Photo credit:© Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports
The Canucks’ mighty goal differential could be key to them beating the regression allegations
3 months ago
There’s a certain word one keeps hearing floated out in discussions of the 2023/24 Vancouver Canucks, and it’s not a very fun word to have to hear so often. In fact, some members of the local mediasphere have approached near-Allen Iverson levels of noun-repetition when it comes to this one.
We’re talking about regression. We’re not talking about the game, we’re talking about regression.
But should we be?
The numbers in this regard are hard to argue against. There are, simply put, some strong indicators of potential regression in the statistical performance that the Canucks have put forth this season.
But a team looking like it is going to regress and a team actually regressing are two different things. And both of them differ further from there depending on what exactly one means when they say the word ‘regression.’
Below, you’ll find our argument as to why the Canucks might beat the regression allegations after all, statistics be damned.
But first, those statistics.
The Canucks are, as of this Saturday morning writing, sitting at second place in the Western Conference with a record of 10-2-1 through 13 games. No signs of regression there, aside from the extreme deviation from the last few season-startups for this franchise.
The Canucks also lead the entire league in goal differential with a staggering +33, a full seven goals higher than the second-place Vegas Golden Knights, who have played two more games than the Canucks at this point.
But we’ll be getting back to that goal differential in a moment.
To find that so-called evidence of regression, we’ve got to head into the fancier stats, and that’s where the Canucks start to slide sharply down the various columns (or up, but the wrong way up).
The hallmark stat of potential regression has always been shooting percentage, with the idea being that sometimes players or teams get an extended bout of puck-luck that temporarily boosts their shooting percentage above average before it inevitably regresses back to the mean.
Bad news for the Canucks, then, who sit way up at the top of the league with a 14.12% rate. No other NHL team has cracked 12%.
Now, all might not be as it seems here. The Canucks do have at least three of the most efficient shooters in the league right now in the form of Andrei Kuzmenko, Elias Pettersson, and a Brock Boeser returned-to-form. By rights, they should have one of the highest shooting percentages in the NHL.
Their shooting percentage will almost inevitably cool down over time, but by how much remains to be seen. Six other franchises have maintained a percentage above 10% thus far in 2023/24, and that seems like a comfortable spot for the Canucks to “settle” in.
On the flip side of that is the Canucks’ team save percentage of 95.12%, which is also the highest in the league. That’s largely due to the singularly great play of Thatcher Demko and, to a lesser extent, the beyond-solid backup play of Casey DeSmith.
But 95.12%, despite being the tops in the league, isn’t nearly as out of the ordinary as that 14.12% shooting percentage. A total of 22 teams have a team save percentage above 90% right now. It stands to reason that this stat might see a little regression, but not all that much, so long as Demko can stay healthy.
Either way, the combination of these stats gives the Canucks a league-leading PDO of 1.092, which is the number people are pointing to most as they chant “regress!” over and over again. And that’s fair, to a certain extent. It just might not totally apply to the Canucks, specifically, which we’ll get to in a moment.
But first, a few more of those regressionary numbers. You all heard Connor McDavid lamenting his team’s losses to the Canucks despite having outshot and outchanced the Canucks in all three matchups. That’s been a season-long trend for Vancouver.
Possession-related metrics all have the Canucks in the bottom-half of the NHL, and typically below that 50% threshold of positivity. The Canucks’ Corsi is 48.09% (20th overall), their shot control is just 47.05% (seventh-worst), and their control of chances is 47.05% (23rd overall). Special attention should be paid to the exceptional rate of high-danger chances that the Canucks allow, with a control of just 43.95%, fifth-worst in the NHL behind Chicago, San Jose, Ottawa, and St. Louis.
And yet, somehow, the Canucks keep outscoring their opponents, thus far to the tune of 36-to-14 at 5v5 play.
It hasn’t done wonders for their “expected” goals. That statistical measure has the Canucks at a 44.58% control of xG, and says that they should have a 5v5 goal differential of about 22-to-28.
Which is quite a noticeable difference!
So, here’s what it all means. The Canucks are consistently allowing more shots and chances than their opponents on a near-nightly basis. But they’re both scoring more goals on their shots and chances for as should be reasonably expected, and allow fewer goals on their shots and chances against than should be reasonably expected.
Over a greater length of time and sample size of games, then, the expectation is that those numbers will start to even out, and that the goals for and against (without any changes to the shots and chances) should start to regress back toward those reasonable expectations.
Hence, so many people thinking that the Canucks are due for some teamwide regression.
But! Here’s the thing:
Regression doesn’t necessarily have to equate with not winning as often. That might sound weird, but allow us to explain.
All of these measures we’ve just listed above are not really related to winning and losing. They’re related to scoring and being scored against.
And in that regard, the Vancouver Canucks have significantly more wiggle-room to play with than the rest of the NHL.
We’re back at that goal differential. Again, the Canucks currently sit with a Henrik-sized +33 rating. In other words, they’ve got room to regress away more than a few goals for and still be in a comfortable position, win-wise.
Put differently, the Canucks have won their ten games on the season by an average 3.7-goal margin. As far as margins goes, this is beyond comfortable and well into ‘balmy.’
Sure, some of those wins were anomalously high, but then those wins have in turn contributed to the Canucks’ goal differential being so anomalously higher than their xG rates, so it’s all relative.
What it really means is that the Canucks can regress a fair bit and still maintain their place, or close to it, in the Western Conference standings.
I mean, we’re talking about 3.7 goals-per-game to work with here. The Canucks will eventually start scoring on fewer than 14% of their shots. They will start letting in more of those high-danger chances. It’s just math, really.
But unless they start scoring multiple fewer goals per game because of that regression, they should still be able to keep winning.
They can shave a full goal for per game off their total, and Demko can start letting in another goal against per game, and that still doesn’t erase that impressive margin of victory that the Canucks have built up so far.
And, let’s be totally clear here: the team offence and defence will inevitably regress, but individuals might not, and Demko might be one of those individuals who doesn’t. The Canucks could very well be looking at a situation in which just the goal-scoring regresses noticeably, and that’s an even more comfortable situation.
Plus, consider this: all of this talk of regression implies no internal improvement from the Canucks at all. But, really, there’s no reason why they can’t shore up their possession and own-zone games so as to reduce the shots and chances against. Rick Tocchet does not seem like one to let his team rest on their laurels. Improve that, and all of these statistical measures start to turn away from regression and back towards being indicators of the Canucks just being a plain ol’ good hockey team.
Regression is coming, yeah sure. It’s inevitable, probably definitely.
But it might not matter all that much in the grand scheme of things, if the overall goal is for the Canucks to continue winning games.
They might just not win them by quite as much.
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