Ducks are a mess and most obvious fix is also most painful

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On Wednesday night, the Vegas Golden Knights absolutely throttled the Anaheim Ducks. The score was 5-0, but it felt like Vegas could name its score, and they really took their foot off the accelerator during the third period.

Between injuries and Ryan Getzlaf‘s tendency to “ease into” some regular seasons, it’s likely tempting for the Ducks to explain their struggles away as the usual growing pains of a veteran-heavy team. After all, the Ducks’ mediocre record (8-9-3 for 19 points in 20 games) isn’t all that different from last season, when they were a fairly lousy 7-7-3 for 17 points in 17 games.

Those arguments provide a smokescreen for something that seems pretty clear if you’ve watched the team with any regularity: the Anaheim Ducks stink right now.

[Gibson was saving the day, until he couldn’t as often.]

Bottom of the barrel

Toggle through Natural Stat Tricks’ various team stats and you’ll see the Ducks rank in the basement in a ton of telling categories. Only the Islanders rank lower in Corsi For Percentage. Want to eliminate blocked shots from the equation? Oops, they fall all the way to last place.

Don’t try to use the “Well, they just give you the low-quality chances while taking away the high-price real estate,” as the Ducks generate 38.37 of the high-danger chances in their games, easily the worst rate in the NHL.

Too much jargon for you? They’re also the NHL’s worst team at even-strength when it comes to scoring chance percentage.

John Gibson looks like he was sent from some other hockey-playing planet like an NHL take on “Space Jam” lately, but even he can’t bail out the Ducks every night. That much was clear as he was pulled from Wednesday’s drubbing against Vegas.

Now, could you attribute some struggles to injuries? In the short term, sure.

Mounting evidence of an overmatched coach

The excuses start to melt away when you consider Randy Carlyle’s larger track record as a frequently – justifiably – criticized NHL head coach. Via Corsica Hockey, the Ducks have been the 11th-worst team in the NHL from a Corsi perspective since Carlyle took over in 2016-17. Carlyle’s previous work with the Toronto Maple Leafs provided ghastly results (second worst in Corsi during his run, also via Corsica), casting the veteran head coach as someone bandied about during ugly-funny analytics debates.

The Ducks have problems that are rooted deeper than Carlyle’s system. They had issues stemming from Boudreau’s days, and to some extent, they’re getting the bill for going all-in on the present and whiffing on their big chances.

That said, it doesn’t seem like the Ducks are going into liquidation mode, so the easiest (and potentially most effective) fix would be to admit that Carlyle’s ways simply don’t work in the NHL any longer. We could argue until our faces are blue about how long they haven’t worked, but the evidence is building that the Ducks are nearing a minor crisis.

You could almost imagine literal wheels of realization slowly turning for Carlyle and GM Bob Murray after the Ducks were brusquely swept from the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the San Jose Sharks. Consider what Murray said about the Sharks playing “faster” than the Ducks:

“Are Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski really fast skaters? Are they?” Murray asked, via Eric Stephens, then of the OC Register. “I had one of them in Team Canada. No. They’re good hockey players. But if your team plays fast, you can make players faster. And that’s the first thing that has to be addressed around here.”

Hmmm, the Sharks played too fast for the Ducks, yet Murray himself admitted that San Jose might not inherently feature faster players? You almost wonder if that might come down to the style of play, and the coach’s scheme? Nah …

This internal struggle has spilled out multiple times, even if you can mix the moments of at least acknowledging reality with exhibits of old-school, possibly out-of-date views on the game. For instance, earlier this season, Carlyle spoke about the Ducks playing “too cute” and needing to be dirtier.

Now, some of that boils down to inane hockey buzzwords, but any objective observer can see that the game is shifting away from grunting, grinding, low-talent work to puck-moving defensemen, smaller players, and speed mixed with skill.

The good news is that the Ducks actually possess quite a few players who can play that game, although it does hurt their transition game to lose Cam Fowler for some time. That’s particularly true on defense, as Anaheim has some very solid defenseman, with Hampus Lindholm standing tall as the most underrated piece of the bunch. And, while Getzlaf has never been known for being fast, Murray’s done a decent job of supplementing this roster with some skaters, from Ondrej Kase and Pontus Aberg to an aging speedster like Andrew Cogliano.

Is it a perfect group? No, but if Murray doesn’t want to aim for a soft-reboot, he must think long and hard about pulling the plug on Carlyle. Even if that means powering up the, uh, hot-take factory?

Firing a head coach is always easier said than done, yet that’s especially true in this case.

Fool me once, shame on you …

After all, if Murray were to do this, he would essentially admit that he was wrong to hire Carlyle … twice. Murray stuck his neck out for the guy who was bend the bench for the Ducks’ Stanley Cup win, and this quote from hiring Carlyle shows how personal the decision was:

“Everything came back to Randy in the end,” Murray said in June 2016, according to The Globe & Mail. “I know in my heart that this is the right move at this time for this hockey team.”

This situation is another reminder that, as analytical as GM moves can often feel, things can get messy when you’re so close to decisions. Frankly, one can openly speculate that many other head coaches could’ve guided a Ducks team featuring Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger to a Stanley Cup at that time; in Murray’s eyes, though, Carlyle brought him to that summit.

It wouldn’t be one bit surprising to see Murray and the Ducks doubling down on this decision, and considering how putrid the Pacific Division is, Anaheim could easily squeeze into the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Is that really the goal for this aging team? Murray himself wondered if the Ducks would have been better off missing the postseason altogether last season, so you probably don’t need to visit the hot-take factory to realize that it might be wise to be proactive rather than throwing away another season with a questionable ceiling.

Yes, we’re just 20 games into the Ducks’ season, but these aren’t exactly new problems, and it’s tough to imagine all but the most modest improvements.

We’re easily at the point where Murray might need to make an “agonizing” decision once again. If not, Murray runs a serious risk of going down with what looks like a sinking ship, and the coach who’s left them adrift.

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.

Should Alain Vigneault’s days be numbered in Vancouver?

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The Northwest Division is virtually clinched for the Vancouver Canucks, but as we’ve seen with Roberto Luongo in particular, the market seems primed to turn on the team’s major figures whenever things aren’t running like a well-oiled machine.

On the heels of a listless 2-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild and a 5-6-2 mark in their last 13 games, it only makes sense – in a “Vancouver” sort of way, at least – that the cross-hairs are turning to Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault. Vancouver Province columnist Tony Gallagher thinks that the team needs a fresh approach.

Vigneault’s time with this team is surely drawing very near the end because management owes it to the group to give them another coach next year, so as to have a fresh approach before the Sedins get too old to even talk about getting something done five-on-five.

As it is now, talk of a Stanley Cup in this environment is delusional, and if you don’t believe us, just ask Jonathan Toews.

What’s going on now is so unlike the professionalism of last year’s team and you have to wonder what effect it’s having on Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani, who came over from Buffalo in the Cody Hodgson deal. Joining a team that was leading the ridiculously tough Western Conference, they probably thought they were going into a room whereby everyone did their utmost every night to make sure the team not only had a chance to win but dominated many games. They probably thought they were coached by somebody whose every word was carefully considered and perhaps even acted upon.

I’m going to play the devil’s advocate and say that the Canucks’ hopes for a run to the Stanley Cup are far from “delusional.” Here’s why:

  • They still have a +41 goal differential which, to me, shows most simply that they remain one of the NHL’s best teams. (If their record wasn’t enough an indicator, that is.)
  • The Canucks have the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler and fantastic depth on offense. Their defense ranges from solid-to-very-good and they possess one of the league’s best goalie duos.
  • Look at the West teams and you’ll see plenty of question marks.
  • The St. Louis Blues have been great but obviously are the new kids on the block and thus remain unproven.
  • The Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings carry deep flaws and dark bruises.
  • There are some nice stories in the Pacific Division, but is there a single team that truly inspires fear?

If anything, the Canucks might be the logical frontrunners to represent the West in this year’s finals – unless you suffer from “What have you done for me lately?” syndrome, of course.

Vigneault’s many victories in Vancouver

Vigneault seems like the sort who doesn’t always butter up media types, but how exactly has his reign been disappointing? The Canucks are on the verge of a fifth division title in his sixth season of work, last year’s team was one of the most dominant regular season squads in recent memory and he’s a one-time Jack Adams Award winner (while being a finalist three times).

What more must he do? Does he need to scream like a madman and flip over Gatorade jugs to get the respect he supposedly doesn’t receive? Is it really Stanley Cup or bust for a franchise that’s never sipped from the chalice?

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If you ask me, it’s a puzzling “grass is always greener” mentality, but what do you think? Should the Canucks really consider parting ways with perhaps the most successful coach they’ve ever had? Share your thoughts in the comments.