The start to the season by the Ducks was one of the greatest disappointments in the NHL. But after an ugly start, Anaheim has turned things around — and the Pacific Division has been futile enough — that the Ducks are right back in the playoff hunt.
No one would have expected the Anaheim Ducks, who were one win away from a berth in the Stanley Cup final, to be on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture. Fewer would have expected that those same Ducks would be dead last in the Western Conference with more than a third of the season in the books. Yet, somehow, that’s exactly where Anaheim sits.
From top to bottom, the Ducks have struggled. None of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf or Ryan Kesler have eclipsed the 20-point plateau. Getzlaf has managed just one goal this season and Kesler, who signed a six-year, $41.25-million extension in the off-season, has three. Only one player on the entire Ducks roster has scored more than six goals, and that’s Perry, who has 10. No other team in the league has less than two players who’ve passed the six-goal mark.
Here’s the catch, though: while being a division’s worst team at this juncture of the season should mean no playoff berth is on the horizon, it doesn’t for Anaheim. Why? Because the Ducks play in the Pacific Division, where the second-seeded Arizona Coyotes would be no better than sixth in any of the league’s other three divisions.
In a season that should be lost for Anaheim, there’s ample room for a turnaround and only because they’re being allowed to creep back into the post-season race due to a number of weak divisional opponents. And don’t count the Ducks out, because making up three points shouldn’t be tough and all signs point to Anaheim turning it around if they can start to catch a bounce or two.
If you split the season into two halves, it’s clear just how much the Ducks have turned it up, only to be brought back down to earth by a continued inability to score at 5-on-5. In their first 15 games of the season, Anaheim was an average to poor team in most of the major underlying statistics. When it came to puck possession, the Ducks ranked 15th with a 50.3 percent shot attempts for percentage. However, their goals for percentage (40 percent), shooting percentage (4.7 percent) and high-danger scoring chance percentage (42.2) all ranked in the bottom three in the league.
The turnaround since then, though, has been sharp. The Ducks continue to be puck possession monsters with a 55.3 percent shot attempts for percentage in their past 14 games — third-best in the league — and boast a high-danger scoring change percentage of 60 percent, the best mark since Dec. 11. The Ducks’ ability to get a bounce still hasn’t changed, though: they have a league-worst 5 percent shooting percentage since Dec. 11, which has resulted in a 28th-ranked goals for percentage of 42.5.
But that’s where the Pacific Division comes in handy for Anaheim, and where the recent futility of the San Jose Sharks, Arizona Coyotes and Vancouver Canucks plays right into the Ducks’ hands. Making the post-season in the Pacific won’t be so much about catching the division-leading Los Angeles Kings as it will be aiming for the second- or third-seed in the division. As hard as it may be to believe, the Ducks actually do have a shot at home-ice advantage in the first round.
It’s not as if the Ducks need to go on a 10-game tear, either. A methodical climb up the division is entirely possible. Prolonged slides, like the seven-of-eight losing streak San Jose is currently on, are bound to happen in a division that has been as weak as the Pacific this season.
To get to the post-season, the Ducks will need to outplay the Coyotes, Canucks, Sharks, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. Both Albertan teams are hot of late and on a pair of five-game winning streaks, but the Oilers and Flames have been outscoring woeful goaltending with sub-50 percent possession rates. Luck like that eventually comes to an end, just as Anaheim’s inability to score even though they’ve dominated games won’t hold for their next 53 outings.
The Canucks, too, have been able to buck a sub-50 percent possession rate while getting mediocre goaltending from Ryan Miller. Unless Miller can improve, the Canucks will have a tough time asserting themselves atop the division. They’ll also have to stay afloat while dealing with an injury to Brandon Sutter that will keep him out for at least another two-to-four weeks.
In any other year, in any other division, Anaheim’s season would be all but over. But there’s still a sliver of hope. It’s not going to be easy for the Ducks, though, and it’s going to take piecing together some wins and finding a way to light a fire under Getzlaf, Kesler and, to a lesser extent, Perry. But once those three get going, the rest of the roster can follow suit and Anaheim can begin their slow climb back into a post-season spot. A playoff spot, which at one point seemed unfathomable for Anaheim, now looks like it could be there’s for the taking — and they have the futility of the Pacific Division to thank.
(All advanced statistics via War-On-Ice)