Surprise hockey teams don’t come around in the same way as they do in the NBA. In professional basketball, generally the newest team that you have to watch has one or two young stars that are starting to find it. Like Memphis with Ja Morant of late, or the meteoric rise of the Suns. Not only do you have to check out this rising power, but there are players you want to get in on the ground floor with, because they’re going to be names you hear for the next decade. And you want to have context when the inevitable debates — “Can he be the guy?” and “Can this be the place?” — start.
Things are obviously different in the NHL. Usually surprise teams are viewed as a collective, because to be an individual or standout star is a crime. Sometimes it works that way, like Kirill The Thrill in Minnesota last year. But teams are almost always viewed more as a unit, because it is harder for one player to dominate a hockey game in the same way as basketball, along with institutional views and biases unique to the sport.
The NHL has a surprise team. They’re out west, so you almost certainly haven’t seen much of them. It’s the Anaheim Ducks. They’re on top of the Pacific Division, and basically no one predicted them as a playoff team. It’s OK, you may not remember their name. Not only do they play late at night for the most part, but games from The Pond look like they are being played in a decommissioned hangar (they kind of are) and their uniforms suck out loud. The only thing interesting about the Ducks in the past decade was their side-splitting habit of losing Game 7s at home. Four years in a row, baby!
But it’s been some years since those games, and even longer since Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry would hurl their own shit at each other in the dressing room as team motivation tactics (could have happened, really). So, yeah, the Ducks haven’t exactly been top of mind.
But with them on top of the Pacific, the question becomes, “Should you start staying up later to see them?”
As someone who has basically hated the Ducks for 15 years now, it pains me to say that there is some cool shit going on. It mostly starts with rookie center Trevor Zegras, whom you probably saw do this last week:
That pissed off some crusty hockey men, as you also no doubt heard. Zegras also pissed off some crusty current players with his celebration of this shootout goal:
He also seems like a pretty lively kid with a personality, which is only something the NHL has been bereft of since… well, forever:
So yeah, if your metric for whether a team is worth checking out is purely based on, like, seemingly cool dudes doing definitely cool things, the Ducks might pass. Zegras pulls off at least one move a night that will make you sit up straight out of the recliner or couch.
He’s got 22 points on the year, which puts him second behind Detroit’s Lucas Raymond, and you don’t want a goddamn Red Wing winning the Calder Trophy, do you? Of course not, you’ll never hear the end of it. The one silver lining of whenever the Ducks are good or interesting is it’s nearly impossible to find anyone who cares about it. Noise level is always low.
There are others. Troy Terry is having a breakout season with 17 goals, though he probably won’t keep seeing a quarter of his shots go in. Could be making a late play to make Team USA. Sonny Milano is Zegras’s “bro-seph” running buddy, and is the one who potted that alley-oop from behind the net. He’s probably worth keeping an eye on, too. John Gibson in the net looks like Bucky Barnes, so that’s something.
The Ducks have been blessed for years with a fast group of defenders like Cam Fowler or Hampus Lindholm, and yelling “HAMPUS HAMPUS!” is one of the more fun things you can do during a hockey game. They added Kevin Shattenkirk — or Kirk Shattenkevin I’ve never been sure, to that last season. If you need a name you recognize, Getzlaf is still here — with his head the size of a moon of Jupiter with the same contours — to float around the outside of the offensive zone and pile up assists until the games really mean something. And because the Ducks very well may be playing games that really matter again, you can look forward to that annual tradition of Getzlaf disappearing into the ether as soon as things are hard. This is a guy who once found a way to have his lunch fed back to him by Ryan Johansen, who hasn’t been seen without a cruller since.
But are they actually good? Ehh.
The thing with the Ducks is that there’s nothing they do particularly well, at least at even strength. In every analytic category, according to Natural Stat Trick, they’re middle of the pack at best. They don’t generate a lot of attempts or chances (17th in Corsi-for per 60 minutes, 11th in expected goals), nor do they give up an exceedingly low or high amount either (20th in Corsi-against, 21st in expected goals against). Their shooting-percentage or save-percentage isn’t ridiculously high (7.5 shooting percentage, .922 save percentage), so it’s not like they’ve been extraordinarily lucky or unlucky. But it’s hard to find something they can bank on, at least at evens.
It’s special teams that have gotten them here. They’re top-five in both the power play and penalty kill. But this is where they have been lucky. On the power play, they’re only 18th in expected goals per 60 minutes of power play time, but they have the league’s highest shooting percentage with the advantage. Similarly, they’re only 20th in expected goals against while on the kill, but have the league’s second-best save-percentage. Gibson has the second-best goals saved against expected on the PK in the league, behind the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin.
The problem for the Ducks going forward is that penalties tend to dry up as the season goes along, which negates their advantages with them. Maybe Terry and Zegras and Milano are top-tier marksmen who can continue to outshoot what they create on the power play. Gibson has been a fine goalie for a while now, but a .955 save percentage while shorthanded is not something he’s going to keep.
So, basically, you can watch the Ducks if you’re looking for a good chance of cool shit to happen. But if you’re checking in to see perhaps a new Western power...well, we’re not there yet. But come back for another Getzlaf Copperfield act in the spring.