Since the hiring of Bruce Boudreau, the Anaheim Ducks have been scorching hot in the standings. From his hiring point through present day, Boudreau’s Ducks have collected points in 72% of games played, winning 60% of those games outright. And, assuming the current standings hold, they will win the Pacific Division for the third straight year.
The other side of this coin is that Anaheim has become a bit notorious for early playoff flameouts. In 2012-2013, they lost in the first round to the Detroit Red Wings. Last year, they lost in the second round – only this time to the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
Because of their ridiculous regular season success, it’s a bit understandable that expectations continue to grow despite their inability to really push through the Western Conference playoff bracket. The pressure has probably increased by extension of having Boudreau as coach. Remember, Boudreau’s teams in Washington had the same issue – excellent performance in games one through eighty-two, and not so much beyond that.
But, this year feels quite different for this head coach and this Anaheim Ducks team.
It’s important to note the many, many red flags that surrounded Anaheim teams of years past. Though the Ducks had no trouble maneuvering through the West, they never compared favourably to other playoff clubs. This is particularly so from an even-strength standpoint – if not because the vast majority of the game is played there, then because Anaheim has been an average power-play/penalty kill team for all of Boudreau’s tenure.
Let’s look at Anaheim compared to the West in 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, but from an underlying number standpoint. We’ll use Score-Adjusted Fenwick% (our proxy for meaningful puck possession) and Scoring Chance%, and all numbers will be compared to break-even (e.g. 50%).
Two years ago, a case could be made that, despite winning the Pacific, Anaheim was the worst even-strength team in the Western Conference (and, what we would deem as a ‘paper tiger’ – a team that racked up points on unsustainable shooting and/or save percentages). This was one of the big reasons why the analytics community pegged them as an early-out candidate in their draw against Detroit. Out in round one.
Let’s look at Anaheim now compared to the West in 2013-2014. Here, due to the changing of the playoff format, we must focus on the Pacific Division – the place from where Anaheim must emerge to reach the Conference Final. I’ve grouped the Pacific Division together (Anaheim, San Jose, and Los Angeles):
Anaheim improved from two years ago to last year, no question. But, they were a distant third in their division at 5-on-5. I’ve long argued that San Jose vs. Los Angeles in the first-round last year was a crime, if only because both teams were Stanley Cup calibre. Here’s more evidence of that.
Anaheim takes the internal improvement, sure, but the gap between them and the competition was still reasonably enormous, and not in the Ducks’ favour. Again, the analytics community pegged Anaheim as an early-out candidate. They beat a comparable Dallas team in Round One, then lost to Los Angeles in Round Two.
Now, to this year. Let’s grab the top-eight teams as they currently sit, and see how Anaheim stacks up. Again, we must be cognizant of the new playoff format:
Two years ago, we weren’t sure the Ducks were playoff quality. Last year, the Ducks were playoff calibre, but brutally paled in comparison to teams in their division.
This year? Anaheim has the underlying numbers we have come to expect from teams who can compete for the Stanley Cup. But, what may be more important is what has happened inside the Pacific Division. San Jose has wildly regressed. Vancouver looks little more than a league-average hockey team. Calgary is this year’s ‘smoke and mirrors’ team, and the club any other coach would love to draw in Round One.
Noticeably absent? The defending champions. The Kings still have strong 5-on-5 numbers, but those have stepped down from the past couple of seasons – enough to put them in jeopardy of missing the postseason. If you’re any head coach (Bruce Boudreau or otherwise), what’s it worth to you to trade out to the Kings for this Flames club?
What’s been created is a perfect storm scenario for the Ducks. All of the good teams are in the Central Division. Calgary went on a half-season-long PDO run that could, somehow, push a superior Los Angeles team out of the playoff picture. It’s entirely possible that Anaheim can avoid playing a single Central Division nightmare until the Conference Final.
So, for the first time in three years, the ‘paper tiger’ label has been stripped from the Anaheim Ducks. And, perhaps as a nice reward for their improvement, they’ll have to maneuver through a simple playoff maze, rather than last year’s absolute minefield.