Advanced stats suggest Canucks will improve after brutal start

Darryl Dick/The Canadian Press

The Canucks have started the 2022-23 season going 3-6-3, an underwhelming and frustrating start for the organization and its fans after an offseason that signaled a clear win-now mentality. 

Despite posting an impressive 3.42 goals per game, Vancouver ranks among the bottom-five in the NHL with 49 goals against, a whopping 4.08 goals surrendered per game. Goalie Thatcher Demko, typically a calm and consistent presence in net, has an .882 save percentage, a far cry from the .915 he posted last season. According to Evolving-Hockey, Demko has a goals saved against expected (GSAx) of -7.99, the second-worst mark in the league behind Columbus’s Elvis Merzlikins. Backup Spencer Martin, while having won two of the Canucks three victories, is failing to inspire with an .899 save percentage and having surrendered 1.13 goals above expected. Fortunately, Demko’s track record would suggest that he can and will turn things around.

On the other hand, Vancouver’s blueline, a long-time concern and weakness, has demonstrated an inability to protect leads and shelter Demko from a barrage of shots. Even-strength Corsi For Percentage (CF%) measures the ratio of shots and chances for and against while a player is on the ice. According to Stathead, Quinn Hughes, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Luke Schenn have produced a positive CF%, with the Canucks out-chancing their opponents by around three percent while any of those three are on the ice. However, among blueliners to play at least five games, Tyler Myers, Kyle Burroughs and Riley Stillman have a negative CF%. Stillman, who was acquired from Chicago for Jason Dickinson and a second-round pick, has especially demonstrated a propensity for stale play resulting in minimal Vancouver opportunities, with a -7.7 CF% to rank among the league’s worst defensemen. 

While the Canucks have struggled to a degree at even strength, their five-on-five scoring chances are nearly equal to their scoring chances surrendered, suggesting that Vancouver is a league-average squad at maintaining possession and creating opportunities to score. This data aligns with the team’s play this year, as skaters like Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, Andrei Kuzmenko and Hughes have proven to be a threat to opposing defenses, scoring at an impressive rate. However, Vancouver’s play short-handed has been dismal, with their penalty-killing unit sitting dead last in the league at 60.5%. Only three other teams have a percentage lower than 70%. According to Evolving-Hockey, the Canucks rank 11th in the NHL in expected short-handed goals against (xGA) with 7.39 xGA/60 minutes. In reality, the Canucks have given up 15.82 xGA/60 minutes while short-handed, more than double their expected rate. While Demko’s surprising struggles definitely contribute to that disparity, so does a lack of effort and structure on the part of Vancouver’s penalty-killing unit. Among those who have played at least 10 minutes short-handed thus far, J.T. Miller ranks bottom-10 league wide in short-handed goals against per 60 minutes, with Schenn, Horvat and Myers joining him among the 50 leakiest penalty killers in the league this season. Burroughs, Pettersson and Nils Aman have surrendered the least short-handed goals per 60, but even those three rank among the league average, with no Canucks player finding themselves in the top-100 most efficient penalty killers league wide. 

Although the team has struggled mightily, several players have exceeded expectations and have helped the squad pick up a handful of victories. Per Evolving-Hockey, Pettersson currently ranks ninth in the NHL with a 0.9 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), representing the value of any given player compared to a replacement-level skater. While many fans of the organization hoped for and predicted a Pettersson improvement, summer signing Kuzmenko has surprised with his accurate snipes and overall comfort adjusting to the North American game. With 11 points in 12 games, the 26-year-old winger has exceeded all expectations and finds himself among the 20 most valuable players in the NHL so far according to WAR. Through the team’s struggles, a beacon of optimism has emerged in the line combination of Pettersson, Kuzmenko and Ilya Mikheyev. The young Swede flanked by the two Russian forwards have consistently created chances and maintained possession. The forechecking abilities on that line are impressive, especially from Mikheyev, whose speed sets him apart from other Vancouver forwards. 

While their record leaves much to be desired, the Canucks’ underlying numbers would suggest that they are underperforming relative to their talent. The team’s expected goals against rates at both even-strength and while short-handed are lower than their actual goals against, suggesting that they have encountered some misfortune around their own net. While the team’s effort inevitably has to improve if they hope to make a playoff run, the Canucks should see better goaltending from Demko as the season progresses and will be able to come back from their miserable start. Vancouver travels to Ottawa to play the Senators today at 4 p.m.