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Photo Credit: © Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Five Reasons To Be Optimistic About The Canucks Rebounding In December (And Five Reasons Not To Be)

As the month November mercifully nears its end, the Vancouver Canucks are almost certainly glad to see it go. Just two months into the NHL season, fans of the club have already experienced the highs and lows of expectations brought on by small sample sizes – in October they looked like “the best team in Canada,” but in November they started to look like the Canucks of years past.

It’s still too early to call December a “make or break” month, but it will be an important one for defining the identity of this current roster. How the team reacts – either by rebounding or by continuing to sink down the standings – will go a long way toward determining whether or not they truly have what it takes to make the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

And whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic about them reaching that goal, we’ve got some talking points to support your position.

 

Be Optimistic Because:

The Canucks Had An Unsustainably Bad Shooting Percentage For Much Of November

Vancouver has finally started to get on a bit of an offensive roll as the month has neared its conclusion, and there’s at least some statistical evidence that their resurgence is sustainable – or at least that their November woes are unsustainable.

As of this writing, the Canucks sit with the fifth-worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the NHL – down in the basement of that particular stat column with some of the least potent clubs around.

From Hockey-Reference.com

Unlike most of those teams, however, the Canucks have a bevy of typically high-percentage shooters – snipers that should naturally boost that 5-on-5 percentage over a longer sample size, and that suggest the Canucks are victims of bad luck more than inability to convert.

Scoring six goals on 22 shots against the Penguins on Wednesday obviously helped them out in this regard – but that only serves to highlight how low their conversion rate was during the darker days of the season’s second month.

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Depending on how Saturday’s game against Edmonton goes, the Canucks should finish the month in the top-five for shots taken – but they definitely won’t finish in the top-five for goals scored.

If they can keep that first stat steady while improving the latter, they’ll be in fine shape moving forward.

 

Be Pessimistic Because:

They’ve Have Had The Second-Easiest Schedule In The Western Conference Thus Far

Advanced analytics giveth, and they taketh away.

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While the Canucks have had bad puck luck throughout November, they’ve also been the beneficiaries of good fortune when it comes to opponents. Sure, Vancouver’s second month of the season featured a tougher schedule than the first – in more ways than one, as we’ll touch on later – but they still had one of the lowest “Strength of Schedule” score in the Western Conference, according to Hockey-Reference.com.

From Hockey-Reference.com

The stat is a limited one, and focuses mainly on the goal-scoring rates of a team’s opponents against the league average – but it does give a clear indication that the Canucks will soon be facing higher-quality opponents with increasing frequency.

Given how poorly they responded to the small increase in difficulty from October to November, that may not bode well.

 

Be Optimistic Because:

The December Travel Schedule Isn’t As Bad

You don’t have to be a Laval Rocket scientist to figure out this one. The Canucks had five games at home and ten on the road in November. That included a brutal and notorious stretch of two back-to-back road games followed by a matinee game at home. The Canucks lost all three of those games in regulation.

December’s schedule is another story. The Canucks will spend the holidays at home, with a whopping ten games at Rogers Arena and only three on the road – all of which are against Pacific Division opponents.

In terms of travel, December will be the lightest month of the 2019/20 season – if anything, the Canucks are going to run the risk of becoming too comfortable.

 

Be Pessimistic Because:

There Are Still An Inordinate Number Of Back-To-Backs

Only the Vancouver Canucks could have a month that features 75% home games and still have reason to worry about the schedule.

Much of November’s shiftlessness was blamed on the frequency of back-to-back games – and that’s still going to be a factor in December. The Canucks start the month with the back-half of a back-to-back against Edmonton on December 1. They will also have a back-to-back on the road, necessitating a late-night flight – though, mercifully, both opponents reside in the Pacific Time Zone.

The month will also conclude with yet another back-to-back and a redeye flight to Calgary. A quarter of the team’s games in December will be the back-half of a back-to-back – typical for the Canucks, but gruelling for most other NHL franchises.

 

Be Optimistic Because:

Bo Horvat Is Due For A Bounceback

Bo Horvat had a tough November in terms of offense – especially when compared to the boiling hot run he went on after being named captain in early October. But his struggles go much deeper than his basic statline.

Horvat has yet to score a goal at home. He’s also struggled on the defensive side of the puck – which isn’t what one expects from a player frequently touted as one of the best two-way centers in the game.

Many of Bo’s woes can be explained by a couple of well-trod subjects on #Canucks twitter – his excessive ice-time in the absence of Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle, and his lack of consistent linemates. But Horvat is owed more of the blame than fans are often willing to assign him – after all, chemistry with linemates is a two-way street.

In any case, if there’s one thing that Vancouver supporters should know by now, it’s this – Bo Horvat will overcome. He’s made a habit of it throughout the entirety of his hockey career, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t bounce back from his current struggles at some point in the 2019/20 season – after which point the Canucks will become even more dangerous.

 

Be Pessimistic Because:

The Team Still Can’t Find A Consistent Set Of Second-Line Wingers

No team’s lineup stays consistent throughout a season – but still, some level of consistency is expected from a contending club, especially in the top-six. The Canucks have a fantastic first unit in the Lotto Line and one of the best second line centers in the league with Bo Horvat – but that’s where the roster stops being written in ink.

Coach Travis Green has yet to find a consistent set of wingers for Horvat – and not for lack of trying. Every winger – with the possible exception of Tyler Motte – has received at least one opportunity on the captain’s flank, and unfortunately the two best fits are currently employed on the aforementioned Lotto Line.

Tanner Pearson, Jake Virtanen, Sven Baertschi, and Nikolay Goldobin have all had success with Horvat in limited stints – but none have been able to sustain it.

Unless this issue is resolved, the Canucks will continue to get less out of their captain than they could be getting – and that’s undoubtedly going to continue to hurt the team’s performance.

 

Be Optimistic Because:

Elias Pettersson Is Disappointed With Himself

As of this writing, Elias Pettersson sits tied for eighth in NHL scoring with 31 points in 26 games. Rather than experiencing a sophomore slump, Pettersson is taking an enormous leap forward as a 21-year-old – and he’s still disappointed in himself.

In several recent interviews, Pettersson has expressed a belief that he has yet to be at his best in 2019/20, and that he needs to work harder.

And if this is what Pettersson looks like when he’s slacking – then the prospect of him performing at his peak is downright thrilling.

 

Be Pessimistic Because:

Injuries Have Yet To Really Hit – But They Will

The Vancouver Canucks are still the Vancouver Canucks, and as such they have already suffered numerous injuries in the young 2019/20 season – but the worst is almost certainly to come.

The list of players that are currently on or have recently come off the IR include Brandon Sutter, Jay Beagle, and Tyler Motte – important role players, sure, but all replaceable in the lineup.

Antoine Roussel has yet to dress for a game, but that’s the result of an incident from last season. By far the most troubling is Micheal Ferland’s concussion – but the Canucks have still had it pretty easy in terms of man-games lost when compared to their typical trend.

The Canucks’ blueline is traditionally the trouble-spot in terms of injuries, but so far in 2019/20 only one single defenseman – Quinn Hughes – has missed one single game. That’s simply not going to be the case much longer.

None of the Canucks’ core players – or even any of their top ten players – have suffered a significant malady as of yet. In other words, Vancouver’s roster depth has yet to be truly tested – but it will be, and probably as soon as December.

 

Be Optimistic Because:

The Canucks Will Have The Chance To Feast On Road-Weary Eastern Teams All Month

In a stunning role reversal, the Canucks will play host to a series of road-weary Eastern Conference teams throughout December. Six of Vancouver’s 13 games in the month will be against interconference rivals, all of whom will be playing away from their usual time zone – an experience the Canucks are more than familiar with.

In theory, this should allow the Canucks to feast on some tired opponents and make up some of the points they lost in November – though that’s far from a foregone conclusion.

 

Be Pessimistic Because:

The Rest Of The Western Conference Is Waking Up

A quick eye-test of the Western Conference reveals at least five teams that are greatly underperforming expectations – including the three clubs directly trailing the Canucks in the Pacific Division.

All of Vegas, Calgary, and San Jose are due for a standings-based comeback at some point this season – and that has to be frightening for a team like the Canucks who are already performing beyond most prognosticators’ predictions in 2019/20.

Like the previous entry, the resurgence of those franchises isn’t something that is guaranteed to happen – but it’s the sort of statistical likelihood that has to be cause of at least a little concern.

 

So, is the glass of eggnog half-empty or half-full? That, my dear reader, is entirely up to you.