Yesterday, we ruffled some feathers by outlining five reasons why the Vancouver Canucks will miss the playoffs in the second half of 2015. Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom in Canuck nation. Currently sitting 8th in the conference with a game in hand on nearly everyone, Vancouver is well positioned to reach the goals they set out to accomplish at the beginning of the season and be a playoff team in 2014-2015.
Read past the jump for the five best reasons why the Canucks will be a playoff team by the time the regular season is done.
1. They Were Red Hot in November
While how a team performed in the first half of the season doesn’t necessarily indicate how they’re going to do in the second half of the season, every point collected along the way still has an impact on whether a team makes the playoffs or not. The Vancouver Canucks jumped out of the gate, compensating for questionable goaltendting with some timely scoring, flashing an elite penalty kill, and touching first place in the NHL for a brief period. They squeezed more standings points out of their few games than any other team did for the first month or two, and that alone has positioned them to be a playoff team.
Vancouver currently is holding on to the final wild card spot in the West, as the Winnipeg Jets have emerged as a legitimately good team in the Central and look to have a solid hold on the first wild card spot. This means that all Vancouver has to do in the final 41 games of the season is to match the point pace of Dallas, Colorado, Minnesota, and Calgary – three teams that have won less than 50% of their games so far, and a fourth that is one of the worst possession teams in the entire NHL. Dallas appears to be the biggest threat here, but with questionable goaltending and possession numbers not significantly better than Vancouver, it doesn’t appear like they’re a fantastic bet to drastically out-pace Vancouver.
2. Dan Hamhuis Will Be the West’s Biggest Second Half Addition
Short of the Los Angeles Kings carrying out their annual pillaging of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the trade deadline generally comes and goes without any team making a major addition, particularly if said team is on the playoff bubble. Why trade away futures if deep down you know that if you’re struggling to make the playoffs, what chance do you truly have at going all the way?
As this is the case, we can make a fairly safe assumption that neither of Minnesota or Dallas will make a huge addition, and we can predict that Calgary and Colorado will likely fall by the wayside on their own. While every team would love to add another top-4 defenseman, only one team is actually assured of adding one. Or more specifically, welcoming one back.
Even though he didn’t have a fantastic start to the year, Dan Hamhuis has been a legitimate 1st-pairing D since he came to Vancouver, and the Canucks’ best puck possession D-man since 2011-2012. He’s generally handled a heavy defensive burden, eaten a ton of minutes, and has come out ahead. Even if he’s not quite top-pairing quality any more, he’s likely the best player that any playoff bubble team will be able to add going in to the second half of the season.
3. The 2013-14 Season From Hell Likely a One-Off
Throughout the first half of this season, we’ve heard murmurs about how this team compares to John Tortorella’s doomed squad of 2013-14 that looked good before falling off a cliff and missing the playoffs by a long shot. What’s rarely mentioned is that the intensity with which that team fell off is highly abnormal and not likely to repeat this season. The Canucks were not only crushed by an abnormal rash of injuries to their most key players, but their on-ice shooting percentage and save percentage plummeted in a PDO malaise the likes of which we’d never before seen in Vancouver.
The improbability of that collapse was one thing, but to see it happen twice would be unheard of. Even if the Canucks are likely a sub-par shooting team with average-ish goaltending, falling off a cliff like they did under Tortorella for such a prolonged stretch is wildly improbable. I mean, there were guys on this team last season who had years so unlucky that they were entirely unprecedented in the analytics era. No one had ever carried an on-ice shooting percentage below 4% for a full season, until Alex Edler did last season. This season, his possession numbers are nearly identical, yet he’s on pace to be a +10 rather than a -39, all thanks to good ol’ regression.
We said in the preseason that Edler’s regression alone would likely be enough to put Vancouver in the playoffs, and so far that looks like it will be the case.
4. Vancouver is Due for Some Bounces
As we just went over in the above point, Vancouver’s PDO was a massive issue last season. Pucks weren’t going in the opponent’s net, and just weren’t staying out of their own. Vancouver finished 20th in the NHL in PDO last season, posting a very poor 995 mark. While that likely wasn’t a true-talent high-end finishing team, they were probably “owed” a better goal differential than they eventually saw, for lack of a better term.
So far this season, Vancouver is even further away from NHL mean PDO than we’d expect compared to where they were last season. Their PDO of 986 is 26th in the NHL, and their on-ice shooting percentage of just 7.1% is 28th. Ryan Miller has rounded back in to being an adequate starter and helped pull the Canucks’ team save percentage out of the bottom of the league, but at the same time he’s done this, Vancouver’s 5-on-5 scoring has completely dried up. There’s a legitimate argument to be made that this is a talent deficiency, but even if it is, we can reasonably expect the Canucks to post a number much closer to 1000 over the final 41 games.
This of course means that if their puck possession game remains constant, Vancouver should score more goals, get more saves, and therefore see more wins and more success as they regress back towards league average. This will make them exceedingly difficult to catch for the teams chasing them.
5. The Teams Chasing Them Will Fall Out of the Race First
Perhaps the biggest reason why Vancouver won’t be caught is that the teams chasing them just aren’t very good either. Vancouver’s biggest worry in the Pacific division is the Calgary Flames, and although they boast the best goal differential in the Pacific, they’re closer to being a lottery team than they are a playoff contender. Their score adjusted Corsi of 44.0% is 28th in the NHL, ahead of only Colorado and Buffalo, and unlike Vancouver, they’ve dined out on favourable percentages. The Flames are 7th in the NHL in PDO and T-6th in on-ice shooting percentage, so they’re more likely to fall by the wayside than the Canucks are.
This means that Vancouver’s biggest threat to missing the playoffs will come in the form of either the Dallas Stars or the Minnesota Wild. Neither team is above 0.500 on the year, and both have serious issues of their own too. Minnesota has seen declining possession numbers and awful goaltending all season, and at eight points back of Vancouver with one extra game played, they may have already played themselves out of the playoff picture. Dallas has been better of late, but they traded arguably the best player on an already paper-thin D earlier this year, and also have to make up ground while playing in the murderous Central division with the league leading Predators, the dangerous Blackhawks and Blues, and the resurgent Jets.
It’s brutally tough to make up ground in the NHL, and Vancouver may have put just enough daylight between themselves and their closest competitors to be able to hold them off until the very end.
If you take nothing else away from both today’s and yesterday’s articles, you should come away knowing that anything can happen in the second half of this season. Personally, I think Vancouver is more likely than not to make the playoffs, mostly for the reasons outlined above. They’re not a bad enough team to fall well out of the race like some of the teams chasing them are, and they’re due for some bounces going forward.
However, the Canucks still likely aren’t a legitimate threat to do a lot of damage in the playoffs, and have played like a below average squad for an extended period of time here. Whether or not making the playoffs is the best thing for the franchise’s long-term goal of one day winning the Stanley Cup, preferably as soon as possible, is a discussion for another day as well. It would behoove the Canucks to have this discussion soon though, as not to risk all of their most valuable assets depreciating into something unusable. The Vancouver Canucks are most definitely on the clock.