Barring a massive collapse in the final seven games, the Canucks are firmly ensconced in the playoffs and will comfortably win the Northwest Division for the fifth straight season. Since the Canucks’ incredible 2010-11 season, however, it’s been harder and harder to satisfy Canucks fans. Last season, the Canucks won their second straight Presidents’ Trophy with a 111 points season, just 6 fewer points than in 2010-11, but since the Canucks didn’t look as dominant, they still received plenty of criticism.
This season, some of that criticism is definitely deserved. The powerplay has been disastrous, the Canucks have frequently been a fire drill in their own end, and their depth at centre has been a question mark all season long and remains an issue as Ryan Kesler will be moved over to the wing for tonight’s game against the Nashville Predators. Still, the Canucks are a positive puck possession team, have the fourth-highest goal differential in the Western Conference, and have been able to lean on some exceptional goaltending. They still look like a team that can potentially go far in the playoffs.
One of the criticisms I’ve been hearing lately has to do with the playoffs, specifically how well the Canucks have performed against playoff teams as compared to non-playoff teams. A certain segment of the Canucks fanbase is pessimistic about the Canucks chances in the playoffs because of their record against playoff-bound teams. Is this criticism justified? Have the Canucks performed particularly poorly against these teams?
By definition, teams that make the playoffs should be better than teams that don’t make the playoffs. To state the obvious, the teams that miss the playoffs lose more games than the teams that make the playoffs. As a result, we should expect every team in the league to have a better record against non-playoff teams than they do against playoff teams.
This certainly holds true for the Canucks, who have a 7-7-4 record against playoff teams and a 16-5-2 record against non-playoff teams. That’s certainly not a good sign, but let’s take a look at how other teams have done. The Kings, for example, who have a very similar record to the Canucks overall, are 9-7-2 against playoff teams. Two more wins in overtime and the Canucks would have the same record against playoff teams. The Blues are 12-11-1 against playoff teams and the Sharks are 11-8-2.
So yes, the Canucks’ record against playoff teams is not as good as some of the teams near them in the standings. At least they’re not the Minnesota Wild, who are 7-12-1 against playoff teams at this point.
This is, of course, just looking at the teams that are currently in playoff position. It’s entirely possible that the Detroit Red Wings and/or Minnesota Wild fall below the playoff bubble, with the Dallas Stars and Columbus Blue Jackets just two points back. The Canucks’ record against playoff teams would improve to 8-6-4 if the Stars make the playoffs over the Red Wings and to 9-5-5 if the Blue Jackets make the playoffs over the Red Wings.
What this seems to show is that reducing the sample size of an entire season down to 18-20 games tends to obscure more than it reveals. Changing just one team completely changes how good the Canucks’ results look.
With that said, let’s look at individual performances against playoff and non-playoff teams. Who has stepped up against tougher competition this season and who has struggled?
Daniel Sedin hasn’t had the best season, particularly struggling to score on the powerplay, but he has been the Canucks’ best player against playoff-bound teams, scoring 8 goals and 17 points in 18 games, scoring 0.16 more points-per-game than against non-playoff opponents.
The player with the biggest positive difference between playoff and non-playoff teams is Mason Raymond, scoring 0.24 more points-per-game. His 6 goals against playoff teams is second to Daniel, followed by Alex Burrows, Jannik Hansen, and Chris Higgins at 5 goals apiece.
In fact, most of the Canucks’ top scorers actually have more points-per-game against playoff opponents than they do against non-playoff opponents. The majority of players with a worse points-per-game average are in the bottom half of Canucks’ scorers. Jason Garrison might be a bit of a concern, as he has just 3 points and no goals against playoff opponents this season.
Not including Ryan Kesler, who has only played 3 games against playoff opponents, the biggest drops in scoring come from the Canucks’ depth centres, Maxim Lapierre and Andrew Ebbett. Lapierre has 9 points in 23 games against non-playoff teams and just 1 point against playoff opponents. Ebbett has no points against playoff opponents, but has managed 6 points in 13 games against non-playoff teams. If I wanted to look for a narrative in these numbers, I would point out that Ebbett has a good history of scoring against AHL-level opponents, specifically in the AHL. It makes sense that he would score more against lesser opponents in the AHL.
Again, these numbers suffer from being a small sample size and would change if the teams on the playoff bubble switched positions. Garrison, for instance, has scored goals against both Dallas and Columbus, but has no points against Detroit. That said, all 3 of his assists against playoff teams have come against Minnesota.
Overall, splitting the Canucks’ schedule in this way provides both some reasons to be concerned and also some reasons for optimism. The Canucks’ record against teams in playoff position doesn’t look particularly good, but it’s encouraging to see that the Canucks’ top scorers almost all have scored more points-per-game against playoff teams than against non-playoff teams.