I was one of Craig MacTavish's foremost critics for the way he managed his team last season. While he self-admittedly lost control of the team and burned bridges with a number of players, he maintained tactical superiority against most coaches during games throughout his tenure as Oilers' head coach. His system, considered boring by Oilers fans, kept under-talented Oilers teams competitive or superior at even strength and his dedication to finding the best matchups was steadfast until last year. MacTavish's replacement, Pat Quinn, has recaptured the team's respect and commands attention, but the Oilers have lost tactical superiority on almost all nights. Quinn does not match lines or defensive pairings, consistently exposing the bottom of his roster to the best his opponents have to offer. Every game seems like an away game as Quinn allows the opposing head coach to create favorable matchups. With apologies to John Mellencamp, I need a coach that won't drive me crazy.
Randy Carlyle has been in Anaheim since the lockout and during that time the Ducks have averaged 100 points per season. Carlyle has guided the Ducks to ten playoff series, a conference final and a Stanley Cup.
||98||3rd in Pacific
||Lost conf. championship
||110||1st in Pacific
||Won Stanley Cup
||102||2nd in Pacific
||Lost first round
||2nd in Pacific
||Lost second round
This year the Ducks have fallen back, but have rallied to within four points of 8th place with game in hand heading into tonight's game. Aside from playing Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger 30 minutes a night, how has Carlyle found so much success in Anaheim? The simple answer is matchups.
In the 2006-2007, the year in which the Ducks won the Stanley Cup, they were paced by Teemu Selanne's 94 points, Andy McDonald's 78 points and Chris Kunitz' 60 points. The "Number One" line in Anaheim was dominant on the power play and at even strength, with Selanne outscoring his opponents 59-35, McDonald 56-40 and Kunitz 59-34.
The storyline from that year was the emergence of the young players, and their outstanding performance in the regular season and playoffs. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry were just 21 years old that season, and Dustin Penner was 23. Getzlaf and Perry were outstanding together and Penner joined them late in the year. Perry and Getzlaf outscored opponents 36-20 when together and the three of them outscored 10-9 in their time together later in the year, all astounding numbers from a group of young players.
While it would seem that the success in Anaheim stemmed from these two huge scoring lines, the reality is that these two lines got to play the easy minutes thanks to Carlyle's checking line of Travis Moen - Samuel Pahlsson - Rob Niedermayer. That line finished 1-2-3 in qualcomp that year, not just for forwards, but for the entire team. Todd Marchant was 4th, Penner 6th as Penner played with Marchant at even strength prior to joining Getzlaf, and Kunitz - McDonald - Selanne were 5-7-8. Perry and Getzlaf finished 11-12 in qualcomp. If we had zonestart available for the 2006-2007 season, it would likely follow the same pattern. Carlyle was always careful to protect the two scoring lines, leaving Pahlsson and Marchant to take the tough faceoffs.
Carlyle's dedication to protecting his scorers led Anaheim to a cup that year and followed the same blueprint into the playoffs the following two seasons. In 2007-2008, that tough minutes trio again led the Ducks team in qualcomp, while Kunitz, Perry and Getzlaf finished 4-5-7. The zonestart stats from that season show more of the same - Niedermayer, Moen, and Pahlsson finished 1, 2, and 4 in defensive zone faceoffs, with Todd Marchant in 3rd.
The 2008-2009 Ducks slipped from their previous 100 point seasons, but the tough minutes line continued to take the same assignment while the Ryan Getzlaf - Corey Perry - Bobby Ryan line racked up 91, 72 and 57 points respectively.
In the 2009 offseason, GM Bob Murray traded away Chris Pronger to Philadelphia and brought back noted tough-minutes phantom Jeoffrey Lupul and young defender Luca Sbisa. While many in the mainstream media outlets have blamed Anaheim's misfortunes on this trade, others have blamed Scott Niedermayer's falloff. Few, if any, have looked at the deeper reason that Anaheim has suffered - Murray's loss of his tough minutes line and his failure to replace them. He traded both Samuel Pahlsson to Chicago for offense-first defender James Wisniewski; and Travis Moen to San Jose for a 4th round pick at the 2009 trade deadline then let Rob Niedermayer leave via free agency in the summer.
Now the tough minutes are being soaked up by Getzlaf's line and while they continue to produce points (Getzlaf - 57 points, Perry - 57 points, Ryan - 47 points) they aren't dominating at even strength like they once did. The chart below shows the trio's even strength +/- per 60 over the last three seasons.
While the number in 2009-2010 is still outstanding, they aren't dominating tough minutes like they were able to do to second and third minutes. Combine that with the increased load of defensive zone faceoffs and that line is going to be hard-pressed to duplicate their previous success. Without his reliable matchup line of the last three seasons, Carlyle is unable to do much go with a power vs. power strategy and hope for the best. This is the first year that Carlyle is hamstrung by his General Manager's moves and it's showing. Gone are Moen, Niedermayer, Pahlsson, and Kunitz and they've been replaced by Saku Koivu, Kyle Chipchura, Joffrey Lupul and Jason Blake.
If Anaheim is serious about a playoff run, it's likely that Murray is going to have to find some tough minutes players for the stretch run. He won't be able to find a grouping as effective as Moen - Pahlsoon - Niedermayer and it's likely that Getzlaf's line isn't enough to make up the difference. Like Craig MacTavish in previous seasons, Carlyle is going to have to ride his one effective even strength option and see what happens. We've seen MacTavish's results in Edmonton.