Ducks' surprising success being driven by unexpected rookie performances

The Anaheim Ducks have a far better record than projected so far, and a pair of relatively unheralded rookies are playing a significant role.

The Anaheim Ducks' 7-4-0 start to the 2023-24 NHL season is one of the league's biggest early surprises.

After all, this club went 23-47-12 in 2022-23 with a -129 goal differential. It didn't look poised to hit a new level entering this season either, despite the addition of free agents like Alex Killorn and Radko Gudas, plus second-overall pick Leo Carlsson joining the roster.

Killorn has yet to play with his new team due to an injury. Carlsson is on an unusual load-management program and Gudas resides on the club's third pair — so that doesn't account for the team's hot start, anyway.

Neither does existing stars Troy Terry or Trevor Zegras exploding out of the gate, although Terry has been solid.

Instead, there have been two unexpected factors driving the Ducks' success. The first is the line of Ryan Strome, Frank Vatrano, and Mason McTavish getting very hot with a combined 17 goals and 36 points thus far.

That's impressive production, but it seems unlikely to continue considering that trio has a sky-high shooting percentage of 20.5% right now. When that calms down, those three should return to earth. At 21, McTavish may be finding a new ceiling — but the other two are veterans with established levels of production.

A more interesting development for the Ducks has been two rookies with less fanfare than Carlsson making massive impacts.

The first — Russian defenseman Pavel Mintyukov — has gone from the OHL to the NHL without missing a beat at the age of 19 after being drafted 10th overall in 2022.

Pavel Mintyukov is among the NHL's rookie scoring leaders. (Yannick Peterhans-USA TODAY Sports)
Pavel Mintyukov is among the NHL's rookie scoring leaders. (Yannick Peterhans-USA TODAY Sports)

Mitnyukov managed 88 points in 69 games in the OHL last season, but it was unfair to expect him to step into a prominent role and thrive right away.

He's done just that, though, establishing himself on the team's second defense pair and top power-play unit — and showing some significant offensive flair.

Mintyukov enters Monday tied for the lead among NHL rookies in points (8) and so far he profiles as an impressive offensive creator — even if his defensive work lags behind.

Only three defensemen have more even-strength points than Mintyukov (7), and while his single power-play assist could be seen as an indictment of his quarterbacking, the Ducks don't have a bunch of elite threats around him to goose his numbers.

Mintyukov also deserves credit for holding his own from a possession standpoint at 5v5 with the Ducks outshooting opponents 88-80 and outscoring them 8-5 when he's on the ice — with an xGF% of 50.96.

Those aren't overwhelming numbers, but they are strong in the context of Anaheim's performance. The Ducks have a shot share of 48.14% at 5v5. They've also earned just 45.85% of expected goals, which is the sixth-worst percentage in the NHL.

Part of the reason they've been able to overcome that is the presence of another important rookie: goaltender Lukáš Dostál.

While Mintyukov has the look of a future core player, the Ducks can be less sure of what they have in Dostál. Almost anyone can put together six good games between the pipes, but Dostál has played relatively well in previous NHL cameos.

Between 2021-22 and 2022-23, the former third-round pick appeared in 23 games and produced a .902 save percentage. While that's slightly below average, playing behind the last two Ducks squads has been a tough assignment. For a little context, John Gibson had a .901 save percentage in those seasons.

Dostál also has a solid AHL resume to lean on. In 98 games at that level, his save percentage sits at .915 and has hovered between .912 and .916 in each of his three seasons.

None of this profile screams superstardom as Dostál doesn't have overwhelming numbers at low levels, a massive frame, or impressive draft pedigree. The floor on the 23-year-old continues to look higher and higher by the day, though, and it's possible the Ducks have caught lightning in a bottle.

From a bigger-picture perspective, it seems unlikely that Anaheim is as good as their record suggests.

The team has middling 5v5 possession numbers and doesn't seem to have the proven difference makers at the top of the lineup — or between the pipes — to consistently bend games in their favor when they aren't carrying the play. There aren't that many great teams out there with an average shot differential of -4.8 per game.

Although 2023-24 probably won't be the Ducks' year to hoist the Cup, the team can be comforted by the fact it has some promising young players helping to drive winning at the NHL level — even if it doesn't last all season.