The Canucks have had a rollercoaster 2018-19 season. They’re far better than anyone anticipated, though that’s largely because the bar was set so low. The average pre-season projection had the Canucks finishing last in the Pacific Division with 78 points.
The emergence of Elias Pettersson as more than just a good rookie, but a bonafide superstar, has made the Canucks competitive. A little over halfway through the season, the Canucks are right on the edge of the playoff picture in the Western Conference, tied in points with the Minnesota Wild and Anaheim Ducks for the final Wild Card spot.
This understandably has the players in the Canucks locker room focused on the playoff hunt. Bo Horvat spoke about that with Ben Kuzma, talking about the importance of playing meaningful games all season.
“This year, we have a chance to do something special and be in the wild card,” said Horvat, “and everybody in the room realizes that.”
There’s something to be said for the crucible of the playoffs tempering the Canucks’ young players and giving them valuable experience to carry forward into the future. It’s also a chance to build some excitement in the Canucks’ fanbase that hasn’t seen playoff hockey for three seasons.
The prospect of seeing Elias Pettersson in the playoffs is a tempting one, to be sure — Pettersson was at his best in the SHL in the playoffs, with 10 goals and 19 points in 13 games — but how likely are the Canucks to get there?
One obstacle is that the Canucks have played more games than most of the rest of the NHL. Only the Vegas Golden Knights have played more games than the Canucks and all of the teams that will be competing with the Canucks for the playoffs have at least one game in hand, while others have two or three.
Even though the Canucks are tied for eighth in the Western Conference in points, they’re tied for 12th in points percentage. Their 21-21-5 record has them exactly at .500, right with the Edmonton Oilers.
That means that other teams could quickly catch up to or pass the Canucks in the standings, leaving them an uphill climb to get back into playoff position.
The team that is 8th in points percentage, the Colorado Avalanche, is at .533, with a 20-17-8 record. They’re on-pace for 87 points this season, which would be the lowest point total for a playoff team since the 2014-15 Minnesota Wild, who snuck into the playoffs with an identical 87 points.
It seems more likely that it will require 92-97 points to make the playoffs, with some teams turning it on over the back half of the season, but let’s go with the best case scenario that the Canucks would only need to surpass 87 points to get the second wild card spot.
That would require the Canucks to get 41 points from their remaining 35 games. That doesn’t seem crazy: that’s a 20-14-1 record.
Some might argue that it depends on Pettersson remaining healthy, but the Canucks have been a .500 team whether Pettersson is in the lineup or not. With Pettersson, the Canucks are 17-17-4; without him, they’re 4-4-1.
Obviously the Canucks are a better team with Pettersson on the ice — they have a +11 goal differential at 5-on-5 when he’s on the ice compared to -20 when he’s not — but there’s a bigger factor that will likely determine whether the Canucks can make the playoffs: goaltending.
If Jacob Markstrom can play somewhat closer to his December self, when he had a .943 save percentage and the Canucks went 8-5-1, and Thatcher Demko can be an upgrade on Anders Nilsson as a backup, the Canucks could have a chance. If Markstrom plays like he did in November, with an .887 save percentage and the Canucks went 3-8-3, and Demko struggles to adapt to the NHL, they’ll be in trouble.
Remember, needing a 20-14-1 record to make the playoffs is a best-case scenario. If the Canucks need 95 points like the Avalanche did last season to make the second Wild Card spot, they’ll need 48 points in their final 35 games. That’s a 24-11-0 record or 22-9-4 or something along those lines, which is a much tougher task.
The biggest red flag for the Canucks is their inability to control puck possession and out-chance their opponents.
The Canucks have the worst scoring chance differential in the NHL at 5-on-5 according to Natural Stat Trick. You can see that reflected in their heat maps for and against from Hockey Viz: the Canucks struggle to create shots from dangerous areas and give up too much of the same in their own zone.
So far, the Canucks have been able to out-perform their underlying statistics thanks to things like Pettersson’s elite finishing ability, but counting on Pettersson to maintain a 27.8% shooting percentage is a dicey proposition. Then again, he just keeps scoring, so it’s hard to argue against him continuing to do so.
Along with the red flag of the Canucks’ underlying statistics, there are a couple green flags.
One is that the Canucks have already gone through the toughest part of their schedule. Since the Canucks have played more games than most other teams, it means their remaining games will be more spread out. They’ve also played more away games: they’ve played 26 games on the road and just 21 in the cozy confines of their home arena.
According to TSN’s Travis Yost, the Canucks have one of the easiest remaining schedules of any team in the league. The combination of home games and weaker opponents could make a push for the playoffs that much easier.
For what it’s worth, Markstrom has a .912 save percentage at home this season and a .903 save percentage on the road.
Making the playoffs is still a bit of a long shot. Micah Blake McCurdy’s model that updates playoff chances throughout the season has the Canucks chances at a measly 16%, and they’ll have to climb over a lot of other teams to do it, but that’s a significantly better chance than most gave them to start the season.