Apart from Tyler Motte, nobody got what they wanted out of the Canucks’ preseason.
If the Canucks were hoping to see prospects take a step forward and challenge for NHL jobs, they were disappointed. If Brock Boeser wanted to get back in his goal-scoring groove, he was disappointed. If fans wanted to ignore the terrifying truth and just watch the Canucks
sock a few dingers win a few games, they were disappointed.
It got to the point that the Canucks’ woeful performance in the preseason had some wondering if this was the worst team in franchise history.
My opening night #Canucks roster:— J.D. Burke (@JDylanBurke) September 30, 2018
It - Doesn't - Matter
This - Is - Potentially
The - Worst - Canucks
Team - Ever - Assembled
We're - In
For - A
Long - Season
I’m quite certain that this years Canucks will be the worst ever. As a Vancouverite and alumni I try to care, but they’re making it hard to even pretend. Fin with real teeth and making fans bleed might get me to the game but that’s it.— Kyle Wellwood (@wellwood_kyle) October 2, 2018
Everyone in management for the Vancouver Canucks should probably be fired. This is going to be the worst team in franchise history.— Sandro Desaulniers (@DeltaCanuckian) September 26, 2018
That seems a tad strong. Certainly, the Canucks aren’t expected to be very good this season, as they transition out of the Sedin era, but worst team in franchise history? Is that a possibility?
First off, we have to establish just how low the bar is for the Canucks before looking to see if they can limbo under it. What is the worst season in franchise history?
Unfortunately for the Canucks, they have a lot of seasons to choose from. Just a couple seasons ago in 2016-17, they set a franchise record for fewest goals in a season with 182. Back in 1984-85, they gave up 401 goals against and had a franchise worst minus-117 goal differential. In 1977-78, they won just 20 out of 80 games.
Those seasons were bad, but for their absolute worst, I’m going with their second season in the league: 1971-72.
The 1971-72 Vancouver Canucks had a woeful 20-50-8 record, the worst record in the league. To be fair, it was close: the Canucks finished with 48 points, while the Los Angeles Kings had 49 and the Buffalo Sabres had 51. The Sabres, in fact, had fewer wins, but made up for it with a league-high 19 ties.
That season, the Canucks set a franchise record for most losses in a season that holds to this day. They tied for the fewest wins with the 1977-78 Canucks, and had the lowest points percentage — 30.8% — of any team in franchise history. Their minus-94 goal differential was the third worst in franchise history.
The 1971-72 Canucks faced the Los Angeles Kings, who finished in last in the West Division, six times. They didn’t win a single one of those games. The Canucks, of course, were in the East Division at the time.
So, that’s the bar: 20 wins. 30.8% point percentage.
Over 82 games, that point percentage would come out to 50.5 points. So, 50 points or below would be the worst season in Canucks history.
That may seem unattainable in the parity of today’s NHL, but the Colorado Avalanche finished the 2016-17 season with 48 points. Sure, that was the worst season of the salary cap era, but it shows that a sub-50 point season is within the realm of possibility.
Are the 2018-19 Canucks likely to stoop that low? While it’s possible, it’s improbable.
Apart from a few outliers, most projections have the Canucks finishing the season with 76-79 points. All but one of the predictions I considered had the Canucks in last place in the Pacific Division and all but one had the Canucks finishing in the bottom five in the NHL.
None of them have the Canucks below 71 points, let alone below 50 points.
Of course, a terrible season like that would be unexpected and impossible to predict. Heck, Sportsnet analyst Stephen Burtch had the 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche as a playoff bubble team in his point projections. Kevin Allen of USA Today predicted the Avalanche would be last in the Central Division in 2016-17, but still projected 73 points for them.
Could the Canucks fall short of their point projections like the Avalanche did? Could they be as bad as the 1971-72 Canucks?
It seems inconceivable. After all, the 2018-19 Canucks have some very good players, like Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, and rookie Elias Pettersson.
The thing to remember is that the 1971-72 Canucks still had some good players. Andre Boudrias and Orland Kurtenbach led them in scoring with 61 points each, good for 30th and 31st in the NHL in scoring. Rookie defenceman Jocelyn Guèvremont, who regrettably hated playing in Vancouver, was fourth among NHL defencemen in scoring with 51 points.
It’s not hard to plug Horvat, Boeser, and Pettersson into those three spots. Given the smaller league in the 70’s, 30th and 31st in scoring would be more like 66th and 68th. Last season, that was 61 points, which sounds like a pretty reasonable projection for both Horvat and Boeser. Add in Pettersson as one of the top-scoring rookies like Guèvremont, and you can see the similarities.
The 1971-72 Canucks also got offensive contributions from Wayne Maki, Dale Tallon, and Dave Balon, but they struggled to score goals compared to the rest of the league. Likewise, the Canucks could get goals and points from Sven Baertschi, Nikolay Goldobin, and Alex Edler, while still finishing near the bottom of the league in goalscoring.
Neither the 1971-72 Canucks nor the 2016-17 Avalanche could score goals, but what added to their issues was their dreadful goaltending.
The Canucks had Dunc Wilson as their starter. Of the 26 NHL goaltenders who played at least 20 games, Wilson’s .887 save percentage was 22nd. Of those who played at least 40 games, it was dead last. Both his backups, George Gardner and Ed Dyck, were even worse. As a result, they gave up 297 goals against, which would be a shocking total by today’s standards.
The Avalanche had Calvin Pickard, who finished the season with a .904 save percentage, which was somehow still better than Kari Lehtonen, Petr Mrazek, and Antti Niemi among regular starters. What sunk them was their other goaltenders, Semyon Varlamov, Jeremy Smith, and Spencer Martin, who were all significantly worse whenever they got a start.
Jacob Markstrom gave the Canucks league-average goaltending last season and has done so ever since he came to Vancouver. It seems unlikely he’d have that kind of collapse, but, then again, Carey Price had a .900 save percentage last season.
If Markstrom gets injured for any length of time, however, that leaves the Canucks in the hands of Anders Nilsson, who seriously struggled last season, and Thatcher Demko, who is still untested at the NHL level.
In order to finish below 50 points, a few things would need to happen: a lack of goals, despite decent seasons from Horvat, Boeser, and Pettersson; disastrous goaltending; and a whole lot of bad luck. The 2016-17 Avalanche had a brutal 970 PDO, a statistic that combines shooting percentage and save percentage as a measure of luck. That was the worst PDO in the league by 11 points.
Are the 2018-19 Canucks worse than the 1971-72 Canucks? Is Boeser better or worse than Boudrias? Is Horvat equivalent to Kurtenbach? Will Pettersson have a better rookie season than Guèvremont?
It’s far too early to say. The odds say no, but the season itself might say otherwise.