Deconstructing the West: Anaheim Ducks

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There is a concept in economics called the fallacy of composition, and its applicability in hockey is noteworthy. The premise is that a person or group infers that something true about a part of something is also true of the whole. In the hockey world, this mistake is made time and again with the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin; therefore, it is concluded that Pittsburgh has to be a serious Cup contender from the Eastern Conference. Of course, this hasn’t been true with the Penguins in recent seasons because their depth is below average.

The Anaheim Ducks present an interesting corollary in the Western Conference. Like Pittsburgh, they have the acclaimed leading actors, but the supporting cast is less defined. And, like in any good movie, the Ducks need to have a healthy tension between the primary forces driving the action and the surrounding voices accompanying the objective. In other words, the Ducks need their star forwards to prosper, but this needs to happen in concert with their defense and complementary forwards.

To establish the Ducks’ legitimacy, it is best to start with the leading men and fan outward.

Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry excel because of their oversized skill and formidable proportions. (Getzlaf is 6’5 and Perry is 6’3.) Despite the league being awash in small, speedy players who can make an impact without being imposing physical forces, there is little question that the Ducks’ forward duo achieves the level of their success because of their size. Unrestrained talent synergized with enormous bodies translates into a hockey tsunami.

Getzlaf and Perry also capture their team’s ethos. They bestow physicality to their glossy puck skills. Finesse teams like Chicago and Minnesota know that when they play Anaheim, civility quickly digresses into a metaphorical knife fight. In fact, the Ducks’ brutality was a key component to their game plan against Chicago (and the Blackhawks’ overworked top-four defensemen) and it nearly worked. Against the bigger teams like Los Angeles or Winnipeg, the Ducks can match fire with fire.

The Ducks’ management attempted to make the team quicker last season while simultaneously keeping their characteristic bite. The sum was that Anaheim seized the all-important Cup trait of adaptability. And they should still have this trait in this upcoming season.

Continuing on the theme of forwards who are deft practitioners in the art of power and grace, Ryan Kesler was everything Anaheim hoped for and more as the team’s No. 2 center. Kesler logged the tough minutes and proved to be a consistent offensive producer. In the postseason, his defensive acuity against No. 1 centers helped the Ducks dominate long stretches of play, as Getzlaf and Perry were free to foment disorder. Moreover, in the Ducks’ playoff run, Kesler’s linemate, Jakob Silfverberg, demonstrated the 200-foot impact Anaheim envisioned when they traded for him.

But it is time to snap out of the daydream. Aside from Kesler, the eight remaining forwards constituting lines two through four are underwhelming. There are concerning amount of retreads and one-skill players in this soup (Silfverberg, Carl Hagelin, Andrew Cogliano, Mike Santorelli, Chris Stewart, Shawn Horcoff, Rickard Rakell, and Jiri Sekac). Every player aside from Rakell and Sekac may have plateaued. Patrick Maroon spent a lot of time on the first line with Getzlaf and Perry last season, but if he is moved off the first line, his contribution independent of the superstars may be limited. With forward depth being crucial to advancing in the playoffs, and Getzlaf, Perry, and Kesler all in their 30s, can that group muster enough offensive production to push this team forward?

After allowing power forward and valued contributor Matt Beleskey to walk in free agency, the Ducks traded Emerson Etem and the No. 41 pick in the 2015 Draft for Hagelin and the 59th and 179th picks. Anaheim proceeded to extend Hagelin, who was a restricted free agent, to a four-year deal at $4 million AAV. This makes Hagelin the fourth-highest paid forward on the Ducks. Yikes.

Hagelin tied his career high in goals last season with 17, and finished with 35 points in 82 games, just short of his career best 38 points from 2011-12. In terms of driving play, he was fine, as the Rangers controlled 50.4 percent of shot attempts when he was on the ice, per Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com. (To be fair to Hagelin, traditionally he has been one of the Rangers best possession players.) Still, in 2014-15, his deployment was not especially tough. While he only saw 50 percent of faceoffs in the offensive zone, the competition he faced was not difficult, per behindthenet.ca.

To understand why this trade and extension are so fraught one needs to dig one layer deeper. Hagelin’s most frequent linemate at even strength last season was Kevin Hayes – on the third line. At the age of 27, Hagelin was playing in a complementary role. His primary duty was to add speed and kill penalties; scoring was welcomed but not expected. Moreover, Hayes experienced more success at driving play apart from Hagelin than Hagelin did independent of Hayes. Even more disturbingly, Hayes’ Scoring Chances differential at even strength was +44; Hagelin’s was -6, per war-on-ice.com.

Now Hagelin is expected to provide a substantial impact in a second-line role. The Ducks are making the Peter principle management mistake. They are paying a player in his late 20s to fulfill a role that he has not demonstrated he is capable of executing. Essentially, the Ducks just paid for another Andrew Cogliano, only they are giving Hagelin a million more per season. That is a lot of money tied up for two players whose job (speed, energy, killing penalties, the occasional goal) can be filled by a player on an entry-level deal.

And yet, the Ducks’ unpalatable third and fourth lines and questionable offseason moves could be salvaged by former first-round pick Rickard Rakell taking a leap forward. Last year was Rakell’s first full season in the NHL, and his nine goals and 22 assists and 52.7 Corsi for percentage presage top-six upside. In the postseason, Getzlaf and Perry were the only forwards with a better Scoring Chances differential than he had at even strength, per war-on-ice.com.

Harking back to the Ducks’ versatility that was lauded earlier, Rakell shines when he is commanding both sides of the puck. He has demonstrated ingenuity to manufacture offense off the rush and cycle, and his defensive awareness and effort make him effective at dismantling opposing efforts at scoring. In Rakell, the Ducks might have a forward who can mitigate the loss of Beleskey (who was a monster in Corsi and Scoring Chances differential last season); Rakell could evolve into a defensive stopper and offensive puck-transporter.

Aside from Rakell (and as a consequence of trading Etem), the Ducks’ bottom-six forwards include several lackluster pieces. It will be frustrating watching net-zeroes like Chris Stewart, Shawn Horcoff, and Mike Santorelli soak up minutes since their capabilities are so limited. Fortunately, that may lead to a more aggressive approach from the Ducks’ defensive group.

The Nashville Predators own the best defensive corps in the conference, but the Ducks possessing a gang of savvy puck-movers (Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, and Sami Vatanen) to spread among three different D-pairings is reason for excitement. And to strike an even more optimistic tenor, those three defensemen are all younger than 25. Josh Manson, who was a 23-year-old rookie last season, showed some extremely promising signs as well.

In the playoffs, there were concerns from this corner and others about how the Ducks’ back end would fare against the Blackhawks. Well, they answered those worries by playing far above expectations. The Ducks’ rearguards connected on first passes, competed ferociously in one-on-one battles, and stimulated the transition game and offensive cycle. The archetype for a successful defenseman in today’s NHL is one who rushes the puck and creates space for his teammates while preserving a strong defensive posture. That benchmark was achieved.

In addition to the misplaced optimism displayed in the Hagelin trade-and-extend, the Ducks also made a questionable move on defense when they traded for and extended 34-year-old Kevin Bieksa. Bieksa will receive $4 million for two more seasons from the Ducks after his current contract expires this season. With veteran Francois Beauchemon parting ways with the Ducks this summer, it appears that Anaheim was intent on finding another seasoned player who could add some physicality and experience.

Unfortunately, Bieksa was not very good last season, submitting a Corsi percentage of 48.5 and only adding four goals and 10 assists. He has never been a vaunted point producer, but in 2014-15 his assist total was strikingly low, and despite missing a portion of the season, the Canucks were desperate to get rid of him because of his declining output.

And yet, the Ducks have had success buying low before, and with their stable of talented young defensemen to pair with Bieksa, he might not end up punishing Anaheim. This move has a much higher probability of working out than the Hagelin addition. After all, Clayton Stoner and Simon Despres did not come to Anaheim with august resumes. And, like Bieksa, they fit the role of size and grit that the Ducks prize.

A good team defense in hockey is defined by defensemen and forwards enhancing the goaltender. Concurrently, the netminder must also harmonize with the skaters. They are hopelessly and utterly intertwined, like a marriage, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Frederik Andersen is not the best goaltender in the NHL, but he is reliable – he often gives the Ducks a chance to win. The Ducks have never been an above-average possession team, but they do a strong enough job at keeping opponents out of the home-plate area on their shot attempts, per war-on-ice.com.

Fowler, Lindholm, and Vatanen’s skill sets are not as distinguished as some of the NHL’s best at the defensive position. But when each is assigned to a different pairing, they hold the ability to elevate their team’s possibility. In the NHL, you need a defined strength and you need depth. The Ducks’ defensive group fortifies their case on both fronts. The narrative of the Ducks is whether they can win soon before their star forwards pass their prime, but the roadmap to the Cup final depends on their blossoming defensemen.

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