A week or so ago, the Anaheim Ducks were on a roll, coming off a successful road trip. Now they’re spending American Thanksgiving week at home, and things aren’t so super. They’d lost two games in a row coming into Sunday, when the Blues were in town for a 5pm start. By the end of the game, make that three losses in a row as they went down, 3-1. Why did this happen? A combination of lack of finish and too many penalties (six minors).
The good news is that they’re getting scoring from two sources that they’re happy to see contributing. Frank Vatrano and Mason McTavish co-lead the team with 17 points. Vatrano has 12 goals. Mason McTavish now has eight goals and nine assists after notching Anaheim’s lone goal Sunday.
Vatrano played his 500th NHL game on Sunday, his production being 228 points in those games. Quick math says that that’s a little less than a half-point per game. His 17 points in 18 games this year thus doubles that. Is it sustainable? Look for a parallel case at Troy Terry, who had a stunning breakout year in 2021-22 to push his points total nearly to one per game, 67 in 75 games played. He mostly backed it up last year (61 points in 70 games). He’s 26 now, Vatrano is 29 already, signed last summer. At this point, one might say, he is what he is. How many players suddenly become scorers when knocking on the door of 30 years old?
Was this what the club expected? Likely not, but they’ll take it. So will Vatrano. After a recent game, Inside Hockey asked him what it felt like to miss a hat trick by contributing only two goals. His response, “The most important thing is that we come out with the victory. The hat trick is just bonus on top of that, if it comes.” He later added, “The goals come if you do the right things, play the right way out there.”
MacTavish is a different matter. He’s the third overall pick from 2021, Anaheim’s first selection that year. He played nine games his first year, the limit before he had to go back to Junior, and scored a couple of goals. He then played with Peterborough of the OHL for the year, but his real moment was in knocking a puck off its trajectory that was heading into the Canadian net in the World Junior Championship in January of 2022. Arguably, for true hockey fans, that play is more remembered than Trevor Zegras’s shovel goal, whatever state it happens to be named for.
McTavish played 80 NHL games in 2022-23, obviously for Anaheim, and he scored 17-26-43 points. But this, too, is half what he is now on pace for. Is it any coincidence that McTavish and Vatrano are on the same line this year? Note that Alex Killorn is with them, just back from injury (Sunday was his eighth game).
As a side note, Killorn was mostly pretty good, but made a bad turnover in the first period to hand the Blues their first goal, a point he acknowledged after the game. “We got to find ways to create more offense. I think guys ending up turning it over too much, too, kind of trying to create something. Because we haven’t been creating enough, too. Kind of forcing it. I forced one in the first period in the D zone that puts us down 1-0.”
So what’s the answer? Killorn: “I think teams play well defensively. I think we just gotta find ways to get pucks to the net. You look at one of their goals. It was a rebound that just hit off of a skate. There’s three guys down in front of the net. We’ve got to win those battles.”
Coach Cronin, partly forced by injury (and recovery, in the case of Killorn), has shifted up his lines. That’s got to have something to do, also, with the fact that Anaheim’s offensive output over the past three games has been four goals. On the season, coming into Sunday’s game, the team had 50 goals for, 53 against. Their -3 was due more to the excellence of their goaltending thus far than their positive-side output. By contrast, the top three teams in the Pacific, namely Vancouver, Vegas, and Los Angeles, are each over 60 goals for. Seattle sits tied with the Ducks with 51.
Now to those lines. The first trio was listed as Max Jones, Leo Carlsson, and Ryan Strome. The only original member is Carlsson. Line two was Vatrano, McTavish, and Killorn. To create this trio, Killorn was moved from line three to two, and from the left side to the right. That early game plan, however, quickly gave way to Jones with McTavish and Killorn. That moved Vatrano up to line one with Carlsson and Strome.
Line three featured two original members, Henrique at center and Jakob Silfverberg on the right side. Their left-winger was Troy Terry, moved down from line one and over to the left side from the right. Finally, line four featured Bo Groulx on the left, Sam Carrick at center, and Brett Leason on the right side. The new face there was Groulx, subbing in for Ross Johnston.
So every line was reconfigured, and players were moved from side to side. Did it spark offense? Coach Cronin explained both the rationale and the outcome afterwards: “We got lightning in a bottle the last eleven minutes against Florida, and there were some line combinations that seemed to have some chemistry, and I try to go back to that, but we have Leo [Carlsson] obviously who’s going to be a top three line guy, so I have to manipulate at least two of the lines. . . . I thought Max [Jones’] line was pretty good, and Leo’s line had some jump, but we just didn’t get a lot out of the other lines, and I know that analytically, because we get the stats.”
The Ducks allowed three goals before getting one themselves, but when they scored, it was the McTavish-Jones-Killorn group who got the goal. The play was Killorn to McTavish. McTavish grabbed a loose puck and reversed his motion to go to the net, then chipped a backhand up and over goaltender Joel Hofer. He then fell over the goalie and ended up on his back, sliding backwards at an angle to the end boards. Scruffy and scrappy describe this tally, like McTavish himself.
Nobody repeated the magic, leaving Cronin scratching his head after the game. “I didn’t see a lot of energy, which surprised me. I thought they would be flying, and there wasn’t a lot of energy.” He then cited the six minutes of penalties the team took early as stalling their ability to get into a rhythm, and then credited the Blues for playing a good road game, and further mentioned the Killorn mistake that led to goal one.
He also got diagnostic as he wound toward the end of his comments, first naming turnovers as a problem. “We had full possession of the puck in the offensive zone four times, and we just gave it to them. That’s been a problem for our group pretty much the whole year. I don’t have control of that, so to speak. I don’t have the puck on my stick, they do, and they have to make good decisions with it.”
Later he added, “We don’t shoot the puck enough. I pretty much say it after every game. We have opportunities to shoot it. Look at their third goal. They just throw it to the net, it hits a skate, and goes right to Hayes. He’s got an open net. You can watch the tape, but I’m guessing there’s right around five times when we get it right around the net and don’t shoot it. That’s the same thing we’ve been saying repeatedly. I think we’ve got to try to turn our team into a shot-volume team. Stop trying to make lateral passes, and generate like rebounds off them.
To put a capper on this, here’s Cronin once more: “We’ve come back so many times, that we don’t consider a one- or two-goal deficit a big thing. But I don’t know how many times we’ve not scored the first goal, and it does get old.”
No Zegras. He’s now missed five games.
The Ducks play at home Wednesday versus Montreal, then host the Kings mid-day on Friday.
Brian Kennedy is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.