As we enter the second month of the season, two narratives are doing battle in the Vancouver hockey market. The first is that the team’s early run of success indicates that the Canucks are finally a playoff team, while the other suggests a soft schedule and some unusually good luck has conspired to make them appear better than they really are. As we progress through the season, one of those narratives will prove to be more correct than the other. The question is, which one is more accurate right now?
Team factors that are helpful to consider when trying to determine if this is a legitimate playoff team include the strength of schedule, quality of competition within the division, and rolling expected goal and Corsi rates in contrast to actual goal rates.
Factor #1 – Strength of schedule
Let’s begin with the strength of the schedule thus far, which has become a more prominent talking point as the team racks up wins. There’s been talk that the primary reason for the Canucks’ successful record is that they’re beating up on bad teams, while others point to the large margins by which they’ve defeated these teams.
The fact is that they have statistically had one of the easiest schedules in the league. PlayoffStatus.com provides daily updates to the following chart, which ranks the strength of schedule for each team based on their opponent’s win percentage.
While you can only play the team on the other end of the ice, the Canucks are fortunate to have played the 4th easiest schedule when sorting by win percentage. It’s reasonable to conclude that playing against easier opponents has factored into the team’s impressive start. We can also conclude that their schedule will only get more difficult throughout the season and give a better indication of how they match up against quality of competition closer to league average.
Factor #2 – Strength of the division
In a similar vein, we should also recognize the quality of the division when speculating as to whether or not this team has a legitimate chance at making the playoffs. Coming into the year, the Pacific division was marked as potentially the weakest in the NHL, but is that still the case?
As I write this article, the Pacific division holds the two wild-card spots and the one just outside of it. The Pacific also owns a positive goal differential, something that can’t be said for the Atlantic and Central divisions.
The Pacific has shown it’s stronger early on than many thought it would be which is something that won’t favour the Canucks down the road if we see teams like Anaheim, Arizona, and Edmonton continue their strong play and make a run for a playoff spot. An advantage such as being in a weak division may not be one for the Canucks after all.
Factor #3 – Expected goals share
Other factors used to try and nail down the true quality of this team are advanced stats like expected goal share (xGF%) and Corsi share (CF%).
Sean Tierney from ChartingHockey.ca gives us a great view of how the team’s expected goal share has progressed at 5 on 5. To be clear, the further above the 50% line the better. To be above the 50% line means that you produce more expected goals for than you give up.
We can see that as of recently, the Canucks are trending in the right direction and controlling more of the expected goal share than they did in many games before. However, in the games that they finished with a higher xGF%, they did so in convincing fashion, which is why their score and venue adjusted xGF% at 5 on 5 is an outstanding 55.00% on the season via NaturalStatTrick.com. That ranks 1st in the league.
On a side note, if you’re interested in reading why expected goals are a good indicator of a team’s quality and their future performance I strongly recommend reading the analysis done on its strength as a predictive stat in the Hockey Graphs article, Expected Goals are a better predictor of future scoring than Corsi, Goals.
Factor #4 – Corsi share
We will also use CF% as another factor in evaluating the team’s quality. For this, we will use the data from MoneyPuck.com, similar to what Sean Tierney uses.
This is another statistic that sheds a positive light on Canucks’ 5 on 5 play. This graph clearly shows that they have won the Corsi battle for the majority of the season by having more shot attempts for than against. According to NaturalStatTrick.com their score and venue adjusted CF% at 5 on 5 is 54.69%. Good for 1st in the league.
While it’s not quite as strong of an indicator for future performance as xGF%, CF% is still a very useful stat that the Canucks have found themselves on the right side of at the end of almost every game this season, something you would expect from a playoff team. Continuing to control shot share as they have, will undoubtedly help win more games in the long run.
Factor #5 – PDO
The last statistic we will consider is PDO. This statistic adds together a team’s shooting and save percentages at 5-on-5 and is often recognized as a measure of luck.
In the chart above from ChartingHockey.ca, we see the Canucks fall within a cluster of teams into the “lucky” portion of the graph. This is due to their high shooting percentage and save percentage, two numbers that when added together over the course of a full season should regress toward 1.00. The Canucks currently have a 1.021 PDO, good for 6th highest in the league. That’s something we can expect to drop closer to the 1.00 mark as the season progresses. This could mean a drop in their shooting percentage, save percentage or both. For more context, the highest PDO last season was also 1.021.
The Canucks have a few factors working against them in their effort to establish themselves as a playoff team. These being their eventual increase in schedule difficulty, the unexpected strength of the Pacific division and a likely PDO regression. Conversely, they also have a number of things working in their favour, including their very strong 5 on 5 xGF% and CF% and the fact that they were able to rack up 20 of a possible 28 points, albeit while facing some of the league’s worst teams.
As someone who wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Canucks’ early-season success, I find myself feeling less skeptical, but not convinced after two of the most telling underlying team statistics point to them being a great team against weak competition. The key to convincing myself and others who aren’t fully on board the playoff hype train will be to continue putting up terrific xGF% and CF% rates as they face stiffer competition.