Let’s not kid ourselves—11 points out with 31 games to play, the Anaheim Ducks do not have a realistic hope at the NHL playoffs this season. After a hot second half last season that landed them in a first round series against Nashville, the Ducks will need to go about 21-6-4 from here on out to have a shot at playoff contention.
That doesn’t mean that Anaheim have been playing particularly better since Bruce Boudreau was hired as the coach of the Ducks. By my math, after Boudreau won just 2 of his first 10 games in Anaheim, the Ducks have gone 10-4-2, finding success under Boudreau’s new system after a brief feeling out period.
It would be easy to say that, after the first part of the season with Randy Carlyle left the team hopeless with .890 goaltending at even strength, the second part of the season has been a regression to the mean of sorts, but Jonas Hiller has been no better with Boudreau, putting up an .889 save percentage with the score-tied.
But Anaheim are a much better defensively, playing with the puck at the other end of the ice as opposed to their own. Under Carlyle, the Ducks were one of the worst puck possession teams in the league, with just a 42.9% score-tied Corsi rate. That means that just 43 out of 100 shot attempts on the ice were taken by the Ducks in this time-frame. While there will be bickering about the quality of certain shots, keep in mind that Anaheim were also a very bad team by this measure last season, yet they had a much higher shooting percentage. The overall possession rate is more repeatable and has better predictive power than the shooting rate.
Teams that put up a rate of less than 48% don’t make the playoffs without some incredible goaltending or a very good shooting percentage, the second of which the Ducks were known for last season.
So under Boudreau, the Ducks are actually a decidedly better possession team. After 26 games, the team’s rate has increased to just under 50%, with noticeable possession improvements for Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry with Boudreau finding better situations within the game to deploy his key players.
Anaheim had such a brutal start under Carlyle, 7-13-4 left them pretty much out of contention before Christmas, and it took some time for whatever Boudreau was doing to take effect (although the team is much better in its last 17 than its first 10 with Boudreau) but the team is headed in the right direction for next year. It was a risky move Bob Murray made when he fired Carlyle after six seasons, a Jack Adams Award and a Stanley Cup, but they targeted their man and hired Boudreau as soon as he became available.
On the opposite side of the NHL’s alphabetical spectrum is the Washington Capitals after they let go of Boudreau. At the time of me writing this post, they are up 1-0 on the Montreal Canadiens on the road, but they’re also unconscionably two points out of a playoff spot and three points back of the Florida Panthers for the division lead. With their roster this offseason, having added studs Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward to give them a balanced checking attack, allowing Alex Ovechkin to do what he does best, as well as putting perennial save percentage leader Tomas Vokoun between the pipes for cheap, it’s impossible to think of the Washington Capitals as a team that’s merely playoff bubble.
We all read Ellen’s post yesterday in praise of doing nothing. Buried at the end is a fantastic line that General Manager George McPhee could have paid attention to as his team stood hovering around a playoff spot after a quick 7-0-0 start:
Give me a GM who, when faced with twenty or thirty or forty games of bad percentages and the fans screaming and the media snarking and the players worrying, has the enormous brass balls to shrug his shoulders, make a cup of tea, curl up with the Tao Te Ching and do nothing.
Perhaps he was expecting better than the 12-9-1 record (a 93-point pace), but he decided to fire his coach after it became quite widely accepted that he had lost the Capitals’ room. I’m not a player and have no power to make that assertion, but the team was losing thanks to some crummy percentages: Tomas Vokoun was just an .883 and the team had a very low 7% shooting rate. Those aren’t percentages that can last over the course of a season, and Washington’s possession rate of 55.4% was one of the best in the league.
Since they fired Boudreau and brought in Dale Hunter from the OHL’s London Knights (who I believe have gone 16-4 since Hunter went to Washington) the shooting and save percentages have gone through some expected regression, but that hasn’t helped the team jump from a 93-point pace to a 100+-point pace as it should have under Boudreau. With Hunter, the Capitals are now just a 45.7% possession team.
To put this in perspective, with Boudreau, Washington had 21 more offensive zone faceoffs than defensive zone. Earning an offensive faceoff can be indicative of puck pressure and high quality scoring chances that force an opponent’s goaltender to cover up the puck or a defenseman to tip it over. Since Hunter’s arrival, there have been 100 more offensive zone faceoffs against Washington. This is a very tangible difference.
So while the Capitals may appear to be spinning in neutral, it’s thanks only to some percentages that are keeping the team in games now, rather than bad bounces going against the team like they were with Boudreau. With bad percentages at the start of the season, they were on a 93-point pace, good enough for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference this season. With Hunter, and good percentages, they’re now on a 91-point pace.
All-in-all, Washington and Anaheim this season under Boudreau have had a 52.7% possession rate, and without, they’ve been 44.8%. The difference in quality between the two team’s with Boudreau on the bench could be indicative of a small sample, or the fact that one of Boudreau’s replacements was a junior hockey-level coach unable to make the jump. But it’s objectively clear that with Bruce Boudreau behind an NHL bench this season, his teams have been better. It’s only a matter of time before the records catch up.