Four factors behind the Canucks' rocky start to the NHL season

On the segment, 'Prove Me Wrong' Sportsnet's Dan Murphy & Iain MacIntyre debate whether fans in Vancouver should worried about the Canucks’ start to the season.

The Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs square off for the second time this season, Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada. Round 1 was a bloodbath that saw the Maple Leafs expose the Canucks' biggest weakness -- one that, until corrected, will prevent the Canucks from having any kind of meaningful success this season.

The 7-3 drubbing at the hands of the Maple Leafs on Thursday was the eighth time the Canucks have allowed five or more goals in a game this season. The only team with a worse goals-against average are the Ottawa Senators, who have the worst record in the NHL. And while the Canucks have given their fans glimpses of hope, a four-game win streak, and flashes of strong play from their top players, this team has really only shown one thing consistently this season: An inability to defend, particularly off the rush.

In the loss to the Maple Leafs on Thursday, the Canucks allowed 17 scoring chances off the rush, more than any team has allowed in a game this season. Four of those rush chances resulted in goals, which is more than two teams, Dallas and New Jersey, have allowed all season.

The Canucks' inability to slow teams down is their biggest performance-based issue right now.

Going back to the start of the 2017-18 season, no team has allowed more goals off the rush in its first 14 games than the 19 Vancouver has allowed this season.

Only the 2018-19 Detroit Red Wings allowed more rush chances against (116) this deep into a season than the Canucks have this season (115). That Red Wings team went on to finish 28th place.

The Canucks currently rank last in the NHL in the amount of rush scoring chances they allow per game, 8.2, and goals allowed off the rush, 1.36.

So, let’s look at four key areas to identify the root of the problem. Goaltending, personnel, coaching and execution.

Goaltending

Let’s get this out of the way: it’s not goaltending that is costing the Canucks defensively. When isolating goaltending performance (actual goals against average vs. expected goals against average) from team defence (expected goals against average), the Canucks sit 21st in the league. Their expected goals against, a direct reflection of team defence, is last in the NHL at 3.54 goals-against per game.

Captain Bo Horvat hit the nail on the head after Thursday’s loss to Toronto saying, “It’s not our goaltender’s fault. We’re giving up too many grade-A opportunities.” J.T. Miller echoed his captain's sentiments stating, “We hung our goalies out to dry. I think we can be way better.”

Personnel

The Canucks lost some key defensive contributors in the off-season in Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev. Markstrom covered up some of the defensive warts that are proving so costly this season.

In 2019-20, the Canucks ranked 29th in rush chances against per game with 6.8, and 24th in rush goals against with 0.77. Not quite as bad as this season, but still not the type of numbers you typically see from a team that went on to win multiple playoff rounds. Like Markstrom, the Canucks' best defensive defenceman last season, Tanev, also left via free agency. Vancouver wasn’t a great defensive team with Tanev and they are proving to be a worse one without him.

Coaching

I think Travis Green is a good coach and I think he understands what he has in his group. Part of the reason the Canucks allowed so many rush chances and goals against last season was due to how they looked to create offence.

Vancouver did an excellent job cycling the puck and turning offensive zone possessions into goals. At even-strength, no team scored more goals off the cycle than Vancouver. In order to maximize the strengths of the team and create so many goals by working the puck in the offensive zone, the Canucks often had three or four skaters playing below the hash marks in the offensive zone. If a puck was turned over or a battle was lost, the opposing team would often have a chance to move up ice quickly and create off the rush.

In the end, Vancouver scored more by cycling than they allowed off the rush so this strategy seemed sound enough. This season, the Canucks are still giving up the rush chances we would expect, but the issue has been compounded by a concerning degree of disconnect between the forwards and defencemen.

Execution

The game against the Maple Leafs was a microcosm of the defensive issues that have plagued Vancouver for much of the season and it started early. Here are just a couple of examples.

Less than three minutes into the game a failed pinch at the blue line leaves J.T. Miller to defend Auston Matthews. Guess who won that battle?

In the second period, Adam Gaudette gets beat on a stretch pass up the middle of the ice. Odd-man rush, goal.

There were plenty more examples like this, but for brevity's sake we’ll move on.

The Canucks are going to give up more rush chances than most teams. Partially because of how they play and partially because they are not a fast team. They can not compound the issue by lacking in execution and details.

Perhaps some of this is fatigue related, both mental and physical. After all, Vancouver started its season playing 13 games in 21 days including four sets of back-to-backs. Opportunities for the Canucks to fine-tune their game with practice time have been few and far between. However, these defensive issues were real with this team last season. The Canucks just did a better job of hiding them thanks to the Vezina-calibre play of Markstrom and of course, bubble Thatcher Demko.

Goaltending has been fine this season. With the departure of key players, this year's Canucks simply aren't as good as last year’s Canucks. That was a team that performed in the playoffs beyond what it would likely be capable of over a long stretch of time -- say, a regular season.

Despite what some fans in Vancouver might want to hear right now, I’m not hanging much of the blame for the Canucks' current plight on Travis Green. The blue line isn’t good enough and it shows most nights. I do believe this Canucks team is likely better than it's shown so far, but not better than the unrealistic expectations some set for the group at the start of the season.

One thing is for sure, until this team finds a way to limit the inordinate number of dangerous rush chances it's allowing, it will lose far more often than it wins. Trying to limit the Leafs to less than the 17 they had on Thursday is a good starting point.

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