The most cynical of sports fans are just up front with this — they know that inevitably their team isn’t going to win. All this work, all this effort, in the end it will be for naught.
The more upbeat fan responds, “Just enjoy the ride, man.”
They are both right, of course.
The cynic knows the truth — that nothing lasts forever, that winning a championship, let alone a round, is incredibly hard.
But what’s the fun in focusing on what is likely, versus where you’re at?
As many Canucks fans know by now, their favourite team is scoring at far outside the modern norm. They’ve scored on 12.3 per cent of the five-on-five shots to date in the 2023-24 NHL season.
That is 2.5 percentage points or so above what you would reasonably expect from a league-leading offence. In 2022-23 for instance, the Boston Bruins scored on “just” 9.7 per cent of their five-on-five shots.
That was actually second behind the Seattle Kraken, who scored on more than 10 per cent of their shots, a wild outlier in itself. Coming into this season, only eight teams since the NHL first started tracking five-on-five shots have scored on more than 10 per cent of their attempts.
No team has breached 11 per cent.
This is a high-scoring season overall. The Canucks are one of five teams who are above 10 per cent — though it should be noted the second-placed Detroit Red Wings have scored on 10.7 per cent of their five-on-five shots, still well back of the Canucks.
Here’s a wild stat: There are just a handful of teams over the past two decades that have had a combined shooting percentage and save percentage as outlandish as the Canucks’ currently is as they approached 40 games played on the season.
It is well-understood that when teams’ combined percentages, known as PDO, move away from 1000, whether positively or negatively, those figures will snap back toward the mean.
Good teams are able to keep themselves slightly above 1000, bad teams will bob along just below, but no one maintains a record like the Canucks currently do: The Canucks’ PDO currently sits at 1050, the highest combined save percentage and shooting percentage of any NHL team in 15 years after 38 games.
There are five teams that are close, and some of them were really quite good: The 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins, the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators, the 2008-09 and 2011-12 Boston Bruins, and the 2016-17 Columbus Blue Jackets.
But between these high-powered teams, there are just four playoff series wins. The ’96 Penguins won their first two rounds, then lost in the Eastern Conference final to the red-hot Florida Panthers. The ’06 Sens had the most points in the Eastern Conference and knocked off the eighth-placed Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. But in the second round they lost 4-1 to the Buffalo Sabres, who only had three fewer points in the regular season. And the ’09 Bruins were the best team in the Eastern Conference. They swept the Habs in the first round, but then lost a tight seven-game series to Jim Rutherford’s Carolina Hurricanes, who won two games in overtime, including Game 7 of the series.
A notable thing about all five previous teams: Their combined shooting percentage and save percentage decreased as the season continued, but still remained well above average as the playoffs commenced.
This isn’t to say the Canucks will crash and burn, but they will hit some bumps in the road. Their current success will surely wobble at some point.
What you don’t need to know about PDO is that the team that wins the Stanley Cup usually isn’t the best during the regular season in the NHL, and usually they are not even the best team in their conference. The last two champions, the Vegas Golden Knights (2023 champions) and Colorado Avalanche (2022 champions), were both the best team in the Western Conference, but neither finished the season first overall across the entire league.
The Avalanche were the first team to win the Stanley Cup and finish first in their conference since the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks.
If the Canucks had a league-average offence at five-on-five — the average shooting percentage is 8.7 per cent — they would have just 68 goals, 26 fewer than the league-leading 94 they have actually scored.
They would be down to a plus-20 goal differential, still good for eighth in the NHL.
The Canucks have won 18 games by two or more goals, so some of their decline in goals would likely be absorbed by some of these games.
Still, considering how much closer to the average the Canucks could be helps us understand who they are now.
In the early stages of the season, the Canucks racked up a pile of wins against the NHL’s weakest teams. But beating teams near the top end of the league standings was a struggle.
Lately, though, that’s been a different story. The Canucks continue to knock off the league’s lesser lights, but they have been doing better when they’ve faced teams in the top half of the league.
In December alone, they recored wins against the Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers, plus pushed the Dallas Stars to overtime.
Over the season, they have taken 56.7 per cent of the points available in games against teams in the top-16 of the league, good for seventh-most in the NHL.
Against the league’s bottom feeders, the Canucks have the league’s second-best points percentage — 78.6 per cent — behind only the Los Angeles Kings.
The Canucks’ coming road trip will test their mettle against the league’s top teams even further, as they’ll face the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers and New York Islanders, all teams in the top half of the league. The Canucks lost home games against New Jersey — a wild 6-5 loss a month ago — and the Rangers — a 4-3 loss in overtime in late October but beat the Islanders in November.