The Vancouver Canucks have played 30 games, winning just 10 contests in regulation.
On the surface the club has struggled enormously, but in the meek Pacific Division, they currently sit in second place – although they’re just four points clear of the last-place Edmonton Oilers. This season could still go either way.
In the analytics era the 30-game barrier has generally carried some significance for analysts. Two months and change into the 2014-15 campaign, we’ve reached a point where teams have played more than 1,200 minutes at even-strength and have racked up somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2,500 shot attempt events (both for and against). As the sample expands, the underlying metrics begin to have some predictive weight.
Let’s take stock of how the Canucks have performed, and how they’re likely to fare over the balance of the season.
Through 30 games, the Canucks are a middling team at even strength, with significant defensive flaws.
The Canucks allow shots and shot attempts against at a roughly league-average rate, but they’re the single most permissive team in hockey in terms of surrendering scoring chances against, according to war-on-ice.com.
Vancouver’s defence is moving the puck better than they did a year ago, but the club’s emphasis on exiting the zone with control has too often been their undoing.
“I thought early we were scoring lots of goals and I thought it was because of how our D were moving the puck up ice,” Canucks coach Willie Desjardins told Sportsnet this week. “I thought our defence was getting back to pucks quick, they were mobile, and our forwards were getting open.
“At the same time we’ve seemed to have some high-end turnovers, where we turn it over and they’re in a bad spot or we give up a two-on-one because we’re trying to be aggressive.”
Costly turnovers have plagued the club and so has spotty in-zone defensive play.
Up front, Henrik and Daniel Sedin have carried the club, but secondary offence has been an issue. Canucks opponents are doing most of their damage against Vancouver’s secondary lines, and Bo Horvat – who has been thrust into a unforgiving role at a young age as a result of a long-term injury to Brandon Sutter – has understandably faced a steep learning curve in handling matchup responsibilities.
While depth and defence are deficiencies, the top end of Vancouver’s roster remains oddly strong — even contender quality. When Henrik Sedin has shared the ice with Chris Tanev at even strength, the Canucks have outscored their opponents by seven goals. In all other situations, the club has been outscored by nine.
The Canucks’ early form at evens probably reflects their true talent level. They’re a middle-of-the-road 5-on-5 team that ranks 17th by score adjusted shot attempt differential, according to puckon.net and they haven’t particularly benefitted or been hurt by unfavourable bounces at either end of the rink.
The Canucks have surprisingly struggled in shorthanded situations this season.
A recent stretch of solid work on the kill has bumped Vancouver’s penalty kill percentage north of 80 for the first time since early in the season, but at 4-on-5 the Canucks are the eighth most permissive club by goals-against rate.
In analyzing what’s gone wrong for a group of penalty killers from whom much more was expected, you really have to start with the injury to Sutter. An ace defensive pivot, the Canucks were surrendering shorthanded shots against at an impressively low rate when he was in the lineup early in the year.
Without Sutter the Canucks’ penalty kill has seemed a bit lost, as their head coach will admit.
“Sutter’s presence as a faceoff guy and as a good defensive centreman, I think (his absence) showed a bit on the penalty kill,” Desjardins said.
The Canucks’ penalty kill will probably fare a bit better over the balance than it has so far. The club ranks in the top-10 in preventing shot attempts against — which is generally a good indicator of future success — and they’re also doing well to limit high-danger scoring chances, even in Sutter’s absence.
Vancouver’s power-play has been enigmatic in the early going.
While the conversion rate sits near 20 per cent and only eight teams in hockey have scored more than the Canucks’ 18 power-play goals; the Canucks power-play also ranks in the bottom-10 in goal-scoring rate.
“Its been unusual,” Desjardins says of his club’s “streaky” performance with the man advantage.
“We’ve gone stretches where we haven’t scored, but I think a lot of times when we haven’t scored our power-play’s movement and that has been better than when we have scored.
The peripheral numbers suggest that the Canucks’ play with the man-advantage has been roughly average on the whole. It’s unlikely that the Canucks are an elite power-play club, but there are some indicators that they may be better than they’ve shown. In particular the Canucks are generating shot attempts and high-danger scoring chances at a very good clip.
The bigger issue is that the club’s second power-play unit has been something of a black hole. The Sedin-led first unit is generating shots, scoring chances and shot attempts at an elite rate, but the club has no secondary scoring support with the man advantage.
Save percentage numbers would indicate that the Canucks have received average goaltending through 30 games. Considering the avalanche of high-quality scoring chances this club is surrendering though, their goalie platoon of Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom have probably been a good deal better than that.
“Our goaltending has been good,” Desjardins opined earlier this week. “We’ve just given up some really high-end chances. We have to take away those two-on-ones, the breakaways.”
Miller and Markstrom have managed to post save percentages that are roughly in line with their career norms, so there’s probably nothing unsustainable about the club’s goaltending performance so far. With Miller getting more opportunities to rest of late, it’s even possible that the club’s save percentage could improve over the balance of the season.
The only real cause for concern is whether or not Miller and Markstrom can continue to stand tall if the defence continues its tire-fire act.
The new 3-on-3 overtime format has cost the Canucks dearly. The club is a hapless 0-7 in 3-on-3 situations, with two of their contests getting through to a shootout.
Vancouver’s 3-on-3 struggles aren’t actually all that unique. The Anaheim Ducks and the Nashville Predators, for example, have both gone 0-5 in 3-on-3 overtime through the first two months of the season and have been out-shot by a much wider margin.
The 3-on-3 overtime format is heavily dependent on rush goals, which doesn’t exactly play to the strengths of the brothers Sedin. You’d have to think that eventually the Canucks will win an overtime game this season, but the results haven’t been favourable in the early going.
The Canucks’ play through 30 games is a decent indication of this club’s true talent. There’s no particular area in which they’ve been unduly lucky or unlucky. They’re a flawed club with a sturdy top end, good goaltending and limited depth.
Expect those depth limitations to be strenuously tested over the next two months as a result of injuries to Sutter and Dan Hamhuis. This upcoming stretch is crucial and will likely to determine whether Canucks fans are paying attention to playoff hockey or the NHL Draft Lottery this April.
(Stats in this piece compiled from hockeyanalysis.com, NHL.com and war-on-ice.com)