October 7, 2019 | 10:36am ET
By Felix Sicard, The Fourth Period
SAMPLE SIZE, OR JUST ENOUGH FOR DUCKS?
Rickard Rakell, forward
ANAHEIM, CA -- Small samples are infinitely difficult to trust in the National Hockey League, as just about anything can happen in a short span. Undefeated in their first pair of contests, it’d be more than premature to coronate the Anaheim Ducks. What can be discerned, however, is the method by which they hope to keep the wins coming. Head coach Dallas Eakins has clearly tipped his hand in that regard, resulting in a glistening win-loss record just 120 minutes into the season.
The newly-minted Ducks’ head coach appears to be intent on more evenly distributing ice time between his forwards, no matter the name on the back of the jersey.
Look no further than lifetime Duck Ryan Getzlaf – a workhorse throughout his career – averaging only 15:22 of ice time through two games. Should that number hold, it would represent a four-minute reduction from not just Getzlaf’s career average, but even his average going back just one season. At age 34, it would make sense to save some gas for the long haul.
Beyond Getzlaf though, there was only a spread of 2:21 between Anaheim’s four lines at five-on-five against San Jose on Saturday night. Of course, Nicolas Deslauriers sat out for five minutes after some fisticuffs with Brenden Dillon, so that distribution could have been even tighter. Eakins, ever the marathon enthusiast, appears to be giving his forwards the necessary tools to make it through their own 82 game odyssey.
Clearly, energy conservation is playing a role in Eakins’ methodology. Offense, however, also seems to be a greater priority down the lineup, as Anaheim’s top-three lines all feature an obvious offensive component. Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg have been with two different centers so far in Isac Lundestrom and Sam Steel, to great results each time. Regardless of who’s in the middle, those two seem fully capable of generating attack. Getzlaf and Ondrej Kase, a potent combination in the past, are reunited once again.
Like the Rakell-Silfverberg tandem, they too have seen a different third musketeer in both contests. Nick Ritchie, scratched after the opener against Arizona, made way for Devin Shore. The latter scored against the Coyotes, perhaps indicating that the move up with Getzlaf and Kase was a sort of reward. Lastly, the “two-kids-and-Adam Henrique” line, composing of Henrique, Troy Terry and Max Jones, has also seen its share of offense already. The veteran Henrique scored against San Jose, while Terry has flashed his stickhandling talent on multiple occasions. Over the summer, Eakins talked about wanting to address goal-scoring woes. So far, he’s putting those words into action.
Defensively, Eakins also appears to have devised a straightforward game plan. Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson have been Anaheim’s shutdown pairing in recent years, and that remains unchanged. They lead all Ducks’ blueliners in defensive zone starts, matching up heavily against the opponents’ best offensive line. Against San Jose, they matched up almost exclusively against the line featuring Timo Meier and Logan Couture. Against Arizona, it was much the same, as they went up against the line of Clayton Keller, Derek Stepan, and Phil Kessel for most of the night. Although their on-ice metrics aren’t been quite glistening, their role does seem to be serving a larger purpose. Eakins has leveraged those heavy minutes for his defensive duo in exchange for some high-flying action from the Cam Fowler-Brendan Guhle pairing. Those two have the lion’s share of offensive zone starts so far, while running away with on-ice shot control to the tune of a 63.38 shot-attempt percentage and 66.64 expected goals-for percentage, both astonishing numbers.
Besides the five-on-five measurables, Fowler has already found his way onto the scoresheet thanks to a dazzling goal against Arizona. Although it’s unrealistic to expect those mind-boggling numbers to continue, Eakins clearly has a recipe in place to maximize his offensively-minded pairing. As long as Lindholm and Manson can tread water against top-flight competition, that recipe should continue to prove effective.
New trends can be further understood when juxtaposed with the past. For the last three seasons under Randy Carlyle, the Ducks’ forwards had a very clear delineation: two scoring lines, a defensive “matchup” line, and an energy line. Logically, that arrangement made sense. The defensive trio of Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Kesler and Silfverberg played nearly 1,500 minutes together at five-on-five from 2016 to 2019, controlling play to the tune of a 52.02 shot-attempt percentage and 52.93 expected goals-for percentage. To boot, they started the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone, making those numbers all the more impressive. Getzlaf and Rakell made for a tantalizing offensive duo in that span, while Kase, Patrick Eaves and Corey Perry intermittently appeared on the right-wing.
Quite simply, clear-cut roles were justified for those teams given their results, including a Western Conference Final berth in 2017. Times have changed, though, and with them some necessary adjustments in light of heavy roster turnover. Eakins, with the new batch of forwards available to him, has structured their roles far differently. Although his defensive deployment is not so far off from the Carlyle era, he appears to be even more aggressive in leveraging the non-Lindholm-Manson minutes in his favor.
Sure, it’s only two games, but Eakins already seems to have a grasp on his roster that far belies their short time together.