Yeah it’s early, but have a look at the league standings.
Way up at the top, where no one expected them to be, are the Carolina Hurricanes and Anaheim Ducks. Both entered Thursday’s games leading the NHL in points, at 3-0-1, meaning they hadn’t lost in regulation in four tries.
But there are two very different qualities to their early-season success: Carolina is winning because it dramatically outshoots its opponents, hasn’t been burned on the PK yet, and has had a lot of shooting luck but very little help from their goalies. Not that anyone would tell you seven points from every four games is in any way sustainable, but if you can consistently run at around 59 percent in adjusted expected-goals at 5-on-5, you’re gonna win a lot more games than you lose.
Anaheim, ahh, not so much. They have a truly appalling set of underlying numbers and in terms of goals they and their opponents “should” score in all situations, they’re below 38 percent of the share. In actuality, they’ve scored 10 and only allowed six.
You’ll note that 10 is not a lot of goals to score in four games, but six is even fewer to give up, so here we are. Thus we can say in all fairness that the real reason Anaheim is having any success at all is John Gibson, who has played every second of Anaheim’s games so far, and carries a save percentage of .955. Just to illustrate how crazy that number is, if an average NHL goalie faced the exact same workload as Gibson has, he would only be expected to have a .912 save percentage, meaning Gibson has already saved the Ducks almost six goals against the league average.
That number, too, needs context. Historically, NHL teams earn an extra win for every six-ish goals or so of goal difference they earn, meaning that in just four games, Gibson has basically added two points to the Ducks’ total.
Again, no one really thought the Ducks were gonna be some kind of super-team this year, but I think a lot of people probably had them making the playoffs. Last year, they made it pretty comfortably (101 points, mostly by forcing more than a quarter of their games into overtime), but got swept out of the first round by a significantly better San Jose team.
That success, too, was largely attributable to the goaltenders’ work. Collectively, Gibson, Ryan Miller, and Reto Berra went .926 — a number that strikes one immediately as unsustainably high — even as the Ducks were outshot by 145 in all situations, scored goals at below the league average, and had the 10th-worst 5-on-5 possession numbers in the NHL.
But it was nothing as bad as all this. Just in terms of raw numbers across all situations, Anaheim has given up 106 more attempts, 79 more unblocked attempts, 47 more shots on goal, 46 more scoring chances, and 11 more high-danger chances so far this year. Those numbers, again, are coming in just four games.
And Anaheim hasn’t exactly had a tough draw, either. No back-to-back games yet, and only one against a team you’d reasonably call competitive. Their 5-2 opening-night win against San Jose (in which they were outshot 33-15) gave way to a slate of games at Arizona (outshot 41-20), then hosting Detroit and Arizona. They actually outshot the Red Wings 27-21, but needed a shootout to win.
Look, if you bank the points, you bank ’em. Obviously that’s all well and good for Anaheim in its pursuit of a seventh-straight playoff appearance in what is flatly a not-very-good division. And again, I think most teams saw these guys making the postseason even if they took a step back. But this team looks truly awful in every facet of the game except goaltending, because Gibson is doing his best Marc-Andre Fleury-in-the-first-three-rounds-last-year impression. As with Fleury, one wouldn’t expect that to last more than a dozen or so games.
You can make some concessions here on the injury front: Ryan Getzlaf has missed time. Patrick Eaves hasn’t played yet this year. Corey Perry is basically done for the season. Ondrej Kase has a concussion. Ryan Kesler only returned to the lineup for Wednesday’s shootout loss to Arizona. All that plus Nick Ritchie hasn’t signed yet.
You can say what you want about what those players bring to the table relative to their value, but there’s no doubt they’d help a Ducks team that has, so far, been drowning in shots against. The problem for Anaheim is all those guys are a year older and banged-up, and the extent to which you can help put out a house fire with a few buckets of water is limited.
The answers, one begins to suspect, aren’t in that room. Certainly, coach Randy Carlyle doesn’t seem likely to present a viable solution. And while this team is relatively young overall, all its biggest offensive contributors are past their primes, and in some cases way past them.
Which is the real problem here: Gibson isn’t going to go .950 all year, but he’s an elite goaltender who’s going to win you a bunch of games another goalie couldn’t, but he can’t score the goals too. And with all these forwards old, slow, and getting worse, you wonder who can.
Barring a trade or a big coaching change (i.e. bringing in a heavy hitter, of which there are few to none available right now), there’s little that’s going to rejuvenate the Ducks offense to the point where they can make up the ground they’re already giving opponents.
It’s something Bob Murray should have done a better job planning for, but that’s what happens when elite players age. And it’s why this seems to be the end of the Ducks dynasty, such as it was.
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All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.