Who are the Canucks losing to?

There are two completely contradictory narratives regarding how the Canucks play against teams in the NHL basement: One is that the Canucks play down to their level and frequently lose to lesser opponents. The other is that their record is artificially good because they feast on weaker teams in the Northwest Division.

Both can’t be true. There were some voices in the hockey world last season that suggested the Canucks didn’t deserve their Presidents’ Trophy win because of their weak division. After all, no other team from the Northwest Division made the playoffs and the two worst teams in the Western Conference were the Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers.

But if the Canucks play down to the level of terrible teams and tend to lose those games, then their record would be worse, not better, by virtue of playing in the Northwest Division.

On Sunday, the Canucks struggled against the Anaheim Ducks, who are currently 14th in the Western Conference. While there are certainly some reasons for their terrible performance (first game back from a road trip, fifth game in nine days, the Ducks were 4-0-1 in their last 5 games), the fact is that the Canucks lost to a team at the bottom of the NHL standings.

In mid-December, the Canucks lost two games against two of the worst teams in the league, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Carolina Hurricanes. Are these three losses indicative of a trend or are they isolated incidents? Let’s look at the Canucks’ losses and see what kind of teams they have lost to this season. Do they tend to lose more often to cellar dwellers or top teams?

It’s important to note how good Canucks fans have it: they can afford to complain about which teams the Canucks lose to, rather than the number of losses. The Canucks have lost just 15 games in regulation and 3 in overtime or the shootout this season. In chronological order, here are those losses:

1. October 6, 2011 – Pittsburgh Penguins – 4-3 SO
2. October 12, 2011 – Philadelphia Flyers – 5-4
3. October 13, 2011 – Detroit Red Wings – 2-0
4. October 18, 2011 – New York Rangers – 4-0
5. October 25, 2011 – Edmonton Oilers – 3-2
6. October 26, 2011 – St. Louis Blues – 3-0
7. November 3, 2011 – Minnesota Wild – 5-1
8. November 4, 2011 – St. Louis Blues – 3-2
9. November 11, 2011 – Anaheim Ducks – 4-3
10. November 16, 2011 – Chicago Blackhawks – 5-1
11.  December 1, 2011 – Nashville Predators – 6-5
12. December 13, 2011 – Columbus Blue Jackets – 2-1 SO
13. December 15, 2011 – Carolina Hurricanes – 4-3
14. December 23, 2011 – Calgary Flames – 3-1
15. December 31, 2011 – Los Angeles Kings – 4-1
16. January 2, 2012 – San Jose Sharks – 3-2 SO
17. January 9, 2012 – Florida Panthers – 2-1
18. January 15, 2012 – Anaheim Ducks – 4-2

6 of their 18 losses have come against teams that are currently outside of the playoffs, exactly 1/3rd, which means 2/3rds of their losses have come against teams that would be in the playoffs if the regular season ended today. However, 5 of those 6 losses came against teams in the bottom-six in league standings.

Is that too many losses to teams in the basement? It’s hard to say. The worst teams in the NHL still manage to win games, often against very good teams. Simply put, bad NHL teams are still NHL teams. Ideally, the best teams would find the motivation to go out and dominate the worst teams, but the opposite is often true. Terrible teams get hyped up to take on the class of the NHL, while good teams do find themselves a little more unfocussed in those same games.

Yes, the Canucks lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets. So did the Red Wings. The New York Rangers, currently in first place in the NHL, have been beaten by the Islanders, Oilers, and twice by the Canadiens.

And the Canucks may have been beaten by the Carolina Hurricanes, but the Bruins have lost to them thrice.

With that said, Vancouver can’t let points like that slip away all season. As of this writing, the Canucks are 5-4-1 against the bottom six teams in the league. That’s just not good enough.

They are, however, 28-15-3 overall, which is pretty dang good.

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10 comments

  1. J21
    January 16, 2012

    A guy on HFBoards solidly debunked the myth that the Canucks play down to their opponents with regards to last year’s schedule, finding that the Canucks were actually one of the top teams against non-playoff opposition, if not the very top. (Mathematically this may be inevitable because they play a lot of NW games, and none of the other NW teams made the playoffs).

    I think all fan bases — not just ours — have this idea that their team “plays down to its opposition” because they are so incredulous at the mathematical IMPOSSIBILITY that a team playing, say, .543 hockey could lose to a team playing .459 hockey. Put another way, sports fans are often kind of dumb. Almost half the league misses the playoffs out of structural necessity. Not all the teams that missed the playoffs are hopeless.

    Even for the teams that are hopeless, unless one expects them to lose 82 games, they will win a few of them. And pretty much by definition, all of those wins will come against “better” teams. Anyone who has followed sports for a week or so realizes that the final standings are not a bell curve where the best team goes undefeated, the second-best team wins all its games except those against the best team, the third-best team beats everyone except those two, etc. There is way more randomness and parity involved than that, obviously. It would be weird if “bottom feeders” weren’t consistently (note I said consistently, not “constantly”) beating teams that are better than them.

    Finally, the main issue with this complaint is that it is circular — teams move up and down the standings based on these very games that they are unexpectedly winning and losing. Apart from speculation, who’s to say who is better and who is worse until all those games have actually been played? When fans cringe at losing to a “bottom feeder” in the first half of the season, I don’t even understand what they’re saying. By definition, you can’t yet classify them as a bottom feeder (or if you have, maybe the game suggests you are incorrect). And what do you know, in winning that game, they’ve just moved a bit up the standings.

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  2. tj
    January 16, 2012

    Excellent points, all of them. One thing I read about the Boston/Carolina losses is that the BB apparently very often lose to the CH (several reports said it is because the ‘canes play Bruins-style hockey with them). A team is going to work extra hard to beat a ‘top’ team; it’s rather human nature to push oneself hardest against the toughest. The better teams just do so consistently, thus leapfrogging their way on up rankings. We see it all the time, and love the narrative of the ‘little team that could.’ Maybe, yes, a part of it is the team isn’t as ‘up’ for the lowest-ranked team, to their detriment. But that’s part of the strategy of the said lower-ranked team. Use what you’ve got, and all that. All power to them, I say. It’s how the Canucks used to win hockey games once upon a time, too…

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    • obituary mambo
      January 16, 2012

      Ugh! “Bruins-style hockey”… I’m so sick of proponents of that type of game behaving as if all other forms of hockey have no merit. I, for one, am ecstatic that the Canucks don’t swing that way.

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      • tj
        January 16, 2012

        I concur. I should have added in that parenthetic comment that it was, of course, BB media doing the saying…)

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  3. obituary mambo
    January 16, 2012

    Good read. I may have to revise the way I’ve been looking at this. I think I’ve been guilty of falling into the “play down to their opponents” camp. After all, a look at the games against the top tier teams the ‘Nucks have lost to (with the exception of the Chicago loss — payback for the shellacking given to them on their home ice), shows how close those games have been. It’s hard seeing the team I love lose to a less talented one. However, at the end of the day, I’d rather see them beat the teams that really matter. To me, that proves that their position near the top of the standings is justified.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t one of the major knocks against the Bruins this season the fact that they’ve racked up so many wins against lower tier teams?

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    • J21
      January 16, 2012

      This post reminds me of one more beef with the complaint. We can accept that the Canucks (or any team) are going to lose a certain minimum of games per year, yes? I mean, they’re not going to play a .990 season or anything.

      So given that, wouldn’t we rather they lose to so-called bottom-feeders rather than those competing more directly with them? If the Canucks lose a few games to Columbus but keep beating Chicago, I am over the moon.

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  4. Chris
    January 16, 2012

    The Red Wings haven’t beaten the Islanders in regulation since the lockout, a period during which the Red Wings haven’t failed to make the playoffs, and the Islanders have made it only once as an 8 seed. Last week was no different, as the Isles beat the Wings 5-1. Every team has their bad stretches or tough opponents, even the elite ones.

    Also, the argument about the Canucks’ divisional record holds no water. Last year, if you removed the record vs Northwest from the Canucks’ numbers, they finished 36-15-7 in 58 games, for 79 points. Projected over a full season, that adds up to 112 points, good enough for…the President’s Trophy.

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  5. akidd
    January 16, 2012

    some good posts here. i think the key here is which bad team are we referring to? because while the ducks and lightning( not a loss but it should’ve been) don’t have great records but one was a game away from the finals last year and the other never stopped being dangerous minus a long slow start this year.

    when the cancuks play poorly, they lose. and last night was really poor. inexplicably, gobsmackingly poor. canucks fans are largely of the highstrung variety and with good reason so we scramble to reorder our worlds when faced with stressors like yesterday’s abysmal drudge. playing down to competition’ is a sheltering, soothing category that we can murmur to ourselves to keep at bay the fear…” no, kevin,no.”

    still, putting aside theory and statistics and relying on observation there have been games against much weaker teams over the past few years where the guys don’t come to play. that happens. they’re artists, they’re moody. i’m sure regimented teams with guys like troztz yelling “schnell, schnell” at them all the time probably put in a more consistant effort but someone like kesler needs time lying on the grass contemplating the water lilies to get into the proper mindset. and you don’t get shots on net lying in the grass.

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  6. JDM
    January 17, 2012

    It’s pretty good, but it’s not good enough, because when you watch these games you’re pulling your hair out at the stupid mistakes, unwillingness to skate, miscommunication and lackadaisical attitude of a bunch of players. It’s Jekyll and Hyde with these guys and in the last 10 games it’s been a 50-50 shot whether we’re going to see the guys who are totally capable of going on a 10 game streak of no losses in regulation at any given time, or the team I have taken to calling the “Shitty Canucks”.

    It’s been too much of the latter and it’s tough to sit through.

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  7. goldtrail
    January 17, 2012

    The last perfect team in the NHL was … oh wait a minute .. Even Don Cherries Bruins lost a few.

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