Coming into the NHL season the Vancouver Canucks were quickly written off as a doomed team, one favoured to finish at the very bottom of the NHL standings.
Now they’re off to a 4-0 start.
In the season predictions episode of the Tape to Tape Podcast, I’m so far proud to admit my stance of not completely buying into that gloom (you can ignore the Flames prediction for now). Not that the expectation was that they’d be a playoff team — just that they wouldn’t be a total tire fire. The first line looked somewhat dangerous, the secondary scorers looked like an OK bet to improve, the defence was getting good pre-season reviews and you can do worse than a Ryan Miller–Jacob Markstrom tandem in net.
The problem was that the competition in the West is so ferocious.
But here were are and the miraculously 4-0 Canucks are tied with the Edmonton Oilers atop the NHL. Egads. The end must be near.
How have the Canucks got off to this undefeated start? Here’s a look at a few things going their way.
CORSI FOR ME, NO CORSI FOR YOU
Vancouver supposed to be completely inferior to just about every other NHL team this season, but when you look at the most well-known “fancy stat” it has actually held up very well against the competition so far.
Although they’ve only led for a little less than 29 minutes total through four games, the Canucks have held the advantage in chances, holding the seventh-best 5-on-5 CF% at 53.82, according to Corsica.Hockey. They’ve outshot their opponent in three of their first four games, with Buffalo on Thursday being the only team tooutshoot Vancouver so far.
But it’s not as though the Canucks have been a shot-generating machine — they’ve been great at stopping shots against from happening. It’s early, but Vancouver is allowing 24.5 shots against per game, tied for third-best in the league, which says a lot about a team whose weakest point is supposed to be its blue-line. It’s hanging with the Capitals, Sharks and Rangers here. Ya, ya, small sample size. We’re not saying — we’re just saying.
THE DEFENCE HAS BEEN BETTER THAN ADVERTISED
Again, the blue-line was supposed to be a disaster, but early on it’s been one of the biggest strengths of the roster. Vancouver has the lowest Corsi Against per 60 mark in the league (43.15), which is so low and so much better than the next team, it’s absolutely going to come back up.
But we have reason to be optimistic here. As Thomas Drance wrote for Sportsnet in September, Ben Hutton and Erik Gudbranson were actually performing rather well in the pre-season and were poised to surprise onlookers once the season began. Gudbranson especially was going to be a surprise, considering how much he, and the trade to acquire him, have been derided by the numbers-based community.
Four of the Canucks’ defencemen have better expected goals-for than goals-against totals so far, and Gudbranson is one of the guys on the positive side of the ledger. Overall, though, the whole back end has been pretty steady so far.
When you notice a team exceeding expectations, the goalies are almost always a big reason why and that’s certainly the case with the Canucks. They haven’t earned a shutout yet, but only once in the first four games has the opposing team scored more than one goal — and in the 2-1 season-opening win against Calgary, Loui Eriksson put one into his own net.
Is this the year Markstrom stops being the perpetual goalie of the future and finally becomes the goalie of today? While Miller has been battling “tightness”, Markstrom has stepped in with three terrific games, a .932 save percentage and a 1.65 goals-against average. This, too, will come back to reality, but with Miller in the last season of his contract and trade rumours swirling around Los Angeles, it would be an important development for the Canucks to get an improved season out of 26-year-old Markstrom. The .932 save percentage won’t happen, but .918 would be large.
THE FORWARDS HAVE BEEN ALL RIGHT
The best part of the roster heading into the season has arguably been the weak point so far, with the fourth-lowest goals per game mark. The Sedin-Sedin-Eriksson line hasn’t taken off yet, but we have to assume it will eventually start to click. After that, if the Canucks are going to make a surprise leap to mediocrity, the Bo Horvats, Brandon Sutters and Jannik Hansens in the lineup will need to produce. The good news is Horvat has scored two goals in four games — the bad news is he’s done it with a shooting percentage of 40 per cent.
The bottom line here is Vancouver needs to generate more shots all over or else the inevitable bounce-back from the exceptionally good start on defence won’t be offset enough on offence and the team will tumble.
OK, so everything is hunky-dory in Canucks land and the playoffs are on the horizon, right? Well…no, not so fast.
Remember, they’ve barely played with a lead in regulation at all, only doing it once for a couple minutes against the Sabres in Game 4. Prior to that, they were always chasing. This can at least partially explain their great shot metrics so far, in that their opponents have been in sit-back mode more than they’ve been in attack mode. Generally, teams trailing accumulate more shots on goal than the team with the lead. So on the one hand, yes, the Canucks should start playing with more leads here and there, but on the other, that means their opponents will be more aggressive on offence, and more likely to make Markstrom’s and Miller’s lives more stressful.
So while we haven’t seen enough yet to get too excited about the Canucks exceeding expectations, it certainly is a promising start. The key now is to get more shots on goal from the offence, continue with stable, strong netminding, and then hope what we’ve seen from the surprising defence so far isn’t totally a mirage.