The Vancouver Canucks may have an orca on their logo, but the only thing they seem to share with a killer whale these days is that they spend most of their time under water.
At their heights from 2010 to 2012, the Canucks were ruthless when it came putting away there opponents. They liked to score early, and score often—never seeming to take their foot off the gas.
But in the fall to their current depths, the Canucks have lost that killer instinct. Not only do they rarely jump out to an early lead, even when they do, they aren’t able to hang on to it.
To get to the bottom of this, we’re going to have to take a deep dive…
Let’s start by taking a look at how teams across the league perform when they get a lead:
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The first thing to notice is that there’s a pretty good relationship (surprise!) between being able to build on a lead and winning hockey games. The more you keep scoring after you go up a goal, the more points you will accumulate over the course the season. Based on a simple linear regression, the ability to build on a lead can explain about 31% of the NHL standings. The rest will be explained by other factors such as how well you score when tied or trailing, on the powerplay, your penalty killing, etc.
But our focus today is on how the Canucks play when leading, and the short answer is not good. In fact, only the Florida Panthers have a worse goal differential when leading by one goal.
This is a huge problem for a team that has such a hard time scoring at all.
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It’s bad enough that when playing with the score tied, the Canucks have given up half a goal more than they’ve scored per 60 minutes of even strength time:
 
 
But no matter how much Travis Green claims to the contrary, when the Canucks do manage to get a lead, they fall back into a shell defensive shell and are much more likely to give up the next goal rather than to score another one themselves.
Here is how the Canucks perform relative to the rest of the league at scores ranging from trailing by two or more goals, up to leading by two or more:
The yellow bars represent the range of values for every team in the league at each score state, from lowest to highest, and the orange line is the league average with the error bar indicating one standard deviation to either side of it. So two thirds of the league, or 20 teams, should be covered by that error bar.
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The good news is that the Canucks have been quite good at coming back from one goal deficits this year. They are just on the edge of one standard deviation above the league average, which puts them near the top five, and certainly top 10. They’ve also been pretty good at holding on to leads on those rare times they’ve managed to get up two or more goals. But it’s a struggle to get there. As stated earlier, they are near the bottom of the league when leading by one goal. Similarly, when they down by two or more, you can see that they essentially throw in the towel, which should be no surprise to anyone that has sat through those blowout losses as of late.
So what’s going on here?
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Well, for one thing, we know that score effects are a thing. Every team in the league goes into a defensive shell to some extent when playing with a lead, and tries to pour it on when they’re down. Here’s what happens with shot attempts at different score states:
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a bad team (to the left) or a good team (to the right), everyone across the board has a better shot attempt differential when trailing than when leading. In fact, even the jumps from one score state to the next are fairly consistent at about 10 shot attempts per 60 minutes, give or take.
So let’s take another look at how the Canucks compare to the rest of the league:
Again, the team is better than average when down a goal, but extremely poor at all other score states, especially when leading by one, where they are more than on standard deviation below average.
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But this is where things get interesting. Those two charts above were looking at the shot attempt differential (shot attempts for minus those against) per 60 minutes of play. If you split that differential up into it’s two components, a story suddenly starts to take shape:
When leading by one, the team is about average when it comes to preventing shot attempts against. Interestingly enough, the Canucks are also one of the best teams at limiting shot attempts against when they’re trailing by one. To me, this says they do quite well at limiting the counterattack when they are pressing.
However, when we look at the other end of the ice, we see where the real issue lies:
The Canucks are the worst team in the league at generating shot attempts when leading by a goal. While they do not give up more shots than average, they appear to be truly content to clear the zone and sit back rather than trying to generate a counterattack to build on the lead.
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Given that the team performs so much better, both in terms of shot attempts and goal differential, when they are trailing by a goal compared to when leading by a goal, or even when the score is tied, let’s take a look at how Travis Green has deployed his players at those score states:
While Green might not be explicitly asking his players to sit on a lead, his deployment choices speak for themselves.
And so do the results we have seen so far this season.
 
 

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