For the first time in probably a decade, the Vancouver Canucks are deserving to be the talk of the NHL.
They’ve had hot starts in the years since the final season of Alain Vigneault’s tenure as Canucks bench boss, but they’ve proven to be mirages, the Canucks crashing back to reality after plenty of rhetoric being thrown around — especially from observers outside the market, with tourist-deep analysis — about “hustle” and “desire” and things of this nature. For all the good vibes Canucks might have produced, the numbers were never kind.
The fall was always predictable.
But in 2023-24, through 10 games, we can now say that there really does seem to be something. They’re a little lucky to be 7-2-1, but not outrageously so.
Under head coach Rick Tocchet, these Canucks are playing a structured, aggressive style. They’re not getting badly outshot night after night, which was a problem in past seasons.
Yes, their stars a scoring at a red-hot pace — Elias Pettersson is second in the league in scoring, J.T. Miller fourth, no defenceman has more points than Quinn Hughes — and yes, that scoring pace will decline a little, but this team has built itself a base against opposition they should be beating, like Thursday’s 10-1 thrashing of the San Jose Sharks.
So much about making the playoffs is collecting points early in the season. The more you grab now, the more leeway you have down the road.
The Canucks are off to their best start since 2005-06 because their best players have been just that: their best players. They’ve also had a fair bit of luck in shooting and defending. But the basics are also there to think this team is for real.
The Canucks have the best PDO in the league, the combination of save percentage and shooting percentage is well-understood to be a predictor of luck, with teams inevitably regressing towards 1000.
The Canucks have the best five on five shooting percentage in the league and the third-best save percentage.
Rarely do two these two figures line up so well.
Thatcher Demko is playing as he has for most of his Canucks career – very well. What’s better is the defensive environment in front of him is far less chaotic that it’s probably ever been for him in the NHL.
The Canucks are not bleeding crazy scoring chances against. The cross-slot pass, which in the past seemed to be given away with abandon by the Canucks’ defenders, is a rarity this season.
Every goalie will tell you they have a chance if they can see the puck.
Demko isn’t going to sustain his superhuman 95.2 five on five save percentage, but he will maintain his high standard of goaltending. Even a drop of two percentage points would still match his full-season number from 2021-22, when he was on the edge of the Vezina Trophy conversation.
On offence, Vancouver is currently scoring on 13.5 per cent of their shots at five on five. Only one team in 2022-23 finished with a five on five shooting percentage above 10: the Seattle Kraken at 10.3 per cent.
Last season’s Canucks scored on 9.15 of their five on five shots, which was above average.
It’s just simple reality: Canucks are going to stop scoring on so many of their shots. But they’ll still be a pretty potent offence.
Elias Pettersson is playing even better than he did last year, when he had 102 points.
Thursday he tallied three assists, the seventh time this season he’s had a multi-point game.
Only Mario Lemieux (twice) and Conor McDavid had more multi-point games in the season’s first 10 games since 2000-01.
He’s on pace for 156 points, the most since Lemieux’s 161 in 1995-96.
Brock Boeser is playing the best hockey of his life.
He’s rediscovered his scoring touch.
He’s also become quite the scoring chance creator.
His line is playing outstanding two-way hockey.
And he’s on pace for 66 goals on the season.
An absurd 14 per cent of the Canucks’ shots taken at five on five with J.T. Miller on the ice have become goals. That’s not going to carry on.
But what’s important to understand as his scoring dips a little is that there are still a lot good things happening with him on the ice, like the share of shot attempts: the Canucks are taking 51 per cent of the shot attempts with him on the ice.
Not every shot is made the same, but it’s still a good rule of thumb to look for the players who have more good things — like shots at the other team’s net — than bad — like shots taken toward your own — and that’s been happening when Miller is on the ice.
He’s also doing this while facing tough matchups, like Connor McDavid in the first two contests of the year. He shut the down the game’s greatest player both night.
Quinn Hughes is simply dominating play every shift.
When he’s on the ice at five on five, the Canucks are taking 59.4 per cent of the shots.
That’s dominance. The best defence is a good offence, they say, and Hughes is the NHL’s leading point getting among defencemen.
Here’s the final key so far: only two Canucks have been on the ice for as many as five goals against at five on five: Elias Pettersson, who obviously is far outscoring the goals going in against him and he’s playing massive ice time to boot, and Tyler Myers, who struggled in the first handful of games of the season but is much less of a story now that he’s playing third-pairing minutes with Carson Soucy as his partner.
In fact, there’s just one Canucks regular who has seen the opposition outscore the Canucks with him on the ice at five on five: Dakota Joshua, who was scratched on Thursday night.