Photo credit:© Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
What the PDO narrative is missing about the 2023/24 Vancouver Canucks
1 month ago
There is no more controversial three-letter combination in Vancouver right now than “PDO.”
And we’re definitely not talking about paid days off.
In hockey terms, PDO doesn’t actually stand for anything. What it is, however, is a stat that is intended to measure a team’s “puck luck.” PDO is a team’s (or an individual player’s) on-ice 5v5 shooting percentage combined with their on-ice 5v5 save percentage.
That’s it. As far as “fancy stats” go, it’s about as simple as they come.
But sometimes the simplest stats are the most important.
If you’ve somehow escaped the dialogue surrounding the 2023/24 Vancouver Canucks and PDO — first and foremost, congratulations. To make a long story short, the Canucks have had an anomalously-high PDO running all season long, which many have pointed out as a reason to believe that the Canucks would eventually cool down and experience some sort of epic regression.
They said it after ten games. They said it after 20 games. Now, here we sit, more than halfway through the regular season, and folks are still claiming that the PDO bill will come due and the Canucks will start to slip down the standings.
Only, it hasn’t happened yet. As of this writing, the Canucks are tied for the league-lead with 62 points and have gone 7-2-1 in their last ten games. Their 168 goals for are second-most in the NHL, and their goal differential of +54 is the league’s best by a fair margin.
Both the experts and the numbers say that regression is coming. But the further we get into the season without the regression arriving, the less likely its arrival becomes.
So, what gives?
The statistics themselves aren’t really disputable. The Canucks have, as of this writing, a cumulative 12.19% shooting percentage and a 92.79% save percentage, for a PDO total of 1.050. That’s the highest in the league, ahead of the Winnipeg Jets at 1.033.
It’s also quite high, historically-speaking.
Social media visual stats guru JFresh has been heavy on the PDO beat all season long. According to his tracking, the Canucks’ PDO at the halfway point was the fifth-highest in NHL history. The four teams ahead of them?
Wayne Gretzky and the ‘84/’85 Oilers.
Wayne Gretzky and the ‘83/’84 Oilers.
The dynasty-concluding Islanders of ‘83/’84.
And Mario Lemieux and the ‘95/’96 Penguins.
Numbers are hard to argue against. The Canucks do have a preposterously high PDO. Traditionally, that has been a marker of regression to come.
But, so far, it hasn’t meant that for the Canucks. What is the PDO narrative missing when it comes to the Vancouver Canucks?
To find out, we have to dig a little deeper into the story behind the narrative.
Let’s start with the easiest half of the PDO tale to figure out: the save percentage.
The Canucks’ team save percentage on 2023/24 is currently 92.79%, which is good for fourth-highest in the league.
Which makes sense, really. The Canucks definitely have at least the fourth-best goaltending tandem in the NHL this season, if not better. Saving about 93% of the shots faced sounds about right for Thatcher Demko, and this season, it sounds about right for Casey DeSmith, too.
But it’s not just goaltender quality. The Canucks have a shot-share ratio of just 48.35%, meaning they let through a lot more shots than they take. Only the New York Islanders have a worse shot-share and are still in a playoff position.
That gives the Canucks’ two great goaltenders plenty of opportunities to make saves.
The Canucks’ blueline and defensive presence up front, meanwhile, have also steadily improved throughout the year. Where their control of high-danger chances was quite high at the start of the year, it’s settled down into the 50% range as the season has progressed. That means that the Canucks’ goalies are still facing lots of shots, but fewer of them from in close.
Hence, higher-than-average save percentages in the Canucks crease.
Neither Demko nor DeSmith seem like they’re going to cool off anytime soon. So this half of the Canucks’ PDO could be seen as fairly sustainable.
The other half is harder to square.
The Canucks have a team shooting percentage of 12.19%, easily the highest in the league. The Detroit Red Wings are second with 11.05%, and then nobody else has even cracked 10%.
Shooting percentage is the ubiquitous harbinger of puck-luck that will eventually turn into less-puck-luck. It’s the signpost of regression. This is the NHL, and scoring is hard. Individual players and teams aren’t supposed to score a goal for every nine shots they take, and yet that’s what the Canucks are doing, and that’s why so many people predict that they’ll eventually stop doing so.
Really, when people insist that the Canucks are due for regression, that’s what they mean: that the Canucks will stop scoring goals so easily, and that their place in the standings will suffer as a result.
But here we arrive at the key plot-point that the PDO narrative seems to have missed. Closer to the start of the 2023/24 campaign, several Canucks were scoring at an anomalously high pace. It just so happens that many of the players in question were depth pieces, not main cogs.
Sam Lafferty went on a tear. Nils Höglander had four points in his first six games. Even Filip Hronek, who does qualify as a key cog, spent the first month or so of the year near the league lead for scoring, which is not something he can be expected to do over the long term.
The team’s top two offensive players, meanwhile, in Elias Pettersson and JT Miller, had strong, but not outrageously strong, beginnings.
Then, as the depth pieces began to cool off, Pettersson and Miller started to pick up the pace.
That’s led the Canucks to look less like a team benefitting from a roster-wide uptick in shooting percentage, and more like a team being buoyed by some exceptional performances from key individuals.
And that’s something that seems a lot more sustainable.
Seven different Canucks have a shooting percentage above 15% right now. Höglander, Lafferty, Dakota Joshua, and Pius Suter could be considered likely to cool down slightly from where they’re at, though each has shown a real penchant for shot selection this season.
But Pettersson, Miller, and Brock Boeser? These players are genuine superstars, and their shooting percentages could and should remain about as high as they are. Boeser is at 22.1%, which is high, but he’s had multiple seasons with over and above 16% before, so it’s not outlandish.
Miller, at 21.3%, is similarly ahead of his Canucks career average of 15.9%.
Pettersson is at 18.7%, which is barely ahead of his career average of 16.9%.
Are the Canucks getting a little lucky with their shots? Probably. But it’s also true that the Canucks are an exceptionally talented hockey team, and that they simply have an abundance of excellent shooters on hand.
The Canucks’ shooting percentage, in other words, is primarily high because the Canucks are good at shooting. Go figure.
There’s some statistical evidence behind this notion, too. It’s not like the Canucks are seeing a lot of floaters trickle in through sheer fortune. While the Canucks control a perfect 50% of the high-danger chances on the ice, they hold a league-leading 65.09% control of the high-danger goals.
What that means is that the Canucks, as a team, are great at saving their shots for the best opportunities, and then making the most of those opportunities.
Is it still possible that they’ll start to find goals harder to come by as the back-half of 2023/24 continues? Maybe! But probably not to the extent that the “regression-heads” have been suggesting, and perhaps not in a way that will impact them in the standings.
Remember, the Canucks do have a league-leading +54 goal differential. They can drop a few goals here and there and still be winning the majority of their hockey games.
So, yeah, expect the Canucks to keep scoring goals, and expect their goaltending to keep keeping them out. Sure, that little number is going to remain high.
But it doesn’t really matter.
The only “PDO” that really matters in Vancouver is the quality of the Canucks’ play: Pretty Damn Outstanding.
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