The new systems introduced by Dallas Eakins has created a far more entertaining, fast-paced Ducks style of play.
The days of dump and chase, physical, hit-for-hit hockey common to the Carlyle regime is over. Now Ducks fans have to grow accustomed to a team that plays with pace, skates the puck into the zone with close player support, trades man-on-man defense for zone defense, and trades low-risk-low-reward grinding plays for high-risk-high-reward skilled plays. In other words, Ducks fans have to get used to actual fun hockey.
The Ducks still have a lot of the same players on their roster from last year, so Eakins still needs to figure out how to get sustainable offensive production from a team that doesn’t really have an undisputed superstar. Carlyle’s regime attempted to address this issue by playing the top two lines for the majority of the minutes, playing the third line for a limited time and barely even letting his fourth line touch the ice. This resulted in the Ducks’ top players appearing gassed for the better part of the season and with little running support in the bottom six their production dropped as well.
Based on the Ducks’ first 13 games, Eakins’ strategy for making up for a lack of superstar talent is spreading the wealth and rolling four lines. Eakins has utilized his four lines in such a way that it’s hard to tell which line is the first line most nights, although the Rakell-Henrique-Silfverberg line has gotten the most ice-time as the first line, most nights it’s hard to determine which line is 2nd, 3rd and 4th out of the Getzlaf, Steel and Grant lines based on ice time. This spreading of minutes has allowed the Ducks to adopt more of a rolling style of play similar to the Golden Knights of 2018.
They may not have a superstar line, but because they’re taking short shifts, playing with pace and have skill on every line (most nights), they are able to provide relentless pressure against their competition.
All of this isn’t to say that the Ducks’ roster doesn’t have issues in its execution. The current lineup on most nights when everyone comes back from injury is:
|Healthy Scratches:||Del Zotto||Gudbranson|
Issues Facing the Ducks
This roster has performed well so far, however, there are two glaring issues that have reared their head in the first ten games. The first issue is their defensive depth on their right side as Del Zotto and Gudbranson have not been great. If the Ducks want to solidify their defense core so that they have puck-movers on each pairing even when they have injuries they need to bring another one onto the roster.
Solutions for the Ducks’ Defense
There are a couple of cheap/free options the Ducks could try to supplement their defense with another puck-mover. The first option is to call up Mahura and send down MDZ while leaving Gudbranson as a healthy scratch. Mahura is a gifted puck-mover and has the speed and skills to quickly break out of his own zone. However, Mahura suffers from many of the same issues that MDZ and Gudbranson suffer from in their own zone, in that he can appear to be lost much of the time. The question is whether Mahura’s superior skill and ability in transition can make up for his defensive woes or whether it’d be better to let him mature another year in the minors. The other issue is that Mahura is a lefty and having him up would likely mean he’d be taking the right-handed Holzer out of the lineup on most nights.
The second, and probably the better, option for the Ducks is acquiring a puck-moving defenseman. Many Ducks fans’ minds may go to right-handed defensemen like Justin Faulk, Anthony DeAngelo or even Sami Vatanen. However, the Ducks don’t necessarily need to acquire a top 4 puck-moving defenseman, they just need a defenseman who has good speed and the ability to put the puck on the tape in transition out of the zone. Murray attempted to add a top 4 defenseman to this roster in Gudbranson, however, as anyone with an understanding of hockey analytics will tell you, he is in no way capable of playing those minutes. Instead, some low-cost right-handed puck-moving options for the Ducks include:
- Julius Honka
- Matt Benning
- Casey Nelson
All three defensemen have been snubbed in some way by their current clubs, so they could likely be acquired for almost nothing. Matt Benning was shopped around a lot by Edmonton last year and was limited to 14:47 ATOI (average time on ice) after having more than 17:00 ATOI over the previous two seasons. This year he’s been reduced to 13:41 ATOI. Julius Honka is being shopped around right now by the Stars and is currently playing in Finland, he’s an unsigned RFA. Casey Nelson has just been completely pushed out of the Sabres depth chart on the right side as they have Miller, Montour, Ristolainen, Jokiharju, and Bogosian ahead of him in the depth chart. Nelson is currently playing in Rochester.
Although many would assume these players aren’t any good because they are in their respective teams’ doghouses, they actually have decent underlying stats when considering where the Ducks would slot them in their lineup.
For example, a player like Matt Benning, despite only playing an average of 14:57 a night, has performed very well in his limited role. He has good speed and can make good tape-to-tape passes in transition. Through 70 games Benning posted the 31st highest GAR by defensemen around the league with a 10.3 GAR. And out of players on the Oilers with >600 minutes of ice time, he has the highest relative xGF% on the team with 4.17 (he has the second-highest xGF% of 49.39 behind only Klefbom at 49.52).
Julius Honka, in fairly limited sample size, has shown himself to be very effective in both zones and has the ability to make quick breakout passes in transition and is a fairly quick player. Honka had the third-highest xGF% on the Stars out of players who played >300 minutes in 2018-2019. So even though he’s only played a limited amount of time, in the time he has played he’s a positive play driver.
Casey Nelson doesn’t have the same speed as Benning or Honka, but he’s not noticeably slow and he has a bit more size and grit to his game. Out of Buffalo’s defensemen last year who played >500 minutes Nelson ranked third in xGF% behind Pilut and Dahlin at 49.01 and was ranked 2nd in CF% controlling 52.49% of the shot rates. He’s more of a stable option in the backend and isn’t great at skating the puck up in transition, but he can make crisp breakout passes that will hit the forwards mid-stride from the goal line.
Acquiring any of Benning, Nelson or Honka would not cost much for the Ducks to do. A trade for Honka or Benning would not likely take more than a 4th or 5th round pick, or the Ducks could offer sheet Honka at around 900K for a chance to get him for free. A player like Nelson would probably cost even less, maybe a conditional 7th round pick. The best of these three options is likely Honka as he’s the youngest, fastest, has the most upside and could plausibly be the easiest to get through an offer sheet.
Solutions for the Ducks’ Fourth Line
The second issue with this roster’s execution is their fourth line. Derek Grant has had some decent games and has won the hearts of many Ducks fans after his 2018 stint that garnered him the tongue-in-cheek nickname “Elite 1C” after he was forced into a first-line role due to injuries. However, despite receiving much love from the organization (with a resigning this year) and the fans, Derek Grant should not be a consistent member of this Ducks lineup. But it’s not only Grant; Rowney and Deslauriers, two of his most common linemates also shouldn’t be consistently in the lineup.
Through the first ten games the bottom three skaters for the Ducks in xGF% are Deslauriers at 29.18 xGF%, Grant at 31.73 xGF% and Rowney at 31.77 xGF%. They are also the lowest in CF% with Deslauriers at 35 CF%, Grant at 35.35 CF% and Rowney at 36.76 CF%. Granted, that line starts about 75% of their faceoffs outside of the offensive zone. However, those numbers are abysmal, the next closest forward in comparison for CF% is Jones at 47.95 CF%, but he makes up for it with a 49.78 xGF%. The difference between them and the next forward for shot rates percentage is over 10%, that’s rough. The bright side is that the Ducks actually already have the players to fix their deficiency at the 4th line and to coincidently improve on their strategy of rolling four lines.
Using What the Ducks Already Have
The Ducks could undoubtedly improve the execution of their roster by making several roster moves. First, send Deslauriers down to San Diego, he obviously can’t cut it in the NHL and it’s absolutely baffling that the Murray used a 4th round pick to acquire him. Second scratch Grant and Rowney most nights, for Shore and Ritchie. And third, call up Daniel Sprong to play on the RW on the fourth line.
Now, the first reaction many Ducks fans will have is that “Sprong shouldn’t be playing bottom-6 minutes he’s too offensive, not defensive enough.” However, they are wrong. The Ducks, as they are situated right now, need a player like Sprong in their fourth line for the exact reason why many fans don’t think he should be on the 4th line. Because Eakins rolls his four lines and gives player in the bottom-9 similar amounts of time (Grant played 16 minutes against Columbus) there shouldn’t be a “shutdown/defensive line.”
Every line should be able to contribute similarly offensively because the Ducks aren’t playing a “matching game,” Eakins will play any offensive line against any competition, it’s the defensive pairings that get matched up.
That means that when the opposition’s “star” line is on the ice, the Ducks will likely put out Lindholm-Manson because they’re the best pairing in their own zone, but any forward line can be out there with them. If the Ducks want to succeed it would be best for the players out there with Lindholm-Manson to be capable of creating a scoring chance out of the breakout passes that pairing is able to create. Therefore, the best 4th line for the Ducks is one of Ritchie-Shore-Sprong. Shore is a puck-hound with speed that can create plays and retrieve pucks, Ritchie is a big body with average speed who’s adept at net-front play and play against the boards, and Sprong has good speed, high skill, and an elite shot. Altogether, the Ducks would have a 4th line that has a perfect blend of speed, skill, and size in which every member of the line has an ability to contribute offensively.
What These Moves Do To The Roster
If both roster tweaks were implemented the Ducks would double down on their ability to roll four lines which would allow them to exhaust their opposition by outpacing them. The new lineup configuration would look something like this:
|Healthy Scratches:||Holzer or Gudbranson|
With this new lineup, the Ducks forward group has a scorer on every line in Rakell, Kase, Terry, and Sprong. They have a playmaker on every line in Henrique, Getzlaf, Steel, and Shore. And, they have a power forward type on every line in Silfverberg, Comtois, Jones, and Ritchie. The Ducks defense continues to be effective in the top two pairings and the third pairing gets an added offensive ability in Honka while continuing to play the blossoming two-way defensemen, Larsson. One of Gudbranson or Holzer would need to be sent down or traded unless one of Grant or Rowney is waived or traded. The likeliest scenario would be Gudbranson stay up, because of his cap hit, and switches in and out with Honka as the 6th defenseman. Holzer would be sent down or traded to a team in need of defense like the Winnipeg Jets.
This new version of the Ducks doesn’t make them a Cup contender by any means, but it does inject a lot of speed, skill, and youth into the lineup that will allow them to compete on any given night and allow them to at least compete for a playoff spot.
The Ducks aren’t going to come back into contention until the likes of Steel, Terry, Jones, Comtois, Zegras, and Tracey are producing at a higher clip, but until then, this roster rendition gives them the best possible environment to succeed in.
Photos: - MediaNews Group/Orange County Register - Pucks of a Feather - AP File Photo/Jae C. Hong - Getty Images - Sportsnet - Jim McIsaac/Getty Images