Are the Anaheim Ducks the Best NHL Team in California?

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Are the Anaheim Ducks the Best NHL Team in California?
Debora Robinson/Getty Images

This year's Stanley Cup could very well be California-bound, but will it wind up in Anaheim? The second-place Ducks recently had a 10-game winning streak broken by the San Jose Sharks, who are fifth overall. And then there's the seventh-place Los Angeles Kings, who have allowed the fewest goals in the NHL. Is Anaheim the best of California's three dominant teams?

On the surface, the Ducks have a slight edge, but a deeper look at some of the high-level team analytics raises several concerns that prevent a definitive ruling in their favor. Most notably, their special teams and their possession game are inferior to both the Kings and the Sharks.

This latter weakness is the greater concern, given the transient nature of the shooting percentages Anaheim success relies upon, and how that edge over Los Angeles and San Jose does indeed disappear when you look back any more than a full season's worth of games. Come this May, the Ducks could find themselves at the bottom of this three-team pack just as easily as the top.

 

Has Anaheim Been the Best This Season?

While the most important numbers are strongly in Anaheim's favor so far this season, the remaining numbers raise several concerns that require a closer look. This includes all action up until but not including Friday night's games.

Key Team Statistics, 2013-14
Anaheim Los Angeles San Jose
Overall Winning Percentage .750 .643 .707
Regulation-Time Winning Percentage .679 .536 .610
Goal Percentage 56.4% 55.6% 56.4%
Close-Game Possession Percentage 51.2% 55.7% 55.7%
Power Play Percentage 14.9% 15.5% 18.8%
Penalty Killing Percentage 80.6% 83.7% 82.4%
Shooting Percentage 10.1% 8.0% 8.8%
Save Percentage .914 .927 .916
Man-Games Lost to Injury 205 81 133
Cap Hit of Injuries $6.29M $3.46M $4.58M

Hockey-Reference, NHL.com, Behind the Net, Springing Malik

The Ducks do have the best winning percentage of the group, especially when we discount the random luck of post-regulation play. This is especially impressive given that they've been affected by injuries to a greater extent than the Kings and the Sharks. There will be no greater argument in Anaheim's favor than those winning percentages.

Several concerns are raised by the other numbers, however. The similarity in goal percentages between the three teams suggests that the Ducks aren't better but are merely luckier (or more clutch), and their weaker possession numbers raise the concern that their greater level of success isn't likely to persist.

Their higher shooting percentage also warrants a closer look, as do their lower power-play and penalty-killing percentages. Finally, and most notably, we are still looking at a sample of barely 40 games, and any conclusions should be confirmed with at least one more season's worth of data.

 

Debora Robinson/Getty Images

The Argument Against Anaheim

To argue that Anaheim isn't the best California-based team is basically to claim that its position in the standings isn't a true reflection of its actual talent and/or that it won't last.

The most important piece of evidence is that Anaheim's possession numbers, while still good, are nowhere near as strong as San Jose's and Los Angeles's.

Why is this such a concern? Because, as explained most recently by Kent Wilson of NHL Numbers, teams with good possession numbers tend to remain successful over the long term, while most other team statistics have a tendency to get pulled back toward the league average.

That leads us to the second concern, which is that Anaheim isn't outscoring its opponents by a greater degree than San Jose and by not much more than Los Angeles. Since the Ducks have the best winning percentage, how come they don't have a larger share of all of a game's scoring, especially compared to a team with a lesser record, like the Kings?

Either the Ducks are a clutch team that does a better job at scoring in critical situations, or they've just been luckier. While there's no way to tell which is the case for sure, we do know that if Anaheim truly has the persistent ability to raise the level of their game in key situations, then it's a skill that should have existed in the past. Let's see if that's true.

 

Who Has Been the Best Over the Past 90 Games?

Adding in last season's data gives us another 48 games to work with, or roughly 90 games in total. Before proceeding, we need to remain mindful of any major roster changes that could affect these new totals.

For example, this year Anaheim added Dustin Penner (from Los Angeles), rookie Hampus Lindholm and goalie Frederik Andersen but has been without Sheldon Souray and Bobby Ryan.

As for Los Angeles, Ben Scrivens and Martin Jones have changed its goaltending situation, Robyn Regehr and Willie Mitchell have changed the defensive end of its blue line and rookies like Tyler Toffoli have had some impact, too. Speaking of rookies, San Jose's most notable change has obviously been Tomas Hertl.

While these roster changes shouldn't be dismissed as trivial, we are not dealing with the all-new Dallas Stars here. Each of these teams still has the same basic core intact, meaning that it will likely do more good than it will harm to look back one additional 48-game season to either confirm or disprove some of our preliminary theories.

Key Team Statistics, 2012-13 and 2013-14
Anaheim Los Angeles San Jose
Overall Winning Percentage .717 .628 .646
Regulation-Time Winning Percentage .644 .561 .556
Goal Percentage 55.3% 54.1% 54.1%
Close-Game Possession Percentage 49.6% 56.6% 53.9%
Power-Play Percentage 18.2% 17.9% 19.5%
Penalty-Killing Percentage 81.5% 83.2% 85.0%
Shooting Percentage 10.0% 8.6% 8.2%
Save Percentage .915 .917 .919
Man-Games Lost to Injury 275 184 229
Cap Hit of Injuries $7.95M $7.36M $7.21M

Hockey-Reference, NHL.com, Behind the Net, Springing Malik

Based on this additional data, Anaheim does appear to have a better goal percentage than its rivals. Its advantage over Los Angeles has widened, and the Sharks are now down there with the Kings, too. There is now more of a consistency between Anaheim's ability to control the scoring and having the superior record.

This has helped clarify some of the secondary concerns as well. While such factors as injuries and save percentages have really evened out, there is still a gap in the special teams.

Anaheim's power play is not as good as San Jose's, and its penalty-killing is not as strong as Los Angeles'. Given each team's respective reputations, none of this is surprising.

If this is a concern, and a relatively minor one at that, it's only because it is reasonable to expect that Anaheim's special teams should be at, near or above the level of the other two teams if they truly are the superior club.

Debora Robinson/Getty Images

As for the shooting percentages, that gap also persists when we go back 90 games. Why would a high shooting percentage be a concern? Because it has been shown in the past that teams who rely on inexplicably high shooting percentages (or high save percentages) tend to go crashing down the standings eventually. Look no further than this year's Toronto Maple Leafs, for example.

There are two common reasons why a team could maintain a high shooting percentage. The first is if their local scorekeepers are undercounting shots, but if that were the case in Anaheim, it would affect its save percentages, too.

The more common reason is if the bulk of a team's shots are being taken by particularly skilled players, like in Pittsburgh for example. This could be the case in Anaheim, where 19.3 percent of its shots this year have been taken by either Corey Perry or Ryan Getzlaf.

Since their team shooting percentage has consistently been between 9.9 and 10.1 percent in three of the past four seasons, the concern that their shooting percentage will drop is therefore a minor one (at best).

The one remaining major concern is that the Ducks are clearly not a good puck-possession team and look even worse when including 2013's games. Such teams rarely remain successful over the long haul and virtually never make the Stanley Cup Final. Let's go back one more season before passing judgment.

 

Do the Patterns Hold Up Over a Three-Year Period?

Anaheim was coached by Randy Carlyle for the first 24 games of the 2011-12 season, while the Kings were coached by Terry Murray and John Stevens for their first 43 games. These are notable changes that could call some of this data into question.

That being said, the rosters themselves were still very similar in 2011-12. The most notable changes are that the Ducks had Lubomir Visnovsky and the Kings didn't add Jeff Carter until late in the year. Some of the depth lines may have changed, but the core players are still the same. With all of that in mind, we should be OK to include 2011-12 data.

One quick word of warning on this table. The 82-game schedule is almost equal to the number of games that have occurred since then. That means that half of this table will be based on two-year-old data, which could affect the results. But on the plus side, any patterns that actually hold up are most likely to be very real.

Key Team Statistics, 2011-12 to Present
Anaheim Los Angeles San Jose
Overall Winning Percentage .608 .605 .617
Regulation-Time Winning Percentage .555 .543 .535
Goal Percentage 51.4% 53.2% 53.1%
Close-Game Possession Percentage 48.9% 55.2% 53.1%
Power-Play Percentage 17.4% 17.4% 20.2%
Penalty-Killing Percentage 81.5% 85.2% 80.6%
Shooting Percentage 9.4% 8.1% 8.1%
Save Percentage .912 .921 .917
Man-Games Lost to Injury 487 392 490
Cap Hit of Injuries $13.12M $12.94M $13.40M

Hockey-Reference, NHL.com, Behinid the Net, Springing Malik

Wow, that really took a lot of wind out of Anaheim's sails. They now have the worst goal percentage, and though the Ducks are still ahead in regulation-time play, all three teams have basically the same winning percentage.

While our understanding of San Jose's power play and Los Angeles's penalty kill have both been confirmed, nothing has been done to allay our fears that the Ducks are a weak puck-possession team. They will likely continue to be successful for only as long as their shooting percentages remain superior.

 

Who is California's Best Team?

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Is Anaheim the Best?

While it's true that hockey is ultimately all about wins and losses, it's also about who is going to win today, not who won yesterday.

While there's no question that Anaheim has been the best team over the last 90 games, there is more than sufficient reason to doubt whether or not that will continue. Compared to their Californian rivals, the Ducks are weak possession-wise and rely on hot shooting percentages to win. That has rarely been a formula for continued success.

While this was only a high-level examination of the topic, using only a few basic analytics, there doesn't appear to be enough of a basis to crown the Ducks as California's best team. They could almost as easily finish this season as the worst.

 

All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.

Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.

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