An annual reminder that the NHL preseason doesn’t predict success in the regular season
Photo credit:© Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
2 months ago
Mamma mia, here we go again.
The Vancouver Canucks are now winless in three to start the 2023/24 exhibition schedule, having dropped regulation losses to the Calgary Flames and Seattle Kraken, and an overtime match to the Edmonton Oilers
Cumulatively, the Canucks have been outscored in those games to the tune of 15-2.
And obviously, as a result of that, some folks in the fanbase and local mediasphere are concerned.
Part of that concern, no doubt, lies in the fact that this is the second year in a row that the Canucks have started out the exhibition schedule with a winless streak. Last year, it was an 0-3-2 run to kick things off, and while the Canucks did eventually rally to win their last two preseason games, their early results seemed to presage disaster. The Canucks lost their first seven 2022/23 regular season games, too, on route to the worst start in franchise history and a hole so deep that even the Tocchet Turnaround ™ couldn’t dig them out of it.
So, sure, the concerns are valid, and they’re made even more so by the visibly pitiful performance of the Canucks in the last couple of games.
But, in general, worries borne from preseason results are highly overrated.
The preseason is the Whose Line Is It Anyway? of hockey: everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.
To wit, let’s take a look at the final exhibition “standings” of the 2022/23 preseason.
Right at the top of the Pacific Division, you’ll find the Edmonton Oilers and Vegas Golden Knights. No surprises there, those teams would wind up being the class of the Western Conference. Right there with them, however, were the 4-1-0 San Jose Sharks, who springboarded from that exhibition success to dive headfirst into the basement of the standings.
Over in the Central Conference, the Minnesota Wild went 6-1-0 through exhibition, then limped toward the playoffs for the rest of the year. Their preseason point total was equalled by the 6-2-0 St. Louis Blues, who then struggled from there on out. They wouldn’t match that 12-point total in the regular season until mid-November, on the way to missing the playoffs by a wide margin.
Dallas, meanwhile, the eventual Western Conference finalists, went 2-5-0 in exhibition and looked like they might be in trouble. They weren’t.
Over in the East, the nonexistent correlations are even more apparent.
The Metropolitan Division had two teams achieve ten points in the preseason: the New Jersey Devils and the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Devils kept the momentum rolling, skyrocketing to the top of the regular season standings with the hottest start in hockey. The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, went in the opposite direction, plummeting immediately into the cellar of the division and never getting out of it.
The same could be said of the Washington Capitals, who went 4-1-1 in preseason and then tanked.
The Atlantic Division was paced by the Ontario teams in the 2022/23 preseason. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators each achieved 10 exhibition points. One made the playoffs, one did not. They were followed in the standings by the Buffalo Sabres, who went 4-2-0 in exhibition and then also missed the playoffs.
Coming in at fourth place were the Boston Bruins. They went an even 3-3-0 on the preseason, and then when that was done, they proceeded to lay down the greatest regular season performance in NHL history. If there’s ever been an indication of the preseason not correlating to the regular season, there it is. The Bruins didn’t need a hot start in exhibition to pull off the hottest start-to-finish ever once the games started to count for points.
Although we’re pulling all these examples from last year, the same is true no matter which season one looks at. For a hyper-relevant example from the Canucks’ own history, we can look to the 2010 preseason, in which the Canucks also went winless in their first three and wound up with a 3-5-0 record. Of course, once the regular season began, the Canucks went on to have their best season in franchise history and reach the Stanley Cup Finals.
As it turns out, those late-September losses just didn’t matter.
And, really, it does makes sense.
Teams rarely play with their actual rosters in the preseason, and if they do, it’s only for the last couple of games. Take that first, semi-embarrassing 10-0 defeat at the hands of the Calgary Flames for example. The Flames dressed countless NHL veterans. The Canucks countered with Pius Suter and Matt Irwin. That’s just not a situation from which any meaningful analysis can ever be derived.
There might be some meaning from individual performances within that exhibition game, but as far as attempting to reach conclusions about the team as a whole, it’s a fruitless endeavour.
Which means that it’s fair to worry about how certain Canucks are playing right now, but it’s mostly pointless to worry about how the Canucks, as a whole, are playing.
The worries should begin if the Canucks start out the 2023/23 regular season in similar fashion. But until that happens, there’s just no way to connect what is happening now to what might happen later.
The regular season is for regular worries. The preseason should be for pre-worries, as in worries that haven’t quite found their time.
In other words, there’s no real reason for concern…
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