NHL: A Look At The Canucks Northwest Division Domination – Part II

CAN ONLY LOOK ON: The rest of the Northwest division will probably spend one more season watching the Canucks celebrate victories

BY THOMAS DRANCE

The mood amongst the Canucks fans I chat with regularly seems to be more pessimistic than usual headed into the 2013 season. From the injury status of Ryan Kesler (and now David Booth?), to doubts about the quality of the clubs blue-line to a general sense of impatience regarding a presumably forthcoming Luongo trade: it seems that many folks find themselves doubting that the Canucks are legitimate contenders this season, with many even wondering if Vancouver can emerge as Northwest Division champions this season. Yesterday, in part I of our look at the Northwest Division, I laid out that while the Canucks might be more vulnerable that they’ve been in years past, the gap between them and the collection of mediocrities that make up the Northwest remains large enough at even-strength that I’m not too concerned. Today we’ll look at special teams and goaltending to drive that point home.

POWER PLAY
I’ve again put together a quick table to illustrate how the five Northwestern Division teams performed in a, hopefully, accessible way with the man-advantage last season. The following table uses some stats you’ll probably be familiar with: power-play goals, short-handed goals against and power-play percentage; and two other ones: power-play shots per sixty minutes (PP SH/60 which measures, basically, the efficiency with which a power-play unit managed to generate shots on goal) and power-play shooting percentage (PP SH%, basically the clip at which shots directed on net found there way through the goaltender).

Let’s take a look:

PP Goals

SHGA

PP%

PP Sh/60

PP SH%

Vancouver

57

4

19.8%

56.1

13%

Calgary

46

6

17.7%

48.6

13.1%

Edmonton

54

8

20.6%

44.4

16.6%

Minnesota

39

4

15.1%

48.9

11.1%

Colorado

41

4

18.4%

54.3

12.1%

So once again, the Canucks were the best team with the man-advantage in the Northwest Division last season (in terms of goal differential). Sure Edmonton had a higher capitalization percentage, but they allowed twice as many short-handed goals and were generally pretty lucky to score as often as they did. For example, there 16.6% 5v4 shooting percentage is almost surely unsustainable, especially when you notice how few shots they managed to generate. Frankly from the looks of it, I’d argue that Edmonton’s power-play was pretty bad last season, and was outrageously fortunate to end up among the lead’s leaders in Power-play percentage. While adding a legitimate power-play quarterback of Justin Schultz’s caliber could help the Oilers offset a likely dip in power-play shooting percentage to some extent, I’d be doubtful of anyone who thinks they’ll get to Vancouver’s level with the man-advantage next season. The more likely bet, it seems to me, could be Colorado. The Avalanche power-play looks like it was pretty dangerous last season despite a low-ish 12.1% shooting clip. The Avalanche could be adding Tyson Barrie to their roster full time this season, and that could help, as could continued development from the likes of Gabriel Landeskog.

Again the Canucks were seven goals better – and a lot less lucky – on the power-play last season than the Oilers were, thirteen goals better than the Flames, sixteen goals better than the Avalanche and eighteen goals better than the Wild. That’s a wide-gap that those teams have to close. So while there’s reasons that all four teams could be better on the power-play this season than they were last, there’s reason to believe that about the Canucks too (they added Jason Garrison’s nine power-play goals in free-agency – after all). Ultimately I’d feel pretty confident wagering that Vancouver’s man-advantage unit will remain the best PP unit in the Northwest division this season, or at least close to it.

PENALTY KILLING
This series has more tables than a lunchroom, but that’s just how it’s going to be!

Here are the penalty-killing stats for every northwest division club from last season. The table includes the total number of times each club was shorthanded, their total number of power-play goals against, their kill percentage and then their “4v5 shots against per sixty” rate and the save percentage the team benefitted from when short handed. As you can see, Vancouver’s penalty-kill was the “best” in the Northwest last season but only because their goaltenders were their best penalty-killers (as the old maxim goes):

Times
Shorthanded

PP Goals
Against

PK%

4v5
Shots Against/60

4v5 SV%

Vancouver

286

40 86

52.4

0.905
Calgary

268

42 84.3

47.5

0.891
Edmonton

296

52 82.4

47.1

0.872
Colorado

277

47 83

40.8

0.864
Minnesota

285

51 82.1

48.8

0.883

The first thing I’d note about the penalty-killing in the Northwest is that it’s really quite strong. The Canucks are the only team in the division who allowed an above average number of shots against per sixty, and I’d wager that that’s more of a system thing (the Canucks play a very passive system on the penalty-kill, and are happy to allow low percentage shots) than a “quality of penalty kill” thing. I don’t think I’m just being a homer when I say that, since the Canucks allowed over fifty shots against/60 and sustained a roughly 905 sv% in 2010-11 as well.

Generally speaking the Oilers did extraordinarily well on the penalty-kill considering how atrocious they were in that area in 2010-11. They’ve got some quality penalty-kill personnel in captain Shawn Horcoff, defenseman Ladislav Smid and face-off ace Eric Belanger. Also, if they play Dubnyk more regularly this season I could see the team getting better goaltending short-handed as well in 2013. I’ll be curious to see if they can sustain their success in this area without Tom Renney, but I’d wager they can (after all they’ve got penalty-kill systems ace Craig MacTavish in the front office if they need any help). Their bigger issue might be the number of times they found themselves short-handed (fifth most in the NHL), which is partly the result of employing guys like Ben Eager, Theo Peckham and Andy Sutton…

The Avalanche are the team I’d pick to fall off the most since they lost Jay McClemment who is secretly the best penalty-killer in the NHL and still haven’t come to terms with two-way force Ryan O’Reilly. The Avalanche still have under-rated workhorse Jan Hejda who will help cushion the blow but I can’t figure out who will be winning short-handed draws in the defensive zone for this team next season. If they don’t have O’Reilly on the roster to start the year, expect a serious fall from grace.

The Flames have Jay Bouwmeester and Curtis Glenncross and as long as that’s true they’ll be a solid penalty-killing unit. The Wild also could be interesting to watch as they’ve added Zach Parise – who was second in PK TOi among New Jersey Devils forwards a season ago – and Ryan Suter to a penalty-killing mix that already includes solid personnel like Kyle Brodziak, Tom Gilbert, Mikko Koivu and Daroll Powe. Honestly it wouldn’t surprise me if the Wild were the best short-handed unit in the Northwest next season, not that it’ll matter since they won’t score enough to make the postseason.

On the penalty kill the Canucks don’t have a very significant advantage over their Northwest rivals and that advantage might dry up entirely this season with the Wild on the upswing. But the Canucks will be solidly middle of the pack and certainly don’t have the issues that the Avalanche might be forced to deal with if they can’t get O’Reilly under contract.

GOALTENDING
Oh hey another table! This one will break down save percentage, cut up into even-strength, short-handed save percentage and overall. I’ve included only one goaltender for teams with a clear starter and two for those where the situation in between the pipes is in flux (like, maybe the Canucks you think?):

Team

Goalies

GS

EV SV%

SH SV%

Total SV%

Vancouver Luongo 54 0.929 0.87 0.919
  Schneider 28 0.931 0.959 0.937
Calgary Kipprusoff 68 0.928 0.883 0.921
Edmonton Dubnyk 42 0.927 0.854 0.914
  Khabibulin 40 0.913 0.899 0.910
Colorado Giguerre 30 0.923 0.854 0.913
  Varlamov 52 0.924 0.818 0.919
Minnesota Backstrom 45 0.931 0.864 0.919
  Harding 30 0.925 0.89 0.917

Now a quick disclaimer, save percentage is extraordinarily variable from year to year – which is why Mike Smith can be a cast off in Tampa on year, and a Vezina caliber series thief in Phoenix – so this is in no way predictive. But the point remains that the Canucks have probably the two best goaltenders in the division (though Kipprusoff and Backstrom might have a case for second). Goaltending covers up a lot of sins in the NHL, which will be doubly important in a lockout shortened 48 game season, and with a Luongo-Schneider one-two punch in goal – the Canucks might as well employ the pardoner.

Don’t sleep on Minnesota Wild goalie Nick Backstrom though – the capable Finn is entering a contract year and will have lots to play for. I’ll be interested to watch Kipprusoff and Giguerre battle father time for another year, but the aging curve tends not to be very kind to goaltenders. As for the Oilers, if Khabibulin gets anywhere near half of their starts the Canucks front office and the team’s fans should laugh heartily.

CONCLUSION
The Canucks are, with injuries to Booth and Kesler and no clear right-side defenseman to play in their top-four, more vulnerable than they’ve been in years. However, their advantages over the other Northwest Division teams remain significant. Vancouver arguably has the best goaltending, penalty-kill, power-play and even-strength team in the northwest and in some areas (even-strength play and goaltending in particular) it’s not really all that close.