We’re a couple weeks into the 2016-17 regular season, and the Pacific Division standings look a tad awry. The Canucks are on top with an unblemished 3-0 record, and are followed by the Oilers and Sharks, who are both 3-1. At the bottom, the Ducks are 0-3-1; the Kings are pointless at 0-3.
Just like everyone predicted.
The Kings’ early struggles can be explained, in part, by the injury to Jonathan Quick. If you look at that roster and its system, it’s easy to see Los Angeles rebounding in the not-too-distant future.
It’s difficult to feel that kind of optimism about the Ducks, however.
Last season, it started to look like the Anaheim’s long streak of success was coming to an end. The offense scored at a miserable clip. Bounces weren’t going their way like they were in the past. And many of the teams ahead of them in the Western Conference, especially those in the Central, were improving.
At 12-15-6, the Ducks looked like a shell of their former self.
But they weren’t dead in the water, because they had one of the best head coaches in hockey: Bruce Boudreau. Realizing his team wasn’t going to be an offensive juggernaut, he turned the Ducks into a club that emphasized the neutral zone trap. The players executed this plan well — so well, in fact, that Anaheim won 34 of its last 49 regular season games and earned the Pacific Division crown with 103 points.
The Ducks were bounced in the first round, though, losing in seven games to the Nashville Predators. While Boudreau led this masterful resurgence and sported a winning pedigree, Anaheim looked at his lack of rings, fired him and rehired the only head coach to win a Cup for the organization: Randy Carlyle.
Yes, Carlyle brought Anaheim its lone NHL title, but the move was widely criticized by the hockey community. Boudreau won his division in eight of the last nine years. Carlyle, on the other hand, was run out of Anaheim in 2011, then had a miserable tenure with the Leafs, who showed him the doheavor in 2015.
Going over the numbers, it’s impossible to ignore what happens when a team fires Carlyle: their possession numbers immediately spike. When the Ducks first canned him on Dec. 1, 2011, they had a miserable 46.39 shot attempt differential at 5-on-5, tumbling 134 attempts into the red after 24 contests.
During the next 58 games, though, once Boudreau took the reins, Anaheim earned 49.46 percent of the even-strength shot-share — or, in other words, almost broke even.
And here’s what Toronto’s rolling average CF% looked like in 2014-15. This is one of the clearest illustrations of coaching influence that I can think of:
Now the question is, will Carlyle adapt enough to repair his reputation? Perhaps.
“I don’t believe I’m a Neanderthal from a standpoint of wanting knuckles dragging and fighting,” he said at his introductory press conference in June. “I don’t believe that. I’d like to have rough n’ tumble hockey. I like to play physical hockey. But the game has changed. You have to have skating ability. You have to be able to move the puck, you have to play a pace game.
“As far as the analytics issue – that was never ever an issue from my perspective. I feel there’s a place for analytics in the game. It’s a place for us as a hockey department, as a coaching staff, to decide what analytics you want to use. There are different statistics made available to you some people find important. Analytics in my name is just an expanded view of stats. It’s proven there are positives that come from it and I think that I’ve never been adverse to using analytics and the people in Toronto will tell you that.”
Leafs fans probably got a nice chuckle out of that last line.
Still, it’s somewhat encouraging for him to acknowledge that the game has changed. But those are just words, and while four games make up extremely small sample size, the 2016-17 Ducks have looked a lot like the underwhelming groups Carlyle has led in the past.
They’ve been out-shot — only Buffalo and Detroit have worse score-adjusted Corsi percentages — their system appears unimpressive and they haven’t been able to make the kind of in-game adjustments needed to come out on top.
So here’s the bottom line. Carlyle is known for being a stubborn man. It has been a decade since he lifted the Cup in Anaheim. George W. Bush was still president at the time. Ocean’s 13 was in theaters. “Girlfriend” by Avril Lavigne was at the top of the charts.
And the NHL was played a lot differently than it is in 2016.
The Ducks should get their first win soon, and the return of D-man Hampus Lindholm (whenever that occurs) will help substantially. Nevertheless, even if Carlyle evolves, it’s hard to imagine him changing enough to mold a legitimate contender — let alone guide the Ducks to the one goal management didn’t think Boudreau could accomplish.