The Pacific Division got weird

Despite a mediocre record, the Vancouver Canucks find themselves right in the thick of things in the bizarre Pacific Division.

Pass it to Bulis

The Vancouver Canucks are a .500 team. That’s not ideal. For perspective, a .500 record over a full season gets you 82 points and would have been good for 22nd in the NHL last season, missing the playoffs by a wide margin.

At the same time, the Canucks are tied with four other teams for the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. They actually have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs, though it will take some good fortune and good health.

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The biggest reason why the Canucks are in the playoff picture right now is that the Western Conference has gotten remarkably top heavy. The best teams in the West have become outright dominant, leaving a well of mediocrity in the middle that a team like the Canucks can take advantage of, thanks to a certain elite rookie centre.

It’s the Pacific Division that is the weirdest. At the top of the food chain are the Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks, and Vegas Golden Knights, who all have identical 8-1-1 records in their last ten games.

That top trio of teams all have 60+ points. There’s a 13-point gap between the Golden Knights and the three teams tied at 47 points: the Edmonton Oilers, Anaheim Ducks, and the Canucks. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Kings are tied for last place in the NHL; they’re also only 8 points back of a playoff spot.

It’s a bizarre situation in the Pacific that leaves the playoffs completely up in the air. The Flames, Sharks, and Golden Knights are a safe bet to be the top-three teams, but the Wild Card spots are entirely up for grabs. Even the Arizona Coyotes could conceivably go on a hot streak and sneak in.

The dichotomy between the upper and middle class of the Pacific goes beyond wins and losses. The Flames have a plus-40 goal differential, second only to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL, but the Sharks and Golden Knights are respectable at plus-26 and plus-19, respectively.

The next best goal differential in the West is the Canucks, at minus-12. There’s simply no middle ground in the Pacific right now.

But everything about the Pacific is a little odd right now. The Flames have been dominant, but that’s with their presumed number one goaltender, Mike Smith, posting a dreadful .889 save percentage this season. They’ve had to rely on David Rittich, who went from a .904 save percentage as the backup last season to .920 this season, 7th among goaltenders that have started at least 20 games this season.

Meanwhile, the second place Sharks have even shakier goaltending. Martin Jones has a .903 save percentage, the worst mark of his career, while his backup Aaron Dell is even worse. His .891 save percentage is better than only Cam Ward, Antti Niemi, and Mike Smith.

The Golden Knights are trying to prove that their inaugural success wasn’t just a flash in the pan and are doing a credible job of doing so, despite a slow start to the season. What’s most surprising is that their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith, which was so dominant last season, has been...fine. They’ve been okay.

You’d think the Golden Knights would need another standout season from that trio. Instead they’ve played decent hockey, each on-pace for a little over 50 points, and the team is still firmly in the top three of the Pacific.

Then you get to the Anaheim Ducks, who are old, can’t score, and are near the bottom of the NHL in most statistical categories, including shots per game and shots allowed per game. And yet, they’re hanging onto a playoff spot. They’re the polar opposite of the Sharks; their goaltending has been incredible.

John Gibson has been a workhorse, starting 38 games and posting a fantastic .919 save percentage. In the few games he doesn’t play, Ryan Miller steps in with his even better .922 save percentage. Their goaltending is pretty much single-handedly making them a playoff contender.

The Oilers are like if a Guy Maddin film was a hockey team: bizarre, unsettling, and you have to be a bit of a weirdo to still be a fan.

What more can be said about the Oilers? Connor McDavid could be skating between Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle right now. Instead, he had to play a game lugging Milan Lucic and Jujhar Khaira around the ice. Then word came out yesterday that Pete Chiarelli, who is somehow still the GM of the Oilers, is on a “full court press” to find help at forward. It’s the saddest music in the world, but you can’t help but laugh.

How did the Coyotes get weird? Well, Brad Richardson is their leading goalscorer. ‘Nuff said.

Then there’s the last place Kings, who were supposed to be loading up for one more run at the Stanley Cup after adding Ilya Kovalchuk in free agency. Instead, they’ve been a disaster, with their aging lineup struggling to keep up with the speed of the West. They’re utterly bizarre: they managed just 16 shots on goal against the Oilers earlier this month; a week later they piled up 40 shots in a dominant performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Finally, there’s the Canucks, who might out-weird them all.

They’re led in scoring by a 20-year-old rookie that is playing centre for the first time in years, electrifying the rest of the league in the process. Their goaltending is thoroughly mediocre, except for in December, when it was the best in the NHL.

They have the worst scoring chance differential in the NHL and sometimes can’t seem to find the offensive zone to save their lives, but other times, namely when that 20-year-old rookie takes the ice, scoring chances materialize out of thin air.

They had a streak where they won just one of 13 games. That was immediately followed by 13 games in which they were one of the best teams in the NHL, winning nine games.

Against the Flames, obviously the best team in the Pacific and arguably the best team in the Western Conference, the Canucks have won two of three games. They're the only Pacific Division team to beat the Flames twice this season.

They’re a rebuilding team that was just barely able to admit they were in a rebuild and might be prematurely convinced the rebuild is over because the rest of the Pacific Division got weird and terrible.

The Canucks are a weird team. They fit right in with the rest of the Pacific.


 

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