In a regular season that finds the Canucks easily perched atop their division with an outside chance at another conference and/or regular season title, it should be hard to be disappointed. But after last season, which found the Canucks rarely taking their foot off the gas as they went essentially wire-to-wire to earn the franchise’s first ever President’s Trophy as the leading regular season team, the uninspired and ineffective play of recent weeks has the always neurotic fan base (or, at least, media contingent) looking for answers.
And, on paper, their struggles are apparent. Since their victory over Boston in the “game of the season”, the Canucks, despite posting an impressive 17-8-5 record, have had troubles outplaying their opponents at even strength (their goal differential being only plus 5 during the thirty games since the Boston game – as opposed to plus 18 in the 42 games before that). Further, of those 17 wins, eight have come in bonus time (overtime or shootout), which really normalizes their record to a very lackluster 9-8-13 in the wake of the taking of Boston.
Even more troubling, since the departure of Cody Hodgson (who had been the Canucks’ most efficient five-on-five performer), the Canucks have posted a 3-5-1 record, being outscored 22 to 14 at even strength – an alarming one goal per game negative differential.
Why should we care so much about five-on-five performance? Because we all know that come playoff time, the whistles get put away. Come playoff time, a lethal power play becomes less of an advantage. Not that the Canucks’ power play is still lethal. Since the Boston game (where they scored four times with the man advantage), the power play has executed at 15% – a far cry from the 24% figure that led the league in the first half.
But in all fairness to our Canucks, with a second overall conference placing all but clinched and the memories of last year’s agonizing playoff run still fresh, you can’t blame them for not finding any jump these days, saving themselves for what they know is coming next – another grueling run at the ultimate prize.
Though the trouble is we don’t know that for sure. It’s possible that they are physically spent after last year’s deep run. And if they are spent now, what will happen come mid-April? It’s even possible that they’ve tuned out Coach Alain Vigneault, whose post game comments after last night’s disappointing loss to the lowly Minnesota Wild were sharply critical of his team – a huge departure from the usual sugar coating of his team’s performance.
If it’s true that the Canucks have been saving themselves for the post-season, we would expect their performances during the regular season against quality teams (the next best thing to a playoff encounter) would be more inspired. Meanwhile, we might expect their play declining to the level of inferior opponents.
Sadly, that is not entirely true. The Canucks have padded their stats against the bottom feeders (defined here as teams that were out of playoff contention both this season and last), compiling a 14-3-1 record against the league doormats. And they’ve done so in dominant fashion, winning twelve times in regulation time and outscoring their lowly opponents 47 to 27 at even strength in those 18 games while scoring with 25% efficiency on the power play. In short, this is a very dominant performance. Against nearly AHL caliber opposition.
Against teams that they should rightfully “get up” for (defined here as elite eastern conference teams or prime western conference rivals; that is, the teams they will need to beat on the way to a Stanley Cup), they have posted a seemingly impressive 13-8-3 record. Though upon further investigation, six of those wins are in bonus time, again normalizing their record to an unflattering 7-8-9. What success they have had in these games has been driven by their power play, again soaring at 25%. And at even strength in those 24 games, they’ve been outscored 55 to 47. As a barometer of future playoff success, where 5-on-5 play rules, there appears some legitimate cause for concern.
Against everyone else, the mediocre middle of the NHL (otherwise stated as teams the Canucks are likely to face in the first round of the playoffs), the Canucks are 16-10-4, normalized to 12-10-8 when accounting for bonus time – hopefully, for Canucks fans, a simple instance of the Canucks playing down to the level of their opposition.
So while the Canucks’ place in the NHL standings is notable and cause for some celebration, their on-ice play has been nothing better than mediocre most of the time. That is not to say they can’t get re-energized come mid-April, flipping their playoff switch to “on”. It is something we’ve seen before in this market. And something we’d love to see again though indications are it’s less likely to happen this time around.