Canucks Army didn’t exist in 2008. I’m not sure how much of a market there was for a math-themed Vancouver Canucks blog. I certainly wasn’t reading one, and while Vic Ferrari was pumping out terrific stuff like this about player luck over a short-term period of hockey games, I was a regular poster on Canucks.com, using the numbers I had available to me to prove my points, but none of the wealth of data available online to regular readers of Puck Prospectus or Irreverent Oilers Fans.
I was parsing through Behind The Net and something caught my eye: when we talk about the Minnesota Wild this season, or the Dallas Stars last season, or the Colorado Avalanche from 2010, we’re talking about teams that had dominant first halves of the season but collapsed from January-on. Surely, there has to have been a team like that almost every year in recent history that had a good first half and a lousy second half.
Enter the 2008 Vancouver Canucks, let’s look month-to-month at just how they did. Using timeonice scripts from 2008, I looked month-to-month at how this team fared…
Vancouver didn’t start the 2007-08 campaign too successfully. In the first seven games of the season, the Canucks won just thrice before heading out on the road for a four-game trip. It ended in Washington with a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals. Roberto Luongo summed up the game and their struggles like so:
“We just have to find ways to win and I thought we did that tonight. I thought we played really well in the first 50 minutes and then got into a little penalty trouble. Bottom line is we got the two points and now we can move on.”
You can see that the team had a real rough start to the season in the shot department, but that isn’t indicative of much. The important thing is that the Canucks learn how to win games.
The Canucks dominated November, winning nine out of 13 games, but more importantly, they were winning big, out-scoring their opposition 36-23 in the month. As noted by Luongo, again:
“It’s nice, but I think right now we’ve got to look at the way we’re winning games and the type of hockey we’re playing and I think the whole group should feel good about themselves,” said Luongo, insisting his play is a result of vastly improved team defence in November.
Obviously the Canucks are an improved team, but not by much. Their overall win percentage doesn’t sync up with their score-tied shooting rate, so there’s a sizeable chance that maybe this team that Luongo sees in front of him isn’t the one he thinks it is.
The Canucks slowed a little in December, winning 8-of-15, but they maintained a slim lead on the Northwest Division, and were fourth overall in the NHL. The secret to their success?
“Other people may not pay much attention to us, but that’s OK,” Trevor Linden told the Vancouver Province newspaper. “We’re not the flashiest team but we understand what makes us tick, and it starts with Roberto.”
Roberto Luongo’s even strength save percentage is .943 at this point. Combined with the Canucks’ marginally-talented offensive unit shooting 9.2%, the team has an overall PDO of 103 after December despite a sub-50% Fenwick Tied. We know how this story ends.
The Canucks won 4-of-12 in January and scaled back to a .500 win percentage, having won 26 of their first 52 games. The culprit? Injuries, but the team won’t make excuses:
“You know what?” Aaron Miller said before the Canucks left for Tampa, Fla., and today’s date with the Lightning. “I’ve been on losing teams and losing teams talk about the guys who are hurt. As soon as we start doing that, we’re going to kill ourselves.”
The Canucks’ shooting percentage took a significant hit in January, scaling back to 8.5% on the year after going 6.8% on the month. Roberto Luongo stopped just .906 shots at even strength. Overall, the Canucks’ PDO began to turn downwards, ending the month at 101.6%.
In February, Vancouver managed to halt the bleeding, winning six of 12 games, but just thrice in regulation. The big story, however, was the Canucks failing to secure another forward, as Dave Nonis refused to pull the trigger on a deal that would have apparently seen Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond, Cory Schneider and Luc Bourdon sent to Tampa Bay for Brad Richards. Instead, he settled on a minor deal, picking up Matt Pettinger for fan-favourite agitator Matt Cooke:
“I wasn’t about to take significant, young roster players off our team at this point in order to land a player,” said Nonis. “I think it would have set us back. For me, I don’t think it was a situation that at the end made sense for us.”
The Canucks scored just 21 goals in 12 games at even strength this month. Luongo held tight, with a .927 save percentage. Overall, the team was fighting for a playoff spot with Nashville, Minnesota and Columbus, who came back from a 2-0 third period deficit on the road to beat the Canucks on the last of the month.
Things fell apart, here. After winning three of the first seven of the month (ugly games, as well). Here we are midway through the month:
“It’s been a roller-coaster ride for Vancouver to get into a position where they can contend for the post-season. In January they were battling for the division lead and third seed in the Western Conference. Earlier this month they were ninth in the West.
They’ve won their last two games with blue-collar scoring in the dirty areas around the net and have pushed back in more ways than one when challenged physically.”
The Canucks would win just two out of their last nine games. According to Luongo:
“You work so hard for an entire season to have a chance to play for the Cup and it’s tough to take when you’re not rewarded at the end,” said goaltender Roberto Luongo after wiping away tears and taking some time outside the locker room to gather himself before speaking to the media.
SO WHAT DID WE LEARN?
Well, aside from that Luongo was always a big crybaby, when you look at it from month-to-month via a stretch of games rather than stacking everything up in perspective against a full season, it sort of blinds you. At no point when the Canucks were a top team in the league was there any indication, except for underlying numbers, that the team was going to start losing.
We can look at it now and say “oh, well of course you predicted the Canucks’ collapse, it happened four years ago” but at that point, I recall the problem being injuries and not enough dynamic offensive talent. In actuality, the Canucks’ score tied numbers didn’t drop at all in the absence of guys like Kevin Bieksa, Willie Mitchell, Mattias Ohlund and Brendan Morrison. Other than Ohlund, none of those guys were good possession players at this point in their careers.
Trevor Linden would retire. Markus Naslund would sign with the New York Rangers and Dave Nonis would find himself fired. Stack up the Canucks’ goal rates with their shot rates and compare the two. You can just imagine how ugly the final bit of the season must have been: