Will the Canucks Qualify for the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Photo Credit: Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports

It’s U.S. Thanksgiving weekend, and the Vancouver Canucks are in position to make the playoffs.

For all the challenges the Canucks have faced through their first 23 games, that’s not a bad start for a group that got no respect from the prognosticators in preseason polls. Here’s a sample of some of those expert opinions:

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  • The Score – Justin Bourne – sixth in Pacific Division
  • The Hockey News – sixth in Pacific Division
  • Sportsnet – Stephen Burtch using analytics model – 12th in Western Conference
  • Bleacher Report – I went out on a limb and pegged the Canucks for fifth place in the Pacific Division

I gave the Canucks a little more credit than most of the other writers here, but I bought in to the popular beliefs that the Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames would be the class of the Pacific and that the Arizona Coyotes were at least one more year away from icing a competitive group.

As it stands right now, those three teams are the biggest threats to Vancouver’s playoff status at season’s end.

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In November of 2014, Ken Campbell at The Hockey News calculated that over the 10 previous NHL seasons, teams that held playoff positions on U.S. Thanksgiving had a 77 percent chance of joining the dance in April. Those are good odds, but far from a sure thing (especially because the Canucks are not in a playoff spot by raw point percentage).

NHL.com allows us to roll back the clock and look at the standings for any particular date on the calendar. Last U.S. Thanksgiving, Boston and Toronto held the Eastern Conference wild card spots, but they were ultimately bumped out by the Ottawa Senators and the New York Rangers. Yes, the eventual Presidents’ Trophy winners sat 11th in the Eastern Conference on November 27, 2014: that’s a good reminder that none of these prognostications are carved in stone.

In the West last season, only one team fell out after Thanksgiving. Los Angeles was bumped from the first wild card spot once Minnesota started its second-half surge after acquiring Devan Dubnyk. So, 13 of 16 teams overall hung on—that’s 81.25 percent of the list.

Only in the Pacific Division did the top three spots on Thanksgiving match up exactly with the results at the end of the season, with Anaheim in top spot, followed by Vancouver and Calgary.

It stands to reason that the teams most at risk of losing their spot are the ones that are sitting closer to the cut line and yes, that group definitely includes the Canucks this year.

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Going into last night’s game against the Minnesota Wild, Vancouver was just one point ahead of the Arizona Coyotes and two points ahead of the Anaheim Ducks—and those two teams were playing each other on Wednesday night. If the Canucks had lost to Minnesota, they would have dropped to fourth place when Arizona beat the Ducks. Vancouver could have fallen all the way to fifth if Anaheim had won in overtime.

By hanging on for a scrambly 3-2 win at the Xcel Energy Center, the Canucks kept control of their destiny and stayed, for the moment, on the positive side of the playoff ledger.

Frank Seravalli of TSN.ca reports that, for once, the fancy stats are actually on Vancouver’s side with respect to their playoff prospects. He cites a detailed model by mathematician Micah Blake McCurdy over at HockeyViz.com, which gives the Canucks a 59.6 percent chance of making the playoffs—good enough for eighth place in the Western Conference.

Click here if you’re interested in the specific details of how McCurdy created his model.

Also interesting: McCurdy’s suggesting that the Canucks will only need 91 points to squeak into the postseason, 10 points less than their total from last year and six points less than third-place Calgary accumulated. That lower point total wouldn’t be unprecedented—the Dallas Stars grabbed the second Western Conference wild card spot with 91 points in 2013-14, the first season of the new playoff format.

Is it in the Canucks’ best interest over the long term to make the playoffs? That’s a complicated question.

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The management group has made it crystal clear that playoffs are the goal—this year and every year. But if they’re in the hunt in February, will that limit their willingness to trade future unrestricted free agents like Radim Vrbata or Dan Hamhuis, increasing the chance that they’ll lose them for nothing next summer?

I certainly don’t think the Canucks will be buyers. They won’t sacrifice young players for a short-term shot at the postseason or a stronger playoff run. But if Vancouver is in the playoff ballpark as the trade deadline draws near, I can see how Jim Benning would also be reluctant to be a seller. He likes the team he has assembled so unless somebody makes him an offer he can’t refuse, I expect he’ll want to roll the dice with the players he has—like he did last year.

The first quarter of the Canucks’ season has been a bit of a mixed bag. On the plus side: the Sedins have been otherworldly, Jannik Hansen is playing like a legitimate first-liner and the rookies have integrated into the lineup more quickly than we expected. The negatives include Vancouver’s complete inability to score in 3-on-3 overtime, a tendency to blow leads and some key injuries that have forced other players into bigger roles than they might be comfortable with.

If Wednesday’s win in Minnesota is a sign that Vancouver is going to find ways to hang on and win close games, that will immediately translate into an uptick in the standings. If the injuries start to pile up or the Sedins drop off a cliff due to being overworked in the early part of the season, a second-half swoon remains possible. 

Outside factors could also affect the Canucks’ playoff destiny. Though McCurdy’s model suggests that the Ducks and the Flames won’t be able to recover from their early-season woes and that the Coyotes will fall just short of bumping Vancouver out of that third playoff seed in the Pacific, all bets are off if we see one of those teams make a big trade like Minnesota did last year or get on a second-half roll like we saw from the Rangers.

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For the Canucks—better to be in the playoff picture right now than to be out of it, but unlike those easy-breezy days of a decade ago, when the Northwest Division title was all but assured, the battle for a postseason position has already begun.

  • Sarah_Hobday

    I’m actually surprised by how weak the league as a whole has looked — other than Montreal (which now has to contend with losing Price again) and Dallas (who again have goaltending issues even if Niemi has been good so far) — no one’s really looked like a world-beater. Given the number of young players we already have on the team and the good that it seemed to do for Horvat to get some postseason experience, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to get a playoff series in. No one looks like a juggernaut this year and I’d love to see the Canucks make a last run with the Sedins. It’s a team that seems at least better built for the playoffs than last year so who knows. Will we regret Boeser over Barzal — who knows (though if Boston hadn’t had the three picks maybe someone else would have been smarter and picked him up anyway, these are always impossible to predict)? I’d still rather make the playoffs if we aren’t going to get a lottery pick anyway and I doubt we’re going to be that bad this season unless the wheels totally fall off.

      • Sarah_Hobday

        Surely you aren’t arguing that the 1% chance for the highest ranked non-playoff team is the same as the 20% chance for the worst ranked team in the league? My point was that a top 10 pick might be worth missing the playoffs but if you are getting something in the 15-25 range there might be a better outcome to making the playoffs even if you only last one round

  • Steampuck

    “A tendency to blow leads” is under selling it a little. Gone are the days when a Canucks lead going into the third was a guaranteed win. I know that. But this team doesn’t seem to know what to do with the lead in the final frame. They look tired and uninspired.

    Apart from that, this team is more or less where I would have pegged them. Better than most people thought, but not great. Health is going to be a big factor going forward if they want to hold off Anaheim for that third playoff spot. But mainly closing out games…

  • Dirty30

    I really hope we miss the playoffs. That way Benning will be forced to move ahead with a proper rebuild. I am sure the idiot owners want the team to compete as they ‘re-tool’ but that’s idiotic.

    I’m also really hoping Benning moves out the desirable, expiring contracts at the deadline. Canucks need more assets in return. I am a little shocked how much the team relies on the Sedins.

    Time to get as many picks and young players as possible while we have the Sedins, Burr, Edler and so on. The transition needs to continue.

    • SJ

      I don’t understand how people can think they know better than the owners when it comes to what the team should try to do from a business standpoint. It’s pretty obvious the general fanbase wants to see the team win or else they’re going to stop buying tickets. Attendance is already dropping, and you think they’re idiots for wanting the team to win to put asses in the seats? They’re business men, man. And on top of that, they’re trying to sell the team. Of course they want their asset to look good.

      Not sure what your business knowledge is like, but here’s one tip: It’ hard to sell a business that’s failing (losing value) on purpose.

      • Dirty30

        Oh I don’t claim to know anything better than the owners. The one thing I know is we probably won’t have too much high end talent once the Sedins are gone (in 2 years). I also know our D is not great and we don’t have too many top pairing guys coming in anytime from Utica.

        How well do you think the Canucks will do when the Sedins are gone? They have some talent in the system but is it good enough to replace the Sedins? I don’t think we have that in the system. We have top 6 talent but not high end first line talent.

        So, we should get that talent…right? When you get young players, there’s no certainty. I think the Canucks need to add a few more high upside players (via dealing Hamhuis, Vrbata, Prust and any other expiring contracts) and maybe make other trades as well (Edler?).

        Anyway, the Canucks are not contending now and won’t be contending anytime soon. Why not make them contenders sooner than later? Make these small moves and work in the youth.

        I suspect Benning will move the expiring contracts at the deadline.

    • SJ

      If the owner is an idiot, then just buy the franchise and run it better. It’s up for sale.

      But if you can’t finance a purchase of the franchise from said owner based on your brilliant turn-around strategy, then who’s the idiot?

      • birdie boy

        Oh that’s an easy one. You’re the god damn idiot. Morons like you wander in here and don’t offer anything, just baseless stupidity. You’re stupidity rivals that of one of the greatest idiots who ever frequented these boards…you are the new NoMind.

        Anyway, when you get your head out of your arse, feel free to tell me how this team will be competitive in the near future. The Sedins are 35 and guys that old usually don’t improve. Who’s going to score the goals? Hmmmmm?

  • SJ

    I have mixed feelings about trying to make playoffs. Although it is nice to be able to cheer for our team in playoffs I am concerned that the devastating 4 game sweep at the hands of a top team in first round may be more harmful than good for the youth on the team.
    Another high draft choice would be much more beneficial to this rebuild process. Hopefully we can get ourselves a stud defenseman with our high draft choice , maybe a player like chychrun would be a good fit.
    I would be happy if Canucks continue to play the youth, including top prospects in the minors, even if they are rotated in and out of the lineup.

  • Dirty30

    If the Canucks manage to squeak in, I would hope that Benning might split the difference on his expendable assets — keep Hamius and sell Vrbata. The latter disappears in the play-offs so won’t help the Canucks go anywhere, and if some other team wants to cough up a decent asset for him, Benning would be nuts not to take it.

    Since there is a lack of serious depth on the D, there are fewer options, but I would hope that Benning simply lets Bartowski go and signs Hamius to a cap-friendly, hometown discount deal for 2-3 years.

    I’d rather keep Prust than Dorsett, but that won’t fly and keeping both is just a lot of money for what they represent.

  • Sarah_Hobday

    Subjective as this may be, does anyone else feel Hamhuis’ play might be suffering because he’s the only member of the top 4 that doesn’t have a legit top 4 partner?

  • Dirty30

    I’m just going to say, you’re a better man than I am to risk bringing up the most contentious issues in the Canucks blogosphere.

    Just for funsies, here is where some underlying metrics place the Canucks in relation to the rest of the league, as well as which Pacific Division teams are better in that particular metric:

    Points – 17th (behind L.A., S.J.)
    Points % – 19th (behind L.A., S.J., ARI)
    Wins in Regulation – 19th (behind L.A., S.J., ARI)
    Goal Differential – 12th (behind L.A.)
    Corsi For % (Raw) – 10th (behind L.A., ANA)
    Corsi For % (EV) – 20th (behind L.A., ANA, EDM)
    Corsi For % (SVA) – 11th (behind L.A., ANA)
    Corsi For % (Tied) – 18th (behind L.A., ANA)
    Fenwick For % (Raw) – 6th (behind L.A.)
    Fenwick For % (EV) – 11th (behind L.A., ANA)
    Fenwick For % (SVA) – 7th (behind L.A.)
    Fenwick For % (Tied) – 16th (behind L.A., ANA, COL)
    TOI Trailing – 13th (behind L.A.)
    PDO – 15th (behind ARI)
    SRS – 9th (behind S.J)
    RPI – 24th (behind S.J., ARI, L.A. COL, EDM)

    Collected from around the interweb, as of US Thanksgiving.

    For those not in the know, SVA = Score and Venue Adjusted – corsi or fenwick adjusted for game state and home/away, SRS = Simple Rating System – a combination of Goal Differential and Strength of Schedule, and RPI = Ratings Percentage Index – a ranking based on how good are the teams you’ve beaten.

    So depending on which number is your favorite the Canucks are either just at the front of the pack (around 10th in the league) or just at the back of the pack (around 20th in the league). Los Angeles is obviously the cream of the division and then either Anaheim (good numbers, poor results) or San Jose (good results, poor numbers).

    As for what the Canucks should do, I think you have to be in it to win it. But if it’s obvious that you aren’t going to make the playoffs, then you have to maximize your assets. I don’t think it’s obvious yet.

  • birdie boy

    The reality is when the Sedins finally take a step back in production and play this team will take a monster step backwards,the young guys need to earn there spots now.I personally think there is a two year window for these guys, so hopefully Mr. Benning has found some talent to work with.It would be lottery pick time without those two guys.

  • birdie boy

    The Canucks will make a good run at the playoffs as long as health isn’t a major factor. Sutter being out has put Bo and Mac in tough positions for 20/19 yr old centermen.

    This group is young, has been snakebite man, and hurt. To hold down a playoff position is a job well done and the positives are that they will get better. Yes we might not get high picks for Hammy and Vrby, but Hutton/Jake/Bo/Mac even possibly Gaunce or Hunter will benefit from a playoff run.

    Trev and Benning want the young guys in a winning environment and that means playoffs. Bo is personally struggling with his second line center duties, but if the team wins you won’t hear a word. Developing winning character is an organizations job, and expectations are a good thing.

    Let’s just stop the 3rd quarter collapses!