Mission Improbable: How many points can the Canucks gain as they chase the 2023/24 playoffs?
Photo credit:© Derek Cain-USA TODAY Sports
20 days ago
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Welcome to the second episode of Mission Improbable, a journey through what could be the Vancouver Canucks’ difficult quest toward a playoff spot in 2023/24.
If you’re just joining us, this series is operating under a somewhat troubling assumption: that the worst possible interpretation of Elias Pettersson’s already-infamous boat-interview with Elliotte Friedman is true, and that Pettersson does not intend to sign a long-term extension with the Canucks if they can’t crack the postseason this year.
Again, this series isn’t about debating what Pettersson said or meant or implied. It’s about whether or not that mission of making the postseason, if that’s what the Canucks set their minds to, is actually achievable. In theory.
Last time around, we took a look at the five teams that finished ahead of the Canucks in the 2022/23 Pacific Division standings, to see if any were on the decline and particularly “leapfroggable.”
But leapfrogging is a lot like tangoing: it takes two. And if there’s one thing we’re pretty certain of, it’s that the Canucks are going to need at least a few more points than the 83 they posted last year if they want any hope of cracking the postseason.
So, here in Part II, we’re going to take a look at a couple of different predictive models to see if we can’t prognosticate the Canucks’ expected level of improvement to see if it could be enough to get them up and over those teams they need to surpass.
The Tocchet Pace
The first measure we’re going to look at today is a pretty simple one, but one that must be consumed with caution.
Obviously, the Canucks played a lot better after head coach Rick Tocchet took over in 2023/24. How much better?
Under Bruce Boudreau, the Canucks went 18-25-3, for a point-percentage of .424, sixth-worst in the league over that same span.
With Tocchet behind the bench, the Canucks went 20-12-4, for a point-percentage of .611, 12th-best in the league over that same span.
So, let’s just go ahead and apply that percentage to a full 82-game schedule.
Had the Canucks maintained that Tocchet pace all season long, they would have finished with 100 points even.
That would have had the Canucks in a tie with the Seattle Kraken for the two Western Conference wildcard spots, and drew them a first round matchup with either Vegas or Colorado.
Now, on the one hand, it’s arguable that the Vancouver Canucks of 2023/24 are better than the roster Tocchet had to deal with through the tail-end of 2022/23. The only real notable departures are Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a case of addition by subtraction, and Bo Horvat, who was only around for about a week after Tocchet’s hiring anyway.
Then there’s the additions of a healthy Filip Hronek, Carson Soucy, Ian Cole, Pius Suter, and Teddy Blueger, along with a couple of players Tocchet never got to work with in Ilya Mikheyev and Nils Höglander.
So, by that measure, the Canucks should reasonably be even better than a .611 pace under Tocchet this time around, right?
Well, it’s important to remember that paces aren’t always extrapolatable. Anyone who predicted that the Boudreau Bump ™ of 2021/22 would continue into the 2022/23 season was, well, wrong. The same could easily happen with the Tocchet Turnaround ™. Until it continues well into the 2023/24 campaign, it’s far from a guarantee, and so we’ll keep looking for some more assurances.
The Crude Goal-Differential Measure
Last season, the Canucks finished with a goal-differential of -22, sixth-worst in the Western Conference.
No team made the playoffs with a differential lower than +17.
So, can the Canucks reasonable make up a swing of almost 40 goals?
In an exceptionally crude fashion, let’s start by adding up the individual plus/minuses of all their various additions.
Hronek went +8 in Detroit, while Suter went -3. Cole was at +13 for Tampa Bay, and Soucy was a whopping +18 for Seattle. Blueger, meanwhile, was a combined -9 for Vegas and Pittsburgh.
Put ‘em all together, and the Canucks are up 27 goals.
At which point one could reasonable subtract Ekman-Larsson’s -24 from the equation, leaving the Canucks at a cumulative shift of 51 goals.
Of course, this is all highly unscientific. Each of those players played on different teams in 2022/23, with different deployments, quality of teammates, quality of competition, and so on. It was, for example, probably a lot easier for Cole to put up positive numbers in Tampa Bay alongside Victor Hedman and Erik Cernak than it will be for him to do the same in Vancouver if he winds up next to Tyler Myers.
But, on the whole, it remains true that the Canucks have brought in some more defensively-sound individuals, and got rid of perhaps their most defensively-porous member. That should ultimately result in fewer goals against, and ideally more goals for, too.
Enough to swing that goal-differential all the way up to +17 or higher? We shall see.
The One-Goal Loss Swap
When we talked about the Calgary Flames as a bit of a wildcard in 2023/24, we noted that they led the league in overtime and one-goal losses. But the Canucks weren’t terribly far behind when it came to narrowly escaping victory.
The Canucks only dropped seven overtime decisions, but managed a total of 19 one-goal losses throughout the year.
Given the defensive upgrades we’ve just described, it stands to reason that the Canucks should be able to turn at least a few of those into one-goal wins.
If they were to swap even half of them around, they’d pick up an additional 19 points, which would put them at 102, ahead of Seattle and just behind Los Angeles in the 2022/23 standings.
The League-Average Goaltending Hypothesis
Here’s a fun one.
It’s arguable that, on the whole, the Canucks received the worst goaltending in the entire league last season.
How much better could they have been with even league-average netminding?
Quite a bit better.
Using MoneyPuck’s goals-saved-above-expected as our basis, we find that each and every Canucks goalie underperformed expectations in 2022/23.
Arturs Silovs saved -0.8 goals below expected. Collin Delia was at -4.3. For a while there, Thatcher Demko was at the bottom of the column in this particular stat, but he managed to rebound it to only -5.7.
And then there’s Spencer Martin and his whopping -23.5 goals-saved-below-expected. That’s the third-worst record in the entire NHL, and the worst of all on a per-minute basis.
So, if the Canucks’ goalies had just saved the amount of shots that an average NHL goalie would be expected to save last season, they would have shaved almost 35 goals off their goals-against record.
That, alone, is enough to nearly close up that 40ish goal-differential swing we previously described.
Best of all? With Demko returned to health and seemingly back to his old quality of play, there’s definitely reason to assume that this change will come to pass.
In fact, if Demko plays the majority of the games in 2023/24, and if he returns to being a better-than-average NHL starter, there’s no saying how major of a difference this singular factor could make to the Canucks’ success.
This, alone, could be enough to push them back into playoff territory if all goes well.
Slumps and Bumps
The Canucks look to be nearly regression-proof heading into the 2023/24 season.
The only two players on the roster to experience genuine career years were Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, both of whom are straight-up superstars on the rise. If anything, most expect the two of them to produce even more in 2023/24, not less.
No one else has much to fear from regression, because most of everyone else had average-to-bad years.
JT Miller’s production already took a moderate step back. Brock Boeser and Conor Garland saw their numbers plummet.
Even players like Anthony Beauvillier and Ilya Mikheyev, who seemed to take off with the Canucks, didn’t really play over their own heads much at all. Beauvillier cooled down eventually, and Mikheyev ultimately put up nearly the exact same point-pace as he did last season in Toronto.
If there’s one Canuck in danger of regression, it’s Andrei Kuzmenko, who could reasonably be expected to experience some sort of sophomore slump.
Beyond him, it’s all players that should score at the same or a higher pace this season than they did in 2022/23.
Penalty Kill to Penalty Thrill?
When we published this piece earlier, we’ve got to admit that we forgot to include a section on perhaps the most obvious direct improvement to the Canucks’ roster this offseason, and that’s on the penalty kill. Good thing we already wrote a whole article about it earlier in the summer, and that was before the Canucks landed Suter.
In Suter, Cole, Soucy, and Blueger, the Canucks have essentially added an entire top PK unit to the roster, and that’s in addition to the much greater returns they got out of existing PKers under Tocchet.
Overall, the Canucks finished with the worst penalty kill in the league last season. This time around, they have a solid chance to finish in the top-ten. That alone has to be worth a few extra wins.
What does it all mean?
Nobody really knows, yet.
There are folks laying odds on the Canucks’ upcoming performance right now.
Colourful-card guru JFresh has the Canucks improving by nine points to finish at 92 points…but last year he projected the Canucks would finish tied for the Pacific Division lead with 99 points, meaning his prognostication was off by 16.
Vegas oddsmakers have the Canucks tied for the seventh-worst odds at the 2024 Stanley Cup with Seattle, Detroit, Nashville, and St. Louis, which seems like a highly-random collection of teams.
Each such prediction should be taken with a grain of salt. One of the greatest things about hockey is its sheer unpredictability, so we won’t really know anything about anything until the rubber actually meets the ice.
As we saw above, there are a handful of factors working in favour of the Canucks improving upon their 2022/23 performance. For those who want to remain optimistic about their playoff chances, there’s definitely reason to be found. Vancouver has added defensive quality throughout their lineup, they’ve responded well to their current coach, they’re not prone to slumpage, and they can look forward to much better goaltending from Demko.
Will it be enough to leapfrog any of those teams we mentioned in the last article?
That remains to be seen.
Will it be enough to fend off any other challenges from below?
We’ll tackle that next time.
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