The opening round of the playoffs has cemented a depressing realization; the Anaheim Ducks are not even close to being a playoff team. Having not seen Ducks hockey since March, it’s been hard not to measure the Ducks against the teams currently playing to find the closest comparison and convince oneself that they aren’t that far off. Seeing teams like the Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens qualify after multiple years of playoff-less hockey might give Ducks fans hope, but it shouldn’t. It feels like the Ducks aren’t close to competing at the level of those teams.
Playoff Role Models
The Ducks are in a rebuild right now, and the team lacks any sort of star power. You aren’t getting the 60-point plus version of Ryan Getzlaf anymore, and even if he did turn back the clock, he doesn’t have a scorer to dish pucks to and rack up assists like he used to.
John Gibson might be the Ducks’ best player, and he should be the star, but the team’s defense is so porous, any sort of standout performance he might achieve is quickly washed away in an unstoppable flood of shots and point-blank opportunities.
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Still, the optimistic might look to the Canucks or Canadiens and think, “we were just like they were a couple of seasons ago, not even close enough to a playoff spot to play meaningful games in March.”
Suddenly, the Canucks are a genuine threat to make a deep playoff run, and the Canadiens qualified for the playoffs by beating the highly touted Pittsburgh Penguins. They then made Philadelphia Flyers fans a little nervous, taking their team to a sixth game in the first round.
Even the New York Islanders, who opened eyes last season by making the playoffs when no one expected them to, could serve as inspiration. They shouldn’t. Instead, each team should show you exactly where the Ducks are in their rebuild and what they still lack. It’s quite a bit.
However, when you look at the roster general manager Bob Murray has created after two years of non-playoff hockey, things still seem dire.
They might have a stud goaltender, but they are lacking in almost every other category, even compared to teams who barely qualified.
Canucks: Finishing Their Rebuild and Contending Again
Of all the teams to make the NHL playoffs, the Canucks’ recent history might resemble Anaheim’s closest.
Except for the change at general manager, and perhaps because of the change in general manager, a combination of aging stars, trades, and bad signings (Loui Eriksson, for example) caused the Canucks drop from contender to doormat in a season.
But, led by a new cast of young stars, the Canucks qualified for the playoffs again this season after a four-year drought, and they are doing damage.
The Canucks have a young coach, a former player, who incidentally spent two seasons with the Ducks, who’s only in his third season as an NHL coach. They also have a porous defense that allowed more shots per game than the Ducks did this season at 33.3. That was the fourth-worst mark in the NHL. That went along with a No. 11 ranking for goals against per game at 3.10. That is the worst regular-season ranking by any team to make the first round of the playoffs.
The positive lesson here? You don’t need to have a shut-down defense to make the playoffs. Not to mention the Ducks have a better goaltender than Vancouver in Gibson.
Unfortunately for Anaheim, that’s where the similarities end.
The Importance of Lottery Picks and Hitting on Late First Rounders
The Canucks spent four seasons out of the playoffs and are reaping the benefits of the high draft picks that go along with it. Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson are both lottery Picks, seventh and fifth overall, respectively. These picks came after the Canucks hit rock bottom in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
Also, the Canucks hit on a higher first-round draft pick when they were still competitive. Within his first 71 NHL games, 2015, 23rd overall pick Brock Boeser had accumulated 33 goals and 60 points overall.
Max Jones and Sam Steel, the Ducks’ two 2016 late-first rounders, have 50 points between them in a combined 176 games over their first two seasons.
If the Ducks are lucky, they hit rock bottom this past season, which means they still have their lottery picks to develop. It could be multiple seasons until Trevor Zegras and whoever they draft at sixth overall in this draft make an impact. Unless they make significant trades (with the very assets they need to develop to be competitive) and major free-agent signings (with the limited salary cap space they have this season), the Ducks’ playoff drought could exceed the one the Canucks just ended.
Islanders: Scoring By Committee
Another close comparison for Ducks fans might be the New York Islanders of 2018-19. After losing John Tavares from a team that had missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons, nobody gave the Islanders a chance.
Surprisingly, with four players putting up more than 50 points, including Matthew Barzal and the masterful coaching of newly minted Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders defied the odds and finished second Metropolitan division. They even upset Pittsburgh before losing in the second round to the Carolina Hurricanes.
The figurative hill that Anaheim has to climb to make the playoffs this coming season closely resembles the Islanders’ of 2018-19, but that’s all they have in common.
While the Islanders have wunderkind Barzal, he hasn’t quite shown the offensive potency that Tavares had when he left New York. But what they lack in individual, high-end scoring talent, they make up for throughout their lineup. The 2018-19 roster featured four players, including Barzal, that contributed more than 50 points that season. Barzal had 62.
The Islanders followed up last season’s performance by featuring five players with 40 points or more in 2019-20. The Ducks had three players that barely surpassed 40 points and didn’t have anyone who broke the 50 or 60-point barrier. The Islanders had two.
Finally, the Ducks don’t have Trotz. Dallas Eakins did change the Ducks’ style of play to a more offensive and exciting puck-possession style. He might be a successful coach one day, but he isn’t yet a defensive-minded genius, nor does he have the resume of Trotz.
Canadiens: Qualifying for Playoffs by Not Qualifying for Playoffs
It might be easiest to compare the Ducks with the Canadiens. Although they did play in the first round of the playoffs by upsetting the heavily favored Penguins, if this had been a standard season, Montreal wouldn’t have even sniffed playoff hockey.
They were nine points out of the final wild-card spot when their season ended 11 games early. In fact, they were only four points better than the Ducks in the league standings through 71 games.
Still, the Canadiens deserve credit for their Qualifying Round win, so let’s look at why they might be an attractive comparison.
For starters, both teams have goalies that can steal a series with Carey Price and Gibson. The Ducks are starting to have an influx of young players after missing the playoffs for two consecutive seasons like Montreal did the previous two.
Additionally, each team had their scoring troubles this season. Though Montreal’s highest performer, Thomas Tartar had 61 points, almost 20 more than Adam Henrique’s 43, he only scored 22 goals. Just Tartar and Brendan Gallagher, who also scored 22 goals, cracked the 20-goal barrier. Montreal had Ducks-level scoring troubles.
Montreal’s Possession Numbers Tell the Story
That might be the brightest ray of sunshine the Ducks have when you compare them to Montreal. They demonstrated that a scoring-challenged team can make the playoffs. Unfortunately, saying the Canadiens were offensively troubled is wrong.
They finished the season second in the league in shots for, with 34.1 per game. Their advanced statistics were just as strong. Their regular-season Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5 ranked second in the league at 54.76 as did their expected goals for percentage at 54.01.
Unfortunately, their actual goals scored per-game ranked them No. 19 in the league 2.93. What’s the lesson? Like the Ducks, they couldn’t finish a child-sized ice cream cone, but at least Montreal didn’t struggle to generate offense.
The Ducks somehow had a better shooting percentage than Montreal at 7.76% to the Canadiens 7.49% at 5-on-5 but scored 26-fewer goals through 71 games.
The problem lies in the Ducks possession abilities. Though Eakins’ new system emphasizes possession, the Ducks weren’t very good at it, especially compared to Montreal.
That probably has to do with the fact that this past season was Eakins’ first as Ducks head coach, and he faced a tall task uprooting the habits created by Randy Carlyle’s dump-and-chase philosophy.
Montreal’s Roster Isn’t That Bad, the Ducks’ Is
The Canadiens also have the positional structure and discipline to force the other team into mistakes that create more possession, reflected in shots and high-danger opportunities. That is something the Ducks struggle with tremendously.
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Additionally, Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and even Ben Chariot have the puck-moving acumen to make smart first passes and spring rushes that result in shots. Only Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler genuinely have that ability for Anaheim and not to Weber and Petry’s degree.
Finally, the Canadiens have head coach Claude Julien, a Stanley Cup champion who has gotten a lot out of a team, who, on paper, have some major holes on offense. Eakins hasn’t had the time to establish himself fully, but he also isn’t Julien.
If the Ducks were to surprise everyone next season and make the playoffs, it would require a drastic improvement in almost every phase of the game. Youngsters like Steel, Jones, Max Comtois, Tory Terry, Josh Mahura and Jacob Larsson will have to join new acquisitions Danton Heinen and Sonny Milano in improving their games drastically.
Not to mention Lindholm, Josh Manson and Fowler would need to have career-best seasons free from injury. Finally, Eakins needs to show an ability to preach as much defensive structure and as he does offensive creativity. Those two things aren’t easy to combine. The chances of even reaching the level of the Canadiens next season feels impossible.