January 16 2012 12:48PM
Though the Canucks have won three times in the past five games, including two wins over the Bruins and Blues (both among the best five-on-five teams in the NHL), the team has been playing by far their worst hockey of the season.
At Canucks Army, we pride ourselves on contextualizing results, and placing more emphasis on predictive signs like the way a team controls events, especially when the score is tied, than on transient ones, like wins and losses. In the first month of the season, this approach led us to point out how unlucky the team was, and to assure our readers that the team was poised to turn it around despite some frustrating losses and the club's .500 record. By that same logic, it's worth pointing out that the Canucks are trending in the wrong direction over the past week.
The Canucks usually control possession and dictate the tempo of their games, but since the start of their most recent road-trip they've been thoroughly dominated at even-strength. 5 games isn't a large sample, so this should be taken with some salt. In fact, I could probably find five games from last season that were just as ugly, and were a meaningless blip with no analytical value. I'm not saying the Canucks are boned, I'm just pointing out a recent trend and trying to figure out what's going on.
We'll start by taking a quick look at the team's overall control of play, using shots, Corsi and Fenwick as proxies for possession. Shot % is simple, it's a ratio of shots for and shots against for the team. Corsi is a metric that is a lot like traditional plus/minus except it takes into account not just goals for and against, but also shots, misses, and blocked shots. Fenwick is a Corsi variant that disregards blocked shots and I've also included PDO, which, measures luck. PDO is the sum of a team's save percentage and shooting percentage, and you can read more on it here. What's clear is that the team's drop-off since their victory over the Wild on January 4th, has been sharp:
|Time Frame||Shot %||Corsi %||Fenwick %||PDO|
|First 41 Games||51.4%||52.9%||54.1%||1013|
|Last 5 Games||43.5%||42.6%||46.8%||976|
First off a big thank you is in order. All of the above numbers come courtesy of timeonice.com, a valuable resource provided to stats-nerds by Vic Ferrari. If you're interested in learning more about how to use this indispensable resource, I'd refer you to this "how to" post from Red Line Station.
A couple of things to notice from the numbers in the above table: the team's PDO has cratered, and that's mostly the result of their save percentage normalizing (it's at .927% on the season, but .902% over the last five games). While the bounces haven't been kind to the Canucks over the past five games, it's not the "reason" they've been struggling as of late.
The Canucks are a possession team, and all season we've seen them dominate possession while out-shooting and out-chancing their opponents at even-strength. The past five games have been a different story, and the Canucks have been extremely reliant on their special teams play to squeak out a couple of wins (two of them in extra time). If you've noticed the Canucks spending more time in their own end over the past week, and seen the extended offensive-zone cycle shifts from Kesler and the twins, that are the team's hall-mark, evaporate, the numbers bear that impression out.
What's especially concerning is that the team's control of play during the "clutch" moments of games, when the score is even, has fallen off even more precipitously:
|Time Frame||Fenwick Tied %|
|First 41 Games||54%|
|Last 5 Games||34.8%|
Fenwick Tied % is the gold-standard of predictive metrics in terms of forecasting playoff success. Good team's control the flow of the game when it really matters, and the Canucks have been unable to do so over the past week. Controlling under 35% of scoring chances in tied games, even over a small sample of games, is very much out of character for this team. The Canucks are struggling at even-strength, and if they continue to do so, the wins are going to dry up.
So what's going on? The most popular theory is that the team is simply fatigued. Last night's no-show against the Ducks was the team's 21st game in 42 days since December 4th. During that span, the Canucks have made two East Coast swings, celebrated an abbreviated Christmas and New Years, and have enjoyed the benefit of having two days off between games only four times (and that includes Christmas).
As a result of this grueling schedule, the Canucks have played more road games than any other team except for Phoenix with whom they're tied with 26 roadies. If fatigue is the reason the Canucks have struggled of late, then that's good news, because then the current slide is just a blip, and nothing that the week-long All-Star break won't fix. The Canucks only play four games over the next 16 days, so there is a fair bit of time for recuperation over the next half month.
Assuming the Canucks are just fatigued, then we can put a positive spin on the team's performance the past week. After all, they've still managed to bank points during the toughest part of their schedule. But we have to hope that this is just noise, and overall team fatigue, and isn't caused by something more sinister and permanent. If, for example, the team's fall-of in performance is mostly due to the loss of the oft-injured Sami Salo and the stability he brings to the top-4, then that is a serious issue. Especially because addressing a need in the top-4 will cost the Canucks a wealth of treasure at the deadline...