Outlook – How The Canucks Stack Up In the Western Conference

Leigh Ramsden April 22, 2013 17
canucks wingsPhoto by Rich Lam/Getty Images

Last night, I attended what was possibly the most boring, uneventful Canucks game in my recent memory.  The Canucks took on their old-time nemesis, the Detroit Red Wings.  As I’m sure you know, the team from Vancouver prevailed 2-1 in a shootout, the wizardry of Max Lapierre (?) the difference.

Unfortunately, this was one of those games where the result really masked the way the game went – the Canucks were thoroughly outclassed by the Wings in almost all facets of the game, for most of the night.  The Canucks were outshot 34-14 on the night, and while tied at 1, could only muster up three shots (THREE!!) in the third period and in overtime.  Three shots!  Only an absolutely dominating performance by Cory Schneider kept the Canucks in this game.  Needless to say, winning games in this fashion is unsustainable. 

Canucks Army had the scoring chances at 18-12 in favour of Detroit, which doesn’t sound THAT bad until you consider the chances were 18-4 at even strength.  Also, consider that when the heat turned up in this game in the third, the Canucks were only able to generate one scoring chance.  At that rate, they’d have to convert chances at 100% to win.  This type of performance is not even close to being good enough, especially as they head into the playoffs.

What we witnessed last night is a microcosm of the Canucks season, it would seem.  A failure to convert on the power play kept the game close in the first period.  Little to no pushback when the other team turned it up.  Losing puck battles consistently, and continually being beaten to loose pucks.  Decent puck possession at times, but a failure to convert into scoring chances (or ultimately, goals).  A middling first line, the Sedins seemingly becoming less and less capable of putting the team on their back or dominating a game.  Perhaps worst, the inability of the team’s defense to move the puck efficiently up the ice – resulting in many a fire drill in their own zone. Ultimately, unless the Canucks receive a dominant (and I mean truly dominant) goaltending performance, they struggle to win most nights.

Perhaps the most troubling development is the nagging feeling that I’ve seen this movie before.  Last season, with the division wrapped up and Daniel Sedin hurt, coach Alain Vigneault screwed around in the final 10 games putting Andrew Ebbett and Max Lapierre in a first line role at times. This season, here we go again. 

For instance, GM Mike Gillis, knowing the team badly needed a third centre, acquired Derek Roy at the deadline.  AV decides that he wants to see Roy and Kesler together, so he blows up Roy’s line and has Ebbett in a top-9 role.  That failed.  Facing injuries on the back end, Cam Barker finds himself playing top-4 minutes – and having his lunch absolutely handed to him.  Another fail. And through it all, both coach and captain talk about “the process”, how there are no easy nights in the NHL, and most egregiously last night, about how they played their “best game in three weeks” (in their effort being outchanced 18-4 at even strength).

WHAT FACTORS MIGHT BE IN THE CANUCKS’ FAVOUR?

Those with rose-coloured glasses will point that the team is currently missing two key defensemen (Kevin Bieksa and Chris Tanev) and two key forwards (Chris Higgins and David Booth).  This is true, and I believe the insertion of any of these players (only Booth appears doubtful to see any playoff action) can only improve the team’s performances.  Certainly, the Cam Barker experiment on the back end has been an abject failure, and the team’s second and third line performance has been spotty ever since Higgins went down.  The reality is that the Canucks haven’t really had a fully healthy lineup all season long.

The counterpoint to this is the fact that almost no teams have had a healthy lineup all season long.  Chicago, for instance, has had to deal with the loss of Patrick Sharp for six weeks.  The defending champion L.A. Kings have missed two or three of their defensemen for the entire year. Pittsburgh has been dealt the loss of the world’s best player, Sidney Crosby.  Et cetera.  Frankly, blaming the injuries is an excuse, just like every other cliché that Canucks coach Alain Vigneault trots out.

Another factor that may be positive is the recent return of Ryan Kesler – and not the injury riddled 2012 version of him, but rather the dominating 2011 version of him.  The team’s looked somewhat better since he’s been back and it looks like his 40 goal wrist-shot, missing the entirety of last season, has returned.

INSIDE THEIR RECORD – HOW DO THE CANUCKS REALLY STACK UP IN THE WEST?

We all know that reading the NHL standings is fool’s game – Gary Bettman’s ludicrous point system keeping everything artificially close, so we can all watch games with baited breath to see if our favourite team will make the playoffs.

Instead of relying on the official standings, I took a look inside the Canucks’ record to see how they fare in regulation time – it’s my belief that regulation performance in the regular season is a much better way to gauge a team’s chances of success in the postseason.  I also took into account the Canucks’ opponents – since their continued play against the weaklings that play in their Northwest Division are rinky-dink outfits, all things considered.

What I found may or may not be a surprise (it wasn’t to me):  The Canucks have fared much better against the non-playoff teams than the playoff teams.  However, what was surprising was that almost half their games against the other Western Conference playoff teams have gone past regulation time to overtime.  (For purposes of this analysis, I’m going to assume that the playoff seedings don’t change from today, where Detroit is out and Columbus and Minnesota are in).

The Canucks record against the other playoff teams – Chicago, Anaheim, L.A., San Jose, St. Louis, Minnesota, and Columbus – is 6-5 in regulation, and 3-6 in the games that went beyond (if Detroit makes it in, this worsens to 6-7 in regulation and 2-5 beyond).  Only one of those games ended in OT, the others were all SO games.

Conversely, the Canucks have fared quite well against the conference weaklings, sporting a record of 13-8 in regulation, and 3-1 when going beyond 60 minutes.

So what does this tell us?  Well, it tells us that the Canucks have played the other playoff teams relatively even through the year.  It also tells us that they have had trouble winning games in regulation time against quality competition, but also that they have done well being tied at the end of 60 minutes. I do find it somewhat telling that their record in SO against these other quality teams is so poor – the Canucks really do lack top-flight offensive talent (the Sedins excepted).

The fact that almost half these games are going to OT is somewhat troubling, especially when you consider that fact in light of the team’s recent performances.  The Canucks haven’t posted a regulation win against a playoff team since the third week of March, when they defeated St. Louis and L.A.

Interestingly, the team has only played against two playoff teams in the month of April, losing both games to San Jose and St. Louis.  The Canucks’ four-game win streak in early April came against Edmonton, Calgary, and Phoenix – not exactly like getting tuned up to play the Kings or the Blackhawks.

There’s really no facet of the game in which the Canucks are excelling at the moment, or for most of the year for that matter, other than the penalty killing.  Unless things improve dramatically, in all other areas, in the next 10 days, the Canucks will be in a world of trouble once the playoffs start.

At the time of this writing, I struggle to find a way to visualize a Canucks playoff-round win, unless of course they get sustained consistent “out of this world” goaltending – and the chances of that happening are just not strong (see the 2007 version of the Canucks).  I’ll do a more comprehensive playoff preview once the matchups are set, and depending on what the team proves (or not) in its final three games, this view could change.  These next two games, against Chicago and Anaheim, will be VERY telling indeed.