“We need to make the playoffs next year,” said Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning at the end of last season. Then he spent the entire offseason overhauling the Canucks roster, going as far as trading the team’s first-round pick — ninth overall — to do it.
What did all that hard work result in? According to most experts, not a whole lot.
Very few pundits, experts, and analytical models project the Canucks as a playoff team this season. In fact, the Canucks might want to put up a Ted Lasso “Believe” sign in their locker room and give it a few taps before every game because no one else seems to believe in them right now.
The Canucks, at least, believe in themselves.
"This year, especially with the guys we added...I think we've got a really good core group," said captain Bo Horvat. "I think we should set our expectations at making the playoffs. That's what we want to do and that's how we have to play right off the bat."
That belief extends to the front office.
"I don't think it should be good enough to be close to a playoff team," said Henrik Sedin. "I think this is a team that can make the playoffs and that has to be the expectation every year in this market."
For professional athletes, that lack of belief from others can actually light a fire under them. There’s little better in sports than being able to prove the doubters wrong. It just so happens that there are a lot of doubters this time around.
Let’s take a look at a few of the publications and models that have predicted the NHL standings for the 2021-22 season.
Let’s start at the top with USA Today, who predict 86 points and a fifth place finish for the Canucks in the Pacific Division. In fact, they have the Canucks behind the Los Angeles Kings, banking on their prospect pool and youth to bolster their veteran core this season.
They do note the Canucks improved depth; evidently, they don’t think it will be enough. The last time there was an 82-game season, it took 90 points to make the playoffs in the last Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.
NESN likewise sees a fifth place in the cards for the Canucks, likewise behind the Kings. “There’s way too much talent in Vancouver for them to be bad,” says writer Logan Mullen, “but that hasn’t stopped them before from stinking, so we’re skeptical until they prove they can put it all together.”
“There never seems to be a lack of drama in Vancouver, which is both a tribute to their long-suffering fan base and a potential distraction for players,” says Adam Proteau at The Hockey News, though he credits GM Jim Benning for his busy offseason.
“Vancouver has some intriguing young talent and improved forward depth, but the defense is a major question mark,” says Adam Gretz at NBC Sports, which is an accurate assessment.
When I checked the betting odds heading into the season, however, the odds were slightly more in the Canucks favour. They still didn’t have the Canucks as a top-16 team in the NHL, but they were ranked as a top-3 team in the Pacific Division, and that’s all it takes to make the playoffs.
Next up are the analytical models, which is where things get really tough for the Canucks. Not a single model has the Canucks above fifth in the Pacific. The highest they’re ranked in the NHL is 18th and none of the models have the Canucks at even a 50% chance of making the playoffs.
Dom Luszczyszyn’s model at The Athletic projects 87.1 points for the Canucks and a 31% chance of making the playoffs. According to his model, the Canucks have the worst defence in the NHL and that was before Travis Hamonic didn’t report to training camp and got waived.
Still, there’s hope.
“Ekman-Larsson can’t realistically be expected to bounce back to prime form but with a fresh start and new environment, it’s quite easy to see a scenario where he may outperform his projected number,” say Thomas Drance and Harman Dayal in the Canucks season preview that uses Luszczyszyn’s model.
Micah Blake McCurdy, who runs analytics site HockeyViz, has the Canucks at a 42% chance of making the playoffs, the highest among these models. One of the biggest impacts in his model comes from the Canucks’ goaltending, which ranks as well above average thanks to Thatcher Demko.
FiveThirtyEight, better known for their political projections, waded into the NHL projections racket this season. Based on 50,000 simulations of the season, they project the Canucks will finish fifth in the Pacific with 87 points and a 38% chance of making the playoffs.
The model most bearish on the Canucks comes from the twins at Evolving Hockey. Their model projects 83.5 points for the Canucks, a fifth-place finish in the Pacific and a mere 21.9% chance at the playoffs. That’s bleak.
They also project, however, that the Pacific will have, on average, the lowest point totals in the NHL. There’s an opportunity to make the playoffs even with a less-than-stellar record.
MoneyPuck’s model focuses on percentages and doesn’t project point totals. Still, it’s easy to guess that the Canucks aren’t projected to get many points with a sixth-place finish and a 37.7% chance at the playoffs.
The model also projects a 1.4% chance of the Canucks winning the Stanley Cup this season, which is a lot better than 1-out-of-a-million. So they’re telling you there’s a chance.
TopDownHockey’s project standings aren’t far off from that of Evolving Hockey for the Canucks: a hair more points, one spot lower in the Pacific and NHL, and a slightly higher chance of making the playoffs.
“You'd think the addition of Conor Garland, a shifty play-driving sniper who is above average across the board, would mean this team improved,” says Patrick Bacon, the man behind TopDownHockey. “But adding Oliver Ekman-Larsson, an ageing defenseman projected to do bad things in big minutes, is more than enough to offset that gain.”
Finally, JFreshHockey has the highest projected points for the Canucks using his WAR (Wins Above Replacement) roster builder: 93 points. That’s still not enough for them to make the playoffs, however, as he projects them finishing fifth in the Pacific.
On average, the models project 87.5 points for the Canucks. Would you take the over or the under on that number?
The Canucks, at least, are betting everything on the over.