Ducks’ winning streak: luck, skill, Gibson?

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On paper, it sure seems like the Anaheim Ducks are heating up after weathering some storms early this season.

The Ducks beat the Chicago Blackhawks 4-2 on Wednesday, extending their current winning streak to five games. Their upward trend dates back a bit before that, too, as they’ve won seven of their last eight games.

Combine Anaheim’s surge with a weak Pacific Division and you get a rosy outlook: the Ducks are comfortably located in a playoff position (second place, though others have a game or two in hand, with 35 points in 30 games).

So, does this mean that the Ducks are merely shrugging off an undeniably tough run of injuries to begin 2018-19? Is Randy Carlyle’s crew ascending back to true contender status? Alternatively, are they mainly getting lucky?

This post dives into the Ducks’ recent run to see how much has changed, and how much they might be able to sustain.

Simple team-wide stats

The Ducks and Lightning share the same 7-1-0 record in eight games since Nov. 21, tying for the best mark during that span.

One bit of promising news is that, in some areas, the Ducks aren’t playing too over their heads. Anaheim’s power play success rate through eight games (21.7) is higher than the full-season mark of 16.9), yet that’s not an astronomical jump that would raise a red flag. The Ducks’ PK has been basically unchanged, killing about 80 percent of penalties.

Still, the Ducks have arrived at their seven wins in a far less impressive way than the Lightning. While Tampa Bay’s generated 37 goals for versus 24 goals against, the Ducks have scored just 26 goals versus 20.

Keeping pucks out of the net

If you want to point to a single factor propelling the Ducks to this strong run, it’s probably the element you’d anticipate if you’ve been following this team’s sporadic successes. Goaltending has been the ace up Anaheim’s sleeve.

That starts – but it doesn’t end – with splendid starter John Gibson. During his seven games since Nov. 21, Gibson has only allowed 16 goals, putting up a strong .922 save percentage. It says a lot about Gibson’s talent that he’s actually been a bit better over the full season (.926) and his entire career (.924).

Ryan Miller hasn’t played a ton during this winning streak, yet he’s been lights out when called up. During two games (and one start), Miller stopped 53 out of 56 shots for a .946 save percentage. Miller’s at a .929 save percentage in 2018-19, and he’s been absolutely tremendous since joining the Ducks, generating an overall save percentage of .928 in 37 games between the past two seasons.

(That agonized groan you heard might have been the Hurricanes, Flames, and other teams that could have conceivably tabbed Miller as their starting goalie.)

Some scoring variety?

Over the past eight games, six Ducks forwards (Ryan Getzlaf, Nick Ritchie, Pontus Aberg, Adam Henrique, Ondrej Kase, and Rickard Rakell) have at least seven points, with Getzlaf leading the pack at eight.

They’ve also enjoyed some solid production from defensemen like Hampus Lindholm and Brandon Montour; fascinatingly, Marcus Pettersson was traded to Pittsburgh with a hot hand, as he had four of his season’s six points during that streak.

Some of those forwards have been on unsustainably hot streaks (Ritchie, for example, enjoyed a 36.4 shooting percentage during these eight games), but it would be heartening if the Ducks could get offense beyond Getzlaf. It was just one game, yet management had to be high-fiving after seeing Daniel Sprong score on his first shot with the Ducks.

Lingering issues

Possession stats aren’t the end-all, be-all, but they can often forecast an icy team thawing out or a hot team cooling off.

Looking at the Ducks’ numbers, there are reasons to be concerned about a lull.

Using Puck on Net’s stats since Nov. 21, you can see that the Ducks have still been a bottom-third NHL team when it comes to Corsi, Fenwick, and simple shots for/against. While the Ducks have shown some signs of improvement compared to especially troubling full-season trends, they seemingly remain quite dependent upon Gibson/Miller stopping a lot of shots, and hoping Getzlaf and others can make up any difference.

The health question

Look, it’s perfectly reasonable to feel sympathy for the Ducks, as they’ve suffered through some tough injury issues. In the case of Cam Fowler‘s painful-sounding facial ailments, there’s an element of random, lousy luck.

Even so, it’s reasonable to wonder if Corey Perry will be able to move the needle in a return, if he can manage to play again this season. It frequently takes players time to get back to full strength after an injury, particularly serious ones.

And, let’s face it. While the Ducks have some nice young players, many of their most prominent players are on the older end, and the Getzlaf/Perry/Ryan Kesler types are also the ones who’ve really been through battles.

As uncomfortable as it is to ask, it’s fair to wonder if the Ducks are simply going to have to live with a lot of trips to the trainer in the short and medium-term future.

Resiliency

Give the Ducks credit for finding ways to win, though, especially lately.

It’s impressive that the Ducks began this five-game winning streak by winning the last four contests during a road trip. Wednesday’s win against Chicago began a four-game homestand, so the Ducks have a chance to store some points as if they’re building up winter coats.

(Do actual ducks have winter coats?)

These recent experiences could help the Ducks, as their schedule features some dramatic home and road swings:

  • Once they conclude this four-game homestand (three games remaining), they’ll head out for a six-game road trip.
  • They’ll enter 2019 with a six-game homestand from Dec. 29 – Jan. 11.
  • An especially daunting stretch follows that. They play five games on the road from Jan. 13-20, get a home game against the Blues on Jan. 23, then head out on a five-game road trip from Feb. 2-9. Playing 10 of 11 games on the road? That’s the sort of stretch that can really tear a season apart – or bring players closer together – depending upon how things go.

I’ve criticized Carlyle’s coaching plenty of times, but if he can keep things positive through the thick and thin of the next six weeks or so, then he deserves some kudos.

Closing thoughts

There are a lot of warning signs that the Ducks might not be able to walk this tightrope.

Anaheim is still asking a lot of its goalies, and if we know anything about the position, it’s that results can be unpredictable. Even the best of the best tend to suffer through dry spells. It doesn’t help that the Ducks tend to allow a significantly higher number of chances for than against (hence the Carlyle criticism).

The Ducks’ schedule isn’t exactly what you’d call “forgiving,” either.

Then again, the formula of Gibson, Getzlaf, and assorted other players might just work. That’s especially true in a Pacific Division that hasn’t been very good, at least so far.

It may not be pretty, yet if the Ducks can put together another stretch or two like this one, they might be able to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. For all their flaws, plenty of teams probably would prefer to avoid a best-of-seven series against Gibson.

Do you think the Ducks can navigate these choppy waters?

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Why the Wild are better off being terrible next season

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When you ponder what separates the good, the bad, and the ugly in the NHL, don’t forget the importance of self-awareness.

For all of Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton’s lizard tongued blunders through his first year at the helm, the Wild’s biggest problem is that owner Craig Leipold is in denial about his team.

It’s been about a year since Leipold shared this message, yet all signs point to the Wild refusing to embrace a true rebuild. In ignoring their reality, the Wild only dig the hole deeper by making more mistakes, and dragging their feet on finding better answers.

Instead of getting the best of both worlds of competing and “rebuilding on the fly,” the Wild are stuck in purgatory: too bad to credibly contend, too competitive to get the picks that help teams win championships. Leipold’s paid for a contender while the Wild have slipped to the level of outright pretenders.

In catering to Leipold, both Chuck Fletcher and current GM Paul Fenton created quite a mess. The Wild’s Cap Friendly page might as well include a horror movie scream mp3 every time you load it up.

Allow this take, then: the Wild would be better off bottoming out in 2019-20, rather than battling for mediocrity.

[The Central Division might not give the Wild much of a choice.]

Changing perceptions?

Most directly, an epic Wild collapse would help them get higher draft lottery odds.

The indirect benefits are considerable, if not guaranteed. Most importantly, Leipold may finally realize that the current plan isn’t working. Failing to even be “in the mix” may also inspire the Wild to trade away certain players, and for those players to make the process easier by waiving various clauses.

  • To start, there are players who are more or less in their primes, but may slip out by the time the Wild can truly compete. Jared Spurgeon is the biggest example with his expiring contract, but it continues to make sense to shop Jason Zucker, and Jonas Brodin heads the list of other considerations.
  • If the Wild end up cellar dwelling, it might be easier to convince Mikko Koivu and Devan Dubnyk to accept trades, and perhaps even to part ways with Eric Staal. (Trading Staal would be awkward since he gave the Wild a sweetheart deal, but sometimes things have to get awkward before they get better.)
  • Via Cap Friendly, the Wild’s commitments for 2020-21 go down to $59.46M, and really open up in 2021-22 (just $37.36M to seven players). So, if the Wild are too stubborn or cowardly to trade some of the above players, Fenton could get something close to a clean slate if they merely let them walk or retire. This thought makes a Spurgeon decision especially important.

On Parise and Suter …

Speaking of money regrets, the Wild should try to get Parise and Suter off the books, even if it’s tough to imagine them actually pulling that off.

  • Honestly, if Parise went on LTIR, I’d view it as far more credible than plenty of other cases. He’s had significant back issues, and those don’t tend to go away, particularly for 34-year-olds with a lot of mileage.
  • Suter seems impossible to trade, but we’ve seen other seemingly impossible trades actually happen.
  • Maybe there’d be a hockey deus ex machina, like expansion draft creativity, or a compliance buyout?

Not the best odds, yet Fenton would be negligent if he didn’t explore many avenues to ease concerns.

Hope can come quickly

A long rebuild would be a tough sell, but maybe Fenton could sell a Rangers revamp to Leipold: going all-in for a short period of time to bring in picks, prospects, and generally gain flexibility.

[More on the Rangers’ rebuild]

While I doubt that many teams can recreate the Rangers’ mix of wisdom and luck, the bottom line is that the Wild have gone a long time since they focused on getting blue chip prospects. Look at the Wild’s draft history and you’ll see how rare high first-rounders have been lately, and how often they’ve lacked higher picks altogether.

To sweeten the deal, the 2020 NHL Draft crop is getting quite a bit of hype, too.

Imagine the Wild landing a lottery pick, some picks and prospects through trades, and Kirill Kaprizov’s long-awaited NHL leap. If they hoarded cap space, they could strike for their own answer to Jacob Trouba and/or Artemi Panarin. Suddenly, the Wild go from drowning slowly in quicksand to seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

***

Things can change quickly in sports. The Wild could make their “poor, sad, dejected, beaten down” fans far happier with some bold changes, but they must sway their most important fan: their owner. If a truly lousy season is the only way for Leipold to clue in, then it might just be worth it for the Wild.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?

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Seattle’s NHL expansion franchise confirmed a key hire on Wednesday, naming Ron Francis as its first general manager.

The Hall of Fame center spent just under four years as Carolina Hurricanes GM, and with that, his work inspires mixed reactions. Let’s consider the good, bad, and mixed to try to get a feel for what Francis offers Seattle as its new boss.

Net losses

The Hurricanes never made the playoffs during Francis’ time as GM, and faulty goaltending was the biggest reason why. At the time, gambling on Eddie Lack and Scott Darling as replacements made some sense – though the term Darling received heightened the risks – but both gambles were epic busts.

With Alex Nedeljkovic (37th pick in 2014) still developing, it’s possible that Francis drafted a future answer in net, yet his immediate answers came up empty. Matching the luck that the Vegas Golden Knights have had with Marc-Andre Fleury seems somewhat unlikely, but Francis needs to do better with that crucial position in his second GM stint.

Building a strong young roster on a budget

It says a lot about Francis’ work in Carolina that The Athletic’s (sub. required) Dom Luszczyszyn graded the Hurricanes as the NHL’s most efficient salary structure, and apparently by a healthy margin.

Some of those great contracts were offered up by current GM Don Waddell (or Marc Bergevin’s offer sheet for Sebastian Aho), yet Francis and his crew authored some stunners. Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce boast some of the best bargain contracts in the NHL.

[RELATED: NHL Seattle tabs Ron Francis as first GM]

With a clean slate in Seattle, maybe Francis and his crew can create similar competitive advantages?

Drafting wise, the Hurricanes had some big wins under Francis, most notably stealing Aho in the second round in 2015. Still, if you’re a Hurricanes fan, maybe spare yourself the thought of Carolina getting Charlie McAvoy or Alex DeBrincat instead of Jake Bean at No. 13 in 2016, and some other gems instead of Haydn Fleury at No. 7 in 2014. Maybe Fleury and Bean are late bloomers, but it’s tough to imagine them looking like the right moves. If NHL teams truly have learned from the last expansion draft, Seattle will be more draft-dependent than Vegas has been so far, so Francis may be asked to hit homers instead of singles with key picks.

(NHL GMs make enough blunders that Seattle may still get some Jonathan Marchessault-type opportunities, though, so we’ll see.)

Investing in analytics

Whether it’s Francis or Waddell, it’s difficult to distinguish which smart Hurricanes moves stem from them, and which ones boil down to brilliant analytics work from the likes of Eric Tulsky. The thing is, if Francis listens to advice in Seattle, does it really matter?

A lot must still come together, but it’s promising that Seattle already hired a promising mind in Alexandra Mandrycky. Mandrycky was hired before Francis, so there’s a solid sign they may end up on the same page.

If your reaction is “One analytics hire, big deal,” then … well, you should be right. This list of publicly available analytics hires from Shayna Goldman argues that Seattle is off to a good start, and could leave some turtle-like teams in the dust if they keep going:

To take advantage of the expansion draft, you might need to be creative. Leaning on analytics could be key to eking out extra value.

***

Ultimately, we only know so much about Francis.

While George McPhee took decades of experience into Vegas, Francis was only Hurricanes GM for a touch under four years. Such a thought softens the “no playoffs” criticism, and while some of his work was hit-or-miss, it’s crucial to realize that Francis left the Hurricanes in a generally better place than when he took over.

Will his approach work for an expansion franchise in Seattle? To some extent, it will boil down to “taking what the defense gives him,” as Francis might be able to find savvy deals like Vegas did with Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and what Francis managed himself in exploiting Chicago’s cap issues to land a star in Teravainen. It’s also worth realizing that Seattle offers different variables than Carolina did, including possibly giving Francis a bigger budget to work with.

Overall, this seems like a reasonable hire, but much like Seattle’s roster or even its team name, Francis can be filed under “to be determined.”

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ron Francis hired as NHL Seattle’s first GM

NHL Seattle
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NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke said last month during the NHL Draft in Vancouver that the group wanted to hire a general manager sooner rather than later.

Well, 226 days after the NHL awarded them a franchise that will begin play in the 2021-22 NHL season, Seattle has a GM and his name is Ron Francis.

“Announcing Ron Francis as our team’s first general manager is a dream come true,” said Leiweke in a statement. “He is truly hockey royalty and is the perfect fit for the team we are building. He has a proven track record in hockey management, a dedication to the community and an eagerness to innovate which fits our vision. In our search, we looked for someone who is smart, experienced, well-prepared and progressive. I am confident that he will maintain our commitment to excellence and ultimately guide us to a Stanley Cup.”

NHL Seattle, still working on a name and team colors, wants to follow the same blueprint that the Vegas Golden Knights did when they assembled their staff before entering the league for the 2017-18 season. This is one big step among many before they finally hit the ice as a franchise.

Francis, who will oversee player personnel, coaching staff, amateur and pro scouting, player development, analytics, sports science and AHL minor league operations, was last in NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes. He joined the organization in 2011 as director of hockey operations and three years later took on the role of GM. In March of 2018, Francis was reassigned to president of hockey operations after Tom Dundon bought the team. One month later the Hockey Hall of Famer was fired. Since January he had been working at a Raleigh commercial real estate firm.

According to the Seattle Times, which first broke the story on Tuesday night, Francis’ deal is likely in the five-year range and “midrange” in terms of salary compared to other NHL GMs.

Under Francis, the Hurricanes failed to make the the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four years. He oversaw the trade that sent longtime captain Eric Staal to the New York Rangers, as well as the deal that brought Teuvo Teravainen to Raleigh. His scouting staff helped draft the likes of Warren Foegele, Sebastian Aho, highly-touted forward Martin Necas, and Noah Hanifin, who would later be a piece to bring in Dougie Hamilton via trade. 

[MORE: What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?]

The summer of 2017 was an interesting one for Francis. After years of tight purse strings, he finally was able to spend some money. His biggest signing that did not work out was the four years and $16.6 million given to Scott Darling to solve their problem in goal. But the one that worked and could still pay off if he decides to keep playing is bringing back Justin Williams, who has helped changed the culture around the team during this past season of success.

In a completely different environment with much different expectations, Francis has lots to prove in his second chance as an NHL GM.

It will be difficult to copy the success that the Golden Knights had in their inaugural season, and judging by how Francis ran his ship in Carolina, he’ll be about patience and not sacrificing the future for today — and he’ll probably be able to spend some money on a more consistent basis.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

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Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck