The Canucks At The Halfway (plus one) Pole, Part II – The Recent Slump

Leigh Ramsden March 13, 2013 2
Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

Yesterday, just prior to the Canucks beginning their second half, I wrote about how the Canucks’ power play woes were perhaps the biggest story from the first half of the season.  I noted that the PP has been bad for what actually amounts to an entire season, a full 82 games since a game against Columbus in December 2011, from when the Canucks efficiency with the man advantage has settled in at a pedestrian 15%.

I also noted that the other big development that has stuck out to me as the Canucks steam through the middle of their schedule is this recent slump they are in.  The shootout win against Columbus tonight improves their record to a pitiful 4-5-4 in their last 13 games – effectively amounting to the second quarter of the schedule.

Tonight, I thought we would delve a little bit deeper into this slide and discuss whether things are as bad as they seem – or whether this is a normal pattern for this Canucks team.  And, could this even be something that might benefit the team in the long run?

PERFORMANCE AFTER 25 GAMES

Tonight’s game was the Canucks’ 25th game of the season.  In a normal season, this accounts for only 30% of the schedule, whereas in this abbreviated campaign, this amounts to 52% of the team’s games.

I took a look at the team’s record in each of its two Presidents’ Trophy winning seasons.  Last season, after 25 games, the Canucks sported a record of 14-10-1 for 29 points.  This put the Canucks in 9th place in the Western Conference (one game out of the playoff spot), and in 15th place in the league.  One interesting thing to note from looking at the standings is that the Minnesota Wild were leading the conference, and the Dallas Stars were leading the Pacific division, slotting them in at the first and third spots in the conference.  Both teams missed the playoffs, while the Canucks and the Predators eventually made the playoffs in their stead.  The point is – the standings were pretty much set at that point, except when it came to the Canucks.  They had clearly underperformed to start the year.

Back in the magical 2010-2011 season, when the Canucks were by far the most dominant team in the league, after 25 games the Canucks sported a record of 14-8-3 which put them in a three way tie for 5th in the conference with Columbus (of all teams) and Anaheim, good enough for 13th place in the league.

As mentioned, the Canucks went on the win the President’s Trophy in each of those years.  While the significance of this accomplishment can be debated, moving up from the 13th and 15th place spots in the league to first signifies a dramatic improvement in the last 57 games of each year.  From memory, in 2011-2012, the Canucks played very well for about a month (curiously, after the PP hit the skids) until the game in Boston, after which they appeared disinterested but still managed to pull out wins in most games.  The early season narrative last year was around a Stanley Cup hangover, and Edler’s exclusion from the lineup.  Back in 2010-2011, the Canucks turned into a juggernaut after the 25 game mark, dominant in all facets of the game.

Just peeling back the onion one more layer, I took a look at the team’s performance in regulation time.  Mr. Bettman’s wondrous points system, you know the one that keeps all the teams artificially close in the standings, often skews a team’s abilities by rewarding teams that play close games and holding back teams that win in regulation.  In 2011-2012, they were 12-10-3 in regulation, with two wins and a loss in the three games that went beyond 60 minutes.  In 2010-2011, they were better, at 13-8-4, having one win and three losses in overtime or a shootout.

Which brings me to this season’s record of 12-7-6.  This record actually puts the Canucks higher in the league-wide standings, at 10th, than they were at a similar point in each of the previous two years.  Also, they are sitting better in the Western Conference, in a three-way tie for 3rd.  In regulation time, the team is 8-7-10, but their record after going to OT or a SO isn’t pretty, at 4-6.  Regardless, the team is one game better than .500 in regulation this year, compared to two games better than .500 last season, and 5 games better than .500 in 2010-2011.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t concerns about the way the team has performed so far this year.  Usually the team’s goaltending hasn’t been stellar early in the season, whereas this year, it’s been good for the most part.  Also, the team’s apparent lack of desire to put a full effort on the ice gives one a reason to pause, as does the impotent power play.  It is also noted that this is a short season and there’s less opportunity to come back in the standings should the team fall behind.

But that all said, the team has been battling injuries (Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa haven’t been in the lineup over this recent skid) and had very few players play overseas during the lockout.  There’s the ongoing saga of the goaltending situation, and the team has had to work two new defensemen into the mix.  With all this going on, the Canucks remain a game opponent most nights – evidenced by the fact that they have had more games go to overtime this year than outright wins or outright losses.

In looking at the specifics of the 13 game slump, you get a sense that things might not be as bad as they appear.  The team started this stretch by losing three in a row, two of them by shootout to St. Louis and to the juggernaut Blackhawks. The won their next two, one of which being the ugly 1-0 win in Nashville. The next game was the ugly 8-3 no-show in Detroit.  The Canucks then lost their next one to Phoenix, but that game was followed by three solid efforts – beating the Kings but losing to the Flames and Sharks (the Canucks deserved a better fate in these games).  The last three games weren’t that pretty (two vs. Columbus and the no-show in Minnesota) either, but the Canucks still came away with 3 of a possible 6 points.

What does this all mean?  Well, we know that in each of the past two years, the Canucks’ record at the 25 game mark wasn’t stellar, and in fact, the team’s performance this year puts them in a better position at this stage than in either of those years.  We also know that after about this point in the season, the Canucks turned it up, came into their own, and began to win a lot more hockey games. So, if the team can turn things around this year along the same sort of pattern, then they should be fine.  In the team’s slumping stretch of 13 games, there’s really only been two or three horrible efforts.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I’ve been highly critical of the team’s performances and its coaching staff.  That criticism is rooted in the fact that I know this team can perform at a much higher level.  There are few excuses for this team going through this kind of stretch. But after looking at this slide in the big picture, and after putting their performance through this point in the season in context, it leaves me with hope that they will get things generally on track for the rest of season.  Perhaps tonight’s SO win in Columbus will help kick-start the second half of the year.

IS THIS SLUMP A GOOD THING IN THE LONG RUN?

One other point I’ve been highly critical of is coach Alain Vigneault’s penchant to win every game, at all costs, regardless of what it does to his lineup. This mentality had led to mismanaging the goalies, overplaying certain players (i.e. running Kesler into the ground by playing him at even strength, on the PP, and on the PK), underplaying or neglecting certain other players which hinders their development and puts undue strain on the rest of the lineup, amongst other problems.  In my opinion, AV doesn’t realize that he’s trying to win the war, not 82 individual battles.

From that perspective, I believe this stretch of games could actually be a good thing for the Canucks.  AV has resisted urges to overplay the team’s best players and many nights has rolled four lines.  He’s also been forced to experiment with countless line combinations in order to try to get something to click. As I mentioned above, part of the reason the team is struggling is because Kesler and Bieksa have been out –and the team isn’t rushing them back into the lineup.

Where I’m coming from on this is that I’d rather have the team win its division with a relatively pedestrian record, or even get one of the lower playoff seeds, but enter the postseason feeling somewhat fresh, as opposed to going all out for all 48 games only to burn out in the first round.  This was the tactic that I thought was being unwittingly employed last year, it was just that the team kept winning all the close games to the point they finished with the most points in the league.  This season it’s different, they aren’t winning all the close games – in large part due to their failures on the power play, as I discussed yesterday.

In the end, this recent slide might be a blessing in disguise.  It’s forcing the coaching staff to look at all possibilities.  It’s forcing the team to have a more balanced approach to playing time.  They aren’t rushing players back from injury. And perhaps most importantly, the players are learning (the hard way) that they have to put in a full 60 minute effort every night in order to win, and hopefully that they need to play the games with a sense of urgency.  Winning became very easy for this group over the past couple of years and this year, it’s not.  If they learn the lessons they are being taught right now, it can only be a good thing.

Of course, this recent slide could just mean the Canucks aren’t that good anymore, that they’ve become another run of the mill, middling NHL team.  I think there’s a reasonable possibility that this is the case.  But after looking into their record to date compared to previous years, the composition of the games in this slide, and considering the fact that this slump might just be a good thing for the team, I think the more likely result is that the Canucks have a pretty good second half of the season and ideally get into the playoffs on a bit of a roll.

To ask a question once posed by Dennis Green: “Are they who we think they are?”

To answer, a quote from the immortal Justin Bobby:  “Truth and time tell all.”