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When down by one, the Canucks transform into a top-ten team

Analyzing how the Canucks perform in different situations: tied, leading, and trailing.
Vasily Podkolzin vs Kraken
Vasily Podkolzin turns up ice from behind the Vancouver Canucks net.

The Vancouver Canucks are in an awkward spot. They’re not outright terrible, like the Arizona Coyotes or Montreal Canadiens. But they’re also very clearly not good enough, something that has been repeatedly acknowledged by president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford since he arrived in Vancouver.

“We all know that we’re going to have to make changes at some point in order to get better and have a contending team,” said Rutherford recently. 

Some of those changes could come soon, as the NHL’s trade deadline is just over a month away and the Canucks have multiple players who could be on the move. But even if the changes take longer to come about, there’s an overall agreement that changes need to be made.

The Canucks currently have a 22-21-6 record, meaning they’ve earned 51% of the points available to them. That puts them 21st in the NHL in points percentage and their minus-9 goal differential is 20th in the NHL.

Some of their struggles to score and prevent goals are because of their shaky special teams but they haven’t been great at 5-on-5 either, ranked 20th in the NHL in expected goals percentage at 48.95% — in other words, given the quality and quantity of shots for and against, you would expect the Canucks to be out-scored at 5-on-5.

They’ve been able to outperform that thanks to some stellar goaltending, but they still only have a plus-2 goal differential at 5-on-5.

So far, so mediocre.

But something interesting happens when the Canucks go down by one goal: they suddenly become much better than mediocre.

A top-ten team when trailing by one goal

It’s not unusual for a team that is trailing to perform better by the underlying statistics. In the analytics community, this is known as score effects. Whether it's because the team that is trailing becomes more aggressive or the team that is leading retreats into a defensive shell — most likely, a combination of both — the trailing team in the NHL generally has more possession of the puck and creates more chances.

It’s just that the Canucks are above average even among other NHL teams when trailing by one goal.

Here’s how the Canucks rank in corsi — shot attempts for and against at 5-on-5 — in different situations: trailing by any score, trailing by one goal, tied, leading by one goal, or leading by any score. The data comes from Natural Stat Trick.

Canucks corsi by score - ranks

When tied, the Canucks’ corsi percentage is 49.47%, which ranks 19th in the NHL. That lines up with their overall rank, which makes sense — a tie score is the default. 

They rank higher at creating shots than they do preventing them, which is interesting in and of itself, given Bruce Boudreau’s recent claims that the team’s strength is defence. More on that in a moment.

When down by one goal, however, the Canucks have a 55.88% corsi, which ranks 9th in the NHL in that situation. In fact, the Canucks’ corsi when down by one is nearly identical to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

When trailing by one, the Canucks suddenly become a top-ten possession team.

The Canucks have two players that stand out as most effective when down by one, one of which might surprise you, or it might not if you saw the photo at the top of this article. Vasily Podkolzin leads the Canucks in goals when down by one: he has 5 game-tying goals this season, all at 5-on-5.

Quinn Hughes, meanwhile, leads the Canucks in points when down by one, with 10. When down by one, the Canucks want to have Podkolzin and Hughes on the ice, evidently.

When the Canucks have a lead, however, they suddenly become one of the worst teams in the NHL. Their 43.0% corsi when leading by one is ranked 25th in the NHL, as they give up a large quantity of shots and don’t create much of their own.

Again, this paints a picture of a team that is at its best when it opens things up and attacks aggressively and is at its worst when it pulls back into a defensive shell and tries to protect a one-goal lead. It suggests a team for whom defence is not actually a strength at all — in fact, it's their biggest weakness.

Of course, the Canucks had a coaching change in December, so perhaps the team plays differently in different situations with a different coach. 

More aggressive under Boudreau but still poor at defending a lead

To look at the changes since coaching, I switched to expected goals, which takes into account shot quality as well as shot quantity, as it illustrates some of the biggest differences in how the team plays under both coaches. The statistics are shaded by how much better or worse they are than the NHL average — gold is better, red is worse.

Canucks expected goals by score - coaching change

With the score tied, the Canucks under Boudreau are an average team. In fact, they’re almost frighteningly average, with their rates of expected goals for and against almost exactly at the league average.

That’s a significant improvement from the Canucks under Travis Green, who were near league average in expected goals against, but well below in expected goals for. They simply played too conservative a style with the score tied and it ultimately led to the Canucks’ and Green’s downfall.

What’s interesting is that the Canucks were better when down by one under both coaches. Under both Green and Boudreau, the Canucks have a better expected goals percentage than the league average — in fact, they were slightly better under Green.

This again suggests that the Canucks are at their best when they open things up and play a more aggressive style, though you can still see the differences in coaching styles — the Canucks were better defensively but created less offence under Green than under Boudreau.

The changes become more significant when looking at trailing by all scores: the Canucks have been much better under Boudreau. One interpretation is that when the Canucks fell behind by two or more goals under Green, they more-or-less gave up, not believing that they could come back. Under Boudreau, the Canucks are still consistent in their effort, pushing hard for a comeback no matter the score.

On the other side of the score, things get interesting. 

The Canucks were utterly dreadful when up by one under Green: 1.90 expected goals for per 60 minutes would rank dead last in the NHL and they also gave up an above-average number of shots and chances. The only team with a comparable corsi percentage to the Canucks’ 40.1% under Green is the Coyotes, at 40.68%.

Is it any wonder the Canucks struggled to hold a lead under Green?

That said, the Canucks haven’t been much better under Boudreau. In fact, they’ve been just as bad if not worse defensively. The main difference is that they’ve been above average offensively, pushing to extend their lead instead of entirely sitting back defensively. 

When the Canucks get a bigger lead under Boudreau, however, they do sit back more and correspondingly allow a lower-than-average rate of expected goals against. 

It’s interesting to see the numbers confirm things like the Canucks playing more aggressively on offence under Boudreau. No matter the score, the Canucks have a higher rate of expected goals for under Boudreau than under Green.

Still, it seems clear that the Canucks could afford to be even more aggressive at times. Even under Boudreau, the Canucks are better than average when trailing and pushing to tie the game than they are when it comes to defending a lead. 

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