzlaf's quality drive shooting percentage to a silly extent: the Ducks shoot 9.9 percent and 10.3 percent, respectively, at even strength when they are on the ice. Those numbers rank them fourth and eighth in the NHL over that time.
So at some point the Ducks are obviously going to lose a one-goal game this year, but they'd have to lose a lot of them in a row to come back to league average or anywhere close to it. Seriously, they could lose the rest of their games this season by a single goal in regulation and still be a game above .500 since 2009-10.
A lot of that is luck, because absolutely no one is that good. And some of it is looking more every day like a repeatable skill that comes from having certain players on their roster. All of it is just weird.
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: Or, put another way, the Ducks “know how to win.” *deafening fart noise continues until the universe collapses under its own weight*
Arizona Coyotes: So now they have a real owner. And he can still leave soon under the team's lease. I'm still not convinced this is a solid situation. Don't see how anyone could feel that way.
Boston Bruins: Oh this is getting hilarious. Can't wait for my tax dollars to go towards Shawn Thornton's police escort from the airport.
Buffalo Sabres: Zemgus Girgensons getting a starting All-Star spot is the best thing that ever happened at the All-Star Game. Hope he gets picked ahead of Phil Kessel.
Calgary Flames: Speaking of All-Stars, are we really wondering whether Jiri Hudler should make it? We are? Oh, okay.
Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes are really good at killing penalties. I bet a lot of it has to do with their .898 save percentage when they're shorthanded. They're sixth in the league in that number, and ninth in shots against per 60. Good combination. Maybe try whatever that is at even strength to.
Chicago Blackhawks: Kris Versteeg's probably out for a month, and the Blackhawks are going to miss him. Remember when no one wanted that guy on their team? Hockey's funny.
Colorado Avalanche: Hockey's also easy when you get to play the Oilers.
Columbus Blue Jackets: If the Jackets don't make the playoffs, can you really hold it against them? Like, whatever happens this year has to be considered playing with house money to some extent. Their finish in the standings has no bearing on actual team quality here.
Dallas Stars: Let's not all look at once but the Stars are 8-1-0 in their last nine, and are 9-3 since the start of December. Might they actually be getting their heads on straight (or rather, getting the bounces)?
Detroit Red Wings: The Wings are still daydreaming about Tyler Myers for some reason.
Edmonton Oilers: Shoulda done this 31 games ago!!!!! Good asset management.
Florida Panthers: The last time Roberto Luongo allowed a goal in Buffalo was Feb. 11, 2006. Now, granted, he's only played there three times since then, but still, three straight shutouts.
Los Angeles Kings: The Kings scored three goals in 87 seconds to tie a game that was 6-3 with 2:02 left. Then they lost 18 seconds into overtime. Getting a point out of that situation, though, is bananas. Hockey, man. It's inexplicable.
Minnesota Wild: Mike Yeo can't make the Wild's goalies good. I don't know how this is his fault. Like, okay Darcy Kuemper, a backup for the entirety of his young career, was your best option. And now people are like, “Oh no the sky is falling in the State of Hockey.” Well I mean, this is what you signed up for, yeah? They're tied for eighth in possession numbers for the season, but their on-ice save percentage is three thousandths of a point above Edmonton's. Hmm is it the team that's bad or the goalies? Hmm.
Montreal Canadiens: The Habs are back on top in the East. It's been a weird year.
Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: Speaking of that Preds OT winner, it was a pretty nice one from Roman Josi.
New Jersey Devils: Patrik Elias is closing in on 1,000 points in his career. Real great player for a real long time.
New York Islanders: Ah how I long for a place that keeps actual track of passing efficiency for everyone. Turns out the Islanders are really good at it. Oh man I love this stuff.
New York Rangers: The Rangers are on 10 wins in their last 11 games and now they have someone around whom they can rally. Worked during the playoffs last year.
Ottawa Senators: The interchange between Bobby Ryan and Erik Karlsson for this overtime game-winner is wonderful.
Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers have dropped five straight. Allowed 19 goals in those games. Turns out their defense and goaltending is bad. Unforeseeable, really.
Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins and the City of Pittsburgh are being sued because of how they're developing the land where they Igloo used to be. Aren't municipal politics fun?
San Jose Sharks: Joe Thornton missed his first game since Nov. 11, 2010, on Saturday. He's so great. This sport is going to miss him when he goes.
St. Louis Blues: TJ Oshie is really boosting that trade value lately.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Seems like every Ben Bishop start from now on is another sand through the hourglass. This team is very rightly in love with what Andrei Vasilevskiy will do for them in the very near future.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha. Hahaha. Haha. Hoo boy.
Vancouver Canucks: Ryan Miller has been more or less league average for the Canucks this season, but capable of the occasional great performance. Eddie Lack is still a roughly equivalent goalie at this point.
Washington Capitals: This is probably going to work a little better than the Jay Beagle experiment.
Winnipeg Jets: It wasn't so long ago the Winnipeg media was trying to run Dustin Byfuglien out of town. Now that they're getting competent goaltending it's amazing how opinions of a really good defenseman have shifted, eh? He's been great this whole time.
Play of the Weekend
I'm not sure Jaden Schwarz meant to do this (I think it deflects off Barclay Goodrow's skate) but man what a pass anyway.
Gold Star Award
Shout out to Jaromir Jagr for his first hat trick since 2006. Oldest guy in league history to ever do it. Wayne Simmonds on the feat: “Everything he does now, he’s just setting records. It sucks that it happened against us, but as a hockey fan myself, it’s nice to see it.”
Minus of the Weekend
Horrible news about CapGeek and its founder over the weekend. Get well soon to Matthew Wuest.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User “Oleg Petrov” might like the Bruins.
To BOS: Evander Kane
To WPG: Milan Lucic
You french great.
Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.