Should We Be Worried?

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It is almost Thanksgiving in the United States, and three members of the conference semifinals from last season are in danger of missing the 2015-16 postseason due to slow starts. But with only a quarter of this season played, it is worth asking how much should be made of each team’s stumble.

Anaheim Ducks:

This season has provided the worst-case, doomsday scenario for this franchise. The Ducks’ two offensive constants this season have been Sami Vatanen and Cam Fowler. On the surface, that sounds positive. Possessing defensemen who can attack is an important attribute of a good team, but what has been concerning is that these two seem to be the only players who consistently facilitate offensive opportunities. In fairness, Corey Perry does some of his best distributing when he is in the trenches with a defender draped on him, but the Ducks’ premier forwards have not demonstrated they can strike off the rush, putting stress on their ability to score on the forecheck. While the forecheck is usually the bread and butter of Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Ryan Kesler, opponents have forestalled the Ducks’ offensive-zone pressure with alarming regularity.

Too often, especially with Perry and Getzlaf, the Ducks will establish territorial advantage and try to move the puck around the offensive zone, but they won’t achieve a desirable shot attempt or even generate an attempt at all. Their shot rate in the slot is below average, per war-on-ice.com

The Ducks have produced shot attempts from the point with high frequency, but that is outside the part of the zone they are trying to reside. In the past, the Ducks have thrived on winning the one-on-one battles below the circles as a scoring stimulant, and often that means moving the puck in area passes around the zone. But opponents have been quicker to the puck, and even if the Ducks win that race, they have been dreadful at finding scoring looks in the home-plate area. Too often, a Ducks skater enters the zone and submits a shot from the perimeter, but fails to apply pressure as the opponent retrieves the puck and moves it out with ease.

Blame falls on the core forwards. It seems premature to declare that Getzlaf and Kesler will never recover their mojo, but in this 2015-16 sample size, both players’ foot work and speed have looked diminished and they have not be able to carry or pass the puck into the prime areas of the ice. Neither has shown they can gain separation with any consistency. Opponents have defended both by keeping them to the outside and by maintaining a tight gap, and neither can get to the middle of the ice with the puck. One way both forwards have thrived in the past was by bullying through adversaries in the offensive zone. Thus far, that has not worked. Individual defenders are disrupting that endeavor, and defensive help has closed quickly if they glide past the first defender.

Corey Perry struggled mightily to begin the season, and many of the flaws plaguing Getzlaf and Kesler were applicable to him as well. But Perry has experienced success lately, demonstrating his knack for protecting the puck while backing the defense down, and also by pulling the puck through traffic and finding shooting and passing lanes. Perry may not be quite as dynamic as he once was, but he still has sufficient finesse to complement his strength and creativity with the puck.

Concerns over the forward nucleus depreciating are especially grave because the Ducks are so dependent on its efforts to buoy Anaheim to victory. The Carl Hagelin acquisition and subsequent contract have been a predictable disaster. If Getzlaf and Kesler are hampered by an eroding skill set due to their peak years ending, Hagelin provides a comical counter. Hagelin is not too old; instead, he has one skill, speed, and if he cannot use that to find room, he is useless. The Ducks’ passing has been poor and Hagelin has been a non-factor this season, and there is no reason to expect he will improve.

Jakob Silfverberg, like Hagelin, is a complementary piece, as are Patrick Maroon, Andrew Cogliano, and Chris Stewart. Although useful in certain disciplines, assigning these players outsized roles is foolish. The only player who has potential for greater things is Rickard Rakell; with the Ducks floundering, the late first-rounder has performed as well as can be expected for someone who has played 130 total NHL games and is being relied on to provide scoring and puck-handling. Rakell is a +25 in Corsi differential, tied for second among forwards in Scoring Chances differential, and trails only Perry and Getzlaf in points among forwards. Rakell is not the antidote, but he is part of Anaheim’s solution.

Anaheim’s defense is their strength right now. They are just outside the top ten in goals against, ninth in Corsi against per 60 minutes, and have the best penalty kill in the league. Hampus Lindholm may not have Vatanen or Fowler’s offensive upside, but he is the more impactful in all three zones.

But the positive is moot if the big boys don’t get going. In its league preview, IH framed the Ducks’ season as a question of whether their defense could thrust them into the Cup final. Their championship hopes appeared to hinge on their blueliners. But embedded in that article was the presumption that their star forwards would continue to dazzle. The metrics for Anaheim in November are encouraging, but if the Ducks don’t have creators and finishers at forward generating and influencing shot attempts, they will continue to struggle.

Tampa Bay Lightning:

Last season, the Lightning were a few unfortunate sequences away from winning the Stanley Cup. They were every bit as good as Chicago. They had the talent, depth, and continuity to dominate stretches of play and overwhelm teams with their speed and puck movement.

That really hasn’t changed. They have virtually all the same players, but their execution has not been as good, and pet plays like the cross-ice pass by the Triplet line have not been available. (Thank you, scouting.)

Tampa Bay has some similarities to Chicago in the way their personnel performs at its best. Speed through the neutral zone allows them to score off the rush, putting less prominence on their forecheck. Like the Blackhawks, the Lightning can forecheck proficiently, but if their speed and skill are restricted on the rush and they are forced to play at a more deliberate pace, the game becomes more of a grind. When you have the horses, you want to run.

This does not mean Lightning fans should be worried. Tampa Bay is still accomplished in their ability to maintain possession (they are 8th in Corsi for percentage and Corsi Against per 60 minutes, and they are one tenth of a point away from being in the top ten for Corsi For per 60 minutes). When they pass well and work in concert with their defense, this team can penetrate the middle and crash the net as successfully as any team in the NHL. The Lightning were in the top five or top ten for all three categories of possession metrics last year, so there has been a slight drop-off, but it is not as significant as what their unacceptable record suggests. The Bolts’ captain, Steven Stamkos, has been the fulcrum of the offense, but the Triplets and the complementary forwards have not injected adequate scoring.

The Lightning went from 1st in goals per game last season to 24th this season. They were first in shooting percentage at even strength and in all situations last season. This season they are 19th in the former and 23rd in the latter. Stamkos has scored prolifically, but the Triplets are all under nine percent in shooting percentage. And with Ondrej Palat injured and Jonathan Drouin banged up, scoring woes are magnified. Ryan Callahan’s shooting percentage is 11.4, which would be encouraging if he had not fired only 35 shots in 20 games for 4 goals. Callahan had 24 goals last season.

But there is too much firepower on this team for them not to see the tide shift. The defense is playing well and the goaltending has been very good. There is some speculation that the Stamkos contract negotiations have been an ominous specter looming over this team, but that explanation seems flimsy. Stamkos has looked great and so has the team defense. The difference between last season’s Tampa Bay and this season’s iteration is that their heralded scoring depth has been missing.

Looking at war-on-ice’s Team Hextally chart, the Lightning are getting into the middle-to-high slot at an above-average clip and scoring frequently when they do. That has not been true with the low slot, but finding shooting real estate in the upper region of the slot is a promising sign. Optimism can be found among the Lightning leaders in the scoring chances created metric by war-on-ice: Kucherov leads the forwards in the metric and Johnson is slightly behind Stamkos in third. These guys did not turn from stars into scrubs.

The Lightning Cup run was not a mirage. Their forward group is still arguably the best in the league, and their complete roster from top to bottom might be the best in the NHL. With the Lightning controlling the puck more (they have the sixth best Corsi for percentage in November, per war-on-ice.com), the shots will start to find the back of the net.

Calgary Flames:

Last season was a wild, rollercoaster ride for Calgary. The analytics screamed loudly that their team had a house-of-cards fragility, but the electricity of their rush game and the talent of the neophytes drowned out the haters – at least until this season. In 2015-16, they have had comparably poor metrics, but unlike last season, the puck luck has not been there. Also, the goaltending has been a very public disaster. The Flames’ three goaltenders are ranked among the NHL’s twelve worst in even-strength save percentage, per war-on-ice.com. The defense was expected to improve with the addition of Dougie Hamilton, but the corps has dramatically underwhelmed. (Kris Russell trails only T.J. Brodie in time on ice, but his Corsi and Scoring Chances differentials are dreadful.)

Still, it is hard to be negative about the Flames or drum up any sympathy because their future radiates with promise. In Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett, they seem to have collected two stud centers, offering the possibility that they will have superb depth down the middle for the next decade.

Monahan has been producing since he entered the league, and last season only accelerated expectations. This year, he started slow, but he has found his scoring touch by embracing his identity as someone who needs to play between the circles and drive the net. Monahan is the opposite of a slasher; he is not going to explode into the middle Tarasenko-style, but his hands in tight spaces and shot release are sterling. He is headed for another monster season statistically.

After missing almost all of his rookie season with an injury, Bennett has jumped into the No. 2 center role and generated offense and played a mature two-way game. Bennett’s poise with the puck and confidence in his passing and puck control presage big things for the teenager. And really, the youth of the Flames’ top two centers cannot be overstated: Bennett is 19 and Monahan is 21 — yet, despite their cherub faces, both contribute offensively and defensively in ways that it took many incumbent superstar players years to develop. Hockey sense is rarely baked into a prospect.

Glancing away from the centers, the Flames have a first-class scoring winger in Johnny Gaudreau. Gaudreau’s puck-handling and distributing open up the ice for all four of his teammates, and his propensity for curling away from the action to buy time is an invaluable attribute for a playmaker. In Brodie, the Flames may have uncovered a No. 1 defenseman, which is especially fortunate if Mark Giordano never fully looks the same. Brodie can lead a rush or thwart an opposing rush, and his vision and skating make Calgary more formidable offensively and more sound defensively.

There are some bad contracts on this team and there are players who need to be replaced, but the key players are so young that Calgary does not need to go pursuing high-risk talent in free agency or via trade. They seem to have assembled the building blocks for a future Cup contender. This season has hammered home that point as the young skaters are consistently the Flames’ best players and match up admirably with the NHL’s elite. The best thing for this team to do while they find the right surrounding pieces is to gain playoff experience.

And that is why it helps to play in the strikingly pitiful Pacific Division. As awful as the Flames’ start has been, they are only six points out of a playoff spot at the moment! Their lowly division is mandated to send the top three teams in points to the postseason, and aside from the Kings, Calgary’s competition is not very good. If the Flames’ defensive group starts to play better, and the goaltending can find a modicum of stability, a run at the playoffs becomes possible.

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