Tales of Regression: The 2002 Vancouver Canucks

If there was ever a definitive Vancouver Canucks season between Stanley Cup Finals appearances in 1994 and 2011, there’s a fair case for the 2002 campaign.

After a couple of years of knocking on the door, the 2002 team proved that the Canucks, led by the West Coast Express trio of Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison, could be an elite franchise competing with the Detroits and Colorados of the Western Conference.

Vancouver made the playoffs as an 8-seed that season, winning two games at Joe Louis Arena before dropping their next four to the Red Wings. Even making the playoffs at that point, though, was a bit of a stretch. The Canucks started off the year terribly.

Game 41 of the season, the midpoint, came on December 29, 2001. Vancouver won a 4-2 game against the defending Eastern Conference Champions New Jersey Devils. The first star was Jan Hlavac, who scored twice, and Petr Skudra turned away 32 of 34 Devils shots. This was their second straight win. The problem? Their record stood at a tawdry 16-21-4-0, as the team won just five of their last 18 before the mini-winning streak.

Something happened at the midpoint of the season. The pre-Christmas and post-Christmas Canucks were two wildly different teams. 14-21-4-0 at the Christmas break, the Canucks went 28-9-3-3 after Santa Claus.

Wild. Not the Minnesota Wild. Remember when the Wild were the top team in the NHL around December this past season and then crashed? Vancouver experienced something similar, albeit in reverse in 2001-2002.

We don’t have available Corsi and Fenwick and puck possession tables from that era unfortunately. All we have are goals and shots. Around Christmas, the Canucks’ shooting percentage was 8.9%. Respectable, and about the league average. Unfortunately, the team was not getting any help from their goaltending. The Skudra-Dan Cloutier two-headed monster of mediocre had a combined save percentage of just .890.

To put that in perspective, the worst regular starting goalie in the NHL that season was an .895. That was Ed Belfour. The second worst was .901. That was Dan Cloutier.

So, something must have happened to turn fates around. Or perhaps it was percentages. The Canucks at Christmastime had 52.42% of the shots in the games they played, a pretty solid number. One minor caveat is that due to score effects, that number is probably closer to around 50% since teams that are trailing tend to out-shoot their opponents. They also tend to out-score their opponents as the balance of psychology and strategies turns the tide.

You can see the chart:

  Goals% Shots% Sh% Sv% PDO
Before Christmas 47.03% 52.42% 0.089 0.890 0.979
After Christmas 60.46% 53.58% 0.126 0.905 1.031

Vancouver was likely a better team in the second half. They won far more hockey games, were leading more and continued to out-shoot the opposition. However they also got fantastic shooting percentages and that began to make up for their beyond poor goaltending.

There are some awesome graphs at Behind The Net that chronicle a team’s performance over the season. The amount of goals they get in respect to their opponents and the amount of shots, lined up side by side to compare whether a team’s production is matching its overall performance. Check out the gap around the midway point in the chart: the Canucks took way more shots than recorded goals.

PDO (it doesn’t stand for anything) is the addition of save percentage and shooting percentage. It’s usually only tallied at even strength, but overall shot numbers was all I could find so it’s what we work with.

I think the indicators from the shots is that yes, something clicked for Vancouver. Whether it was confidence or coaching, the forwards and defence all played a bit better, and benefit from some tremendous shooting rates in the second half.

Unfortunately, those cooled off in the playoffs, well, sort of. The Canucks were out-shot 71-46 in their first two games against the Wings yet scored 9 goals (19.57% shooting) and eking out an unlikely overtime victory in Game One.

They shot 6.93% the rest of the way, scoring just seven goals, out-shooting the Wings only once: in their 6-4 Game Six loss. Dominik Hasek shut the door, the Wings went on to win the Stanley Cup, and Vancouver had to wait until next year.

In 2003, as you’ll all recall, the Canucks came back from 3-1 down to take the “flu series” against the St. Louis Blues, and then definitely didn’t blow a 3-1 series lead to Minnesota before moving on to take on the surprising Mighty Ducks of Anaheim led by the red-hot Jean-Sebastien Giguere…

Previously in Tales of Regression