The top of the Pacific Divison is very weird right now: Edmonton has 19 points from 14 games, and Vancouver has 17 from 12.
The latter number puts the Canucks in elite company league-wide. It’s the sixth-highest points percentage in the NHL, and they’ve gone 8-1-1 in the last 10 with a plus-21 goal difference in that stretch. It’s fair to say no one saw this coming.
But now’s the time when we must ask the obvious question: Is this unexpectedly hot club, which most figured was a bubble team at best, going to keep it up?
The answer is: Maybe.
They’re right around the upper-middle of the league in a lot of categories that aren’t just “scoring and not-allowing goals.” They’re 15th in all-situations expected-goals percentage, and 14th in the same stat at 5-on-5. Neither are great, nor do they portend good things (necessarily) in the future. But at the same time, their shares of 5-on-5 attempts, shots and high-danger chances are eighth, 10th, and eighth, respectively, so that’s right where you want to be, especially with a roster this young, and coming off so many changes in the summer.
But you do have to say they’re outplaying their quality right now, as well. Across all game states, they’re plus-12 in real vs. expected goals for, and minus-2.4 or so against. To be up 14-plus goals on your expected difference through 12 games due to the third-highest PDO in the league (they have both the sixth-highest shooting and save percentages) is probably a point of concern.
It should be said that talented teams obviously tend to have higher PDOs than the league average and, for a good chunk of this Canucks roster, there’s a lot of talent to be had.
Elias Pettersson (like the entire offence) got off to a slow start, with just two points in his first four games. Since then, he’s on 3-13-16 in his last eight, including seven in just his last two. Brock Boeser and new guy J.T. Miller aren’t far behind, Bo Horvat is scoring plenty, Quinn Hughes is putting up points as a rookie defender, and so on.
You’d probably like a bit more production from everyone else but it’s not a huge deal as long as your top four forwards are all at or around a point a game. Especially when both goaltenders are playing well.
And that’s certainly the other part of this: The Canucks had a bit of an iffy situation in the crease coming into the year. Serviceable pending UFA Jacob Markstrom (.912 each of the last two seasons) seemed like an okay fill-in until Thatcher Demko could potentially take over the top job, either this year or next. Instead, Markstrom got off to a white-hot start at .933 in his first six appearances, and Demko was even better, north of .940.
The offence has absolutely gone off the last four games, netting the team 22 goals compared to just 12 against. But 12 is not a great number to concede every four games and if things aren’t going to tighten up at the back, things get a little dicey. Then you’re relying on Pettersson and Co. to produce like they have every night.
The other thing that’s worth noting is, while Vancouver is certainly playing well, it’s also played literally the third-easiest schedule in the league to date, behind only Buffalo and Edmonton.
It’s played Calgary, Florida, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington — all teams expected to be at least pretty good this year, even if it hasn’t necessarily worked out that way. In those games, Vancouver has a blowout win (Florida), a shutout loss (Calgary), and three shootout results (2-1). So that looks like a 3-1-1 record, but it’s only a plus-2 goal difference in all those games combined, versus minus-0.23 expected.
But the Canucks’ other opponents were largely expected to be non-playoff teams at best. The Red Wings (twice), Oilers, Kings (twice), Devils, and Rangers. In those games, they’re 5-2-0 on a plus-14 goal difference, against just a plus-1.8 expected number.
Move these teams around by category if you want. The numbers don’t change much. It’s fair to say the Canucks punched a bit above their weight and also got some loser points out of the deal against the teams they should be competitive with, and absolutely pounded on the teams they should pound on, but too savagely to be repeatable.
The takeaway, then, is that this is just what above-average teams do to make the playoffs: Get results (even if outsized) in winnable games and get some bounces in the actual tough ones as long as you keep it competitive.
Will they stay at or near the top of the Western Conference all season if they keep playing this way? No. But it’s looking quite likely that they’re going to lock themselves into at least playoff contention if the percentages and above-average-but-not-overwhelming quality of play both hold up for the next little while.
For a team that looked like a bubble team at best to start the season, you can’t ask for much more than that.
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