Everyone knew that getting strong play from their goaltenders would be essential to the Vancouver Canucks having any kind of success in 2023-24.
The Canucks gave up the eighth-most goals against last season, one of many reasons they were on the outside looking in when the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs started.
No matter how good your offence is, if you’re bleeding goals against you’re nowhere.
Which brings us to this week’s look at the numbers driving the Canucks’ 2023-24 season. There’s plenty of buzz about the Canucks’ offence, with Elias Pettersson atop the NHL scoring standings, and Quinn Hughes and J.T. Miller close behind.
But that scoring would be for naught if they weren’t taking care of business defensively.
Let’s dive in!
Thatcher Demko has been other-worldly in his performances this season. Casey DeSmith has been pretty great too.
Through 12 games, the Canucks have given up the second fewest goals against this season, just 24. That’s one more than the Boston Bruins.
Scoring is up in the NHL, so there’s just no way the Canucks are only going to give up two goals per game going forward. But even a slight uptick in goals against is going to be manageable.
And with Demko’s play, coupled with how well the Canucks are defending in front of him, there’s every reason to think the Canucks will remain in the top half of the league defensively — at worst.
At best, they’ll find themselves in the top third of teams.
And that means a lot. Of the 16 teams that made the playoffs last season, only one wasn’t in the top 16 teams in goals against last season. The Florida Panthers, who gave up the 11th-most goals against (272) on the season, were the outlier, but they scored more goals than they gave up.
Being good at defending makes a big difference if you have playoff ambitions. No big shock there.
Quinn Hughes is proving so dominant offensively, we’re missing how strong his defensive play has been.
He has the second-lowest shot-attempts-against rate, after Andrei Kuzmenko. And that’s helping to drive his 58 per cent shot-attempts rate — meaning that 58 per cent of the shot attempts taken while he’s on the ice are at the opposition net, a dominant rate.
Through 12 games, Hughes’s five-on-five shot-attempts against rate is a career-low 0.76 per minute. He’s playing the best defensive hockey of his career right now.
And he’s playing a ton, 16:47 per game at five-on-five.
When you’re that dominant, playing tough minutes like Hughes is, that’s massive.
Through the first dozen games of the season, Hughes has tallied four three-point games.
That’s a staggering total when put in context.
Here is the list of defencemen in NHL history who have also recorded three-point games in a third of their first dozen games on the season: Paul Reinhart (with the Canucks in 1989-90), Paul Coffey (Pittsburgh in 1988-89), Chris Chelios (with Montreal in 1987-88), Denis Potvin (twice with the Islanders in 1979-80, 1975-76), and Bobby Orr in 1974-75.
This might be the first Hughes list that doesn’t have Brian Leetch on it as a comparator.
It’s elite company.
Five of the Canucks nine wins before Thursday’s game in Ottawa were by three goals or more.
The Canucks are shooting the lights out. These wins aren’t going to carry on being so big.
The question going forward is how their diminished scoring rate and their slightly increased goals against rate converge toward each other.
Winning one-goal games is hard, and that will be the true test of the Canucks in the weeks and months ahead.
The Canucks are humming at 32.6 per cent on the power play.
They are tied for the league lead with the New Jersey Devils in five-on-four goals with 15. The Devils also have three five-on-three goals, plus one four-on-three goal.
Having an elite power play is a huge difference maker in the chase for a playoff spot.
The Canucks aren’t going to keep scoring on 13.3 per cent of their five-on-five shots, but in recent seasons the league’s best power plays have been running as hot as the Canucks’ currently is.
The Canucks are certainly going to stop scoring as much as they do at five on five, but there’s no reason to think their power play can’t continue to be as successful as it currently is.
2 or 3
Without getting ahead of ourselves — be serious, the Golden Knights are the best team in the division — the Canucks already have a strong chance to finish second or third in the division.
Going into Thursday’s game, HockeyViz.com projected the Canucks to finish third in the Pacific with 96 points.
The odds show the Canucks may face the Los Angeles Kings in the playoffs.
That’s what fans should start pondering: How do they feel about the Canucks’ chances in a seven-game match up with the Kings?
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