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Is there a reasonable path back to playoff contention for the Canucks?

So, you're telling me there's a chance.
news.Pass it to Bulis.Fin.9554 (1)
Vancouver Canucks mascot Fin waves a flag after a victory.

It’s easy to write off the Vancouver Canucks this season. Their dreadful start has exposed some serious flaws in the team’s construction and raised the ire of Canucks fans, many of whom are calling for significant changes in management and coaching.

The Canucks have just eight wins in 24 games and sit 28th in the NHL in points percentage with their 8-14-2 record. They’re on pace for 62 points, which would be their worst total since the soul-crushing 1998-99 season. 

Still, the season is young. The Canucks’ first 24 games have gone remarkably poorly and the team needs to make changes but is the entire season necessarily a write-off? Can the Canucks still make the playoffs despite their start?

Call it residual positivity after the Canucks won two straight games for just the second time this season, even if those wins came against the 30th and 32nd-ranked teams in the NHL, but a playoff push isn’t out of the realm of possibility. It’s improbable, yes, but not impossible.

The Canucks face long odds to make the playoffs

Some analytics sites calculate the chances a team makes the playoffs and there’s a pretty wide range of predictions for the Canucks, primarily because each site uses a different methodology.

MoneyPuck had the Canucks at just a 6.7% chance of making the playoffs before their win over the Ottawa Senators vaulted them up to a lofty 17.2%. It should be noted, however, that those are still the second-lowest odds of making the playoffs in the Western Conference, ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes. 

HockeyViz is significantly less bullish on the Canucks’ chances, giving them just an 8.4% chance of making the playoffs.  

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SportsClubStats is even more bearish. While they haven’t updated their odds since before the Canucks’ last two wins, SportsClubStats gave them just a 1.8% chance at the playoffs. Based on how they calculate their odds, wins over the Montreal Canadiens, with their 0.1% chance of the playoffs, and Senators, with a 0.7% chance of the playoffs, wouldn’t move the needle much.

So yes, the odds are extremely long. Right now, a bet of $100 on the Canucks making the playoffs would pay out a whopping $1200 if they somehow managed to do it. 

It also cannot be emphasized enough that the Canucks’ recent two-game winning “streak” came against two of the worst teams in the NHL. The Canucks have a long way to go before they’re convincing anyone that they can turn this season around.

Still, the Canucks have a chance. A 1.8% chance is not 0%. So, what would it realistically take from the Canucks to get back into playoff contention?

How many games do the Canucks need to win?

I’m not talking about any changes the Canucks might need to make, whether that’s a change in leadership to provide a different direction, trades to fix issues in roster construction, or new coaches to implement different systems. But where do the Canucks need to get to and is it possible for them to do it?

The average playoff bar in the Western Conference in the last five full seasons is 93 points. Incidentally, that’s the exact pace of the Nashville Predators, who currently sit in eighth place in the Western Conference by points percentage. 

Reaching 93 points is a tall order for the Canucks, who have put themselves behind the eight ball to start the season, on-pace for 62 points. In order to reach 93 points, the Canucks will need 75 points in their remaining 58 games. 

That’s a 106-point pace over 82 games. Only two teams in franchise history have bested 106 points and they both won Presidents’ Trophies: the 2010-11 and 2011-12 Canucks.

A 37-20-1 record would get it done, but that seems ambitious. The trouble is, for every win you take away from that record, you have to make two of those losses go to overtime. Does 34-17-7 seem more doable? 32-15-11?

Maybe it won’t take 93 points to make the playoffs. The bar was as low as 87 points in the 2015-16 season, when the Minnesota Wild slid into the playoffs on a five-game losing streak and promptly got knocked out in the first round. Then again, it could be even higher, like the 99 points it took for the Winnipeg Jets to make the playoffs in the 2014-15 season and get swept in the first round.

There are so many ways to get an opportunity to lose in the first round!

Turning one-goal losses into one-goal wins

But let’s assume it will take the average of 93 points to make the playoffs. Can the Canucks put together that kind of record over their final 58 games?

One way might be to start turning their plethora of one-goal losses into one-goal wins. 

Of the Canucks 16 losses this season, 11 have come by one goal or by two goals with an empty netter. 

In those games, just one more goal from the power play, one more stop by the penalty kill, or one more save by Thatcher Demko or Jaroslav Halak gets the game to overtime or wins the game in the case of the overtime and shootout losses. The Canucks’ power play has goals in three straight games and the penalty kill has been better over the last six games — still below league average, but we’re only looking for a small improvement to win a couple more one-goal games over the rest of the season.

Theoretically, if the Canucks don’t make large-scale improvements but win more one-goal games, would that be enough to make the playoffs?

Let’s say the results of one-goal games are essentially coin flips — it’s not the case, but it will do for our hypothetical. The Canucks have also won five one-goal games, so if the team won half of their 16 one-goal games this season, they would have eight wins in those situations — three more than they have currently. 

That would bring their record now to 11-13-0. But now we’re missing overtime or shootout losses. Approximately 25% of NHL games go to overtime, so if we assume that six of the Canucks’ games would go to overtime and three of those would be losses — sticking with our coin flip — then the Canucks would be 11-10-3.

In other words, they’d be slightly above .500.

That’s not good enough. The Canucks need to be considerably better than .500 over the rest of the season to get to the playoffs. 

Getting Charlie Kelly with the numbers

Let’s look at this another way. It's time to lose our minds

Two-thirds of the Canucks’ games have been one-goal games — 16 out of 24. If the Canucks have a similar number of one-goal games over the rest of the season, they will have 39 more one-goal games, for a total of 55 for the season. 

If we keep to the coin-flip idea that teams typically win 50% of their one-goal games, then the Canucks would theoretically win 27.5 of those one-goal games — we’ll round it up to 28 for optimism. The Canucks have only won five one goal games; theoretically (and this is atrocious statistics, I know), the Canucks should win 23 of their remaining 39 one-goal games.

And again, we’ll assume 25% of their 58 remaining games go to overtime and the shootout and half of those are losses where the Canucks get one point: that’s 7 overtime losses.

That’s a 23-9-7 record in their remaining 39 one-goal games. If we extrapolate their current 3-5-0 record in games decided by more than one goal, that becomes 7-12-0 in the remaining 19 games. That gets the Canucks a total record of 30-21-7 in their final 58 games.

That’s 67 points for a total of 85 on the season. Still not enough.

Even with some very friendly assumptions about how the Canucks might perform in one-goal games for the rest of the season, we can’t get to 93 points. The Canucks can’t count on squeaking by in one-goal games for the rest of the season; they’ll need to legitimately turn things around and start dominating their opponents.

That will be difficult as they have a very tough schedule ahead of them for the rest of the season. 

The strength of the Canucks' remaining schedule is, well, strong

The site Tankathon, which bases strength of schedule just on points per game, suggests the Canucks have the second-hardest remaining schedule behind only the Detroit Red Wings. Another site uses their composite power rankings to determine strength of schedule and they claim the Canucks have the fourth-hardest remaining schedule.  

More Hockey Stats uses a system borrowed from chess — the Buchholz system — to estimate strength of schedule. According to that metric, the Canucks have the hardest remaining schedule in the NHL.

That’s right: the Canucks’ lousy start has come in what is arguably the “easy” portion of their schedule. 

The Canucks have yet to play top teams like the Washington Capitals, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers, and Carolina Hurricanes. They still have two more games against the Edmonton Oilers and four more against the Calgary Flames, the top two teams in their division, not to mention three more games against the Vegas Golden Knights, who were expected to be the top team in the Pacific.

Things aren't going to get any easier for the Canucks.

Can the Canucks reel in the teams ahead of them?

Then there’s the big issue: the number of teams ahead of the Canucks in the standings. It’s not just that the Canucks need to win more games, it’s that they’ll need to pass six other teams who are also looking to make improvements and get to the playoffs. 

Two of those teams currently out of the playoffs are the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche, both of whom are safe bets to get their acts together and move into playoff position.

Still, there are teams the Canucks could theoretically reel in. The Seattle Kraken, Los Angeles Kings, and San Jose Sharks seem like teams the Canucks could catch. No one expected the Anaheim Ducks to be this good, so maybe they’re not. And the Dallas Stars have some questionable underlying numbers and could potentially slide down the standings.

That’s five teams — the Canucks would still need to catch one more to make the playoffs, likely one of the Winnipeg Jets or Nashville Predators. Doable? Maybe. But all it takes is a couple of these teams to get hot and the Canucks could get stymied.

All of this is just hypothetical, of course, but it's just an illustration of how much has to go right for the Canucks to make the playoffs. Not only do they need to make significant improvements themselves and get some luck in whatever one-goal games that remain, they’ll need six other teams to falter so that they can pass them in the standings.

It’s not impossible, but it’s definitely not reasonable.