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Shaping Up the Wild Card Playoff Race in the West

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Seven teams are within five points of each other. How do the Vancouver Canucks line up to the competition?

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NHL: Minnesota Wild at Vancouver Canucks
Will the Wild make the playoffs once again, or can the Canucks surprise and snag a spot?
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

There probably aren’t many Canucks fans who recall the Minnesota Wild’s “playoff push” in 2015-16.

2015-16 nhl playoff race
The playoff race from 2015-16, where the Minnesota Wild needed only 87 points to make the playoffs.
nhl.com

Yeah, that was a brutal season for the Canucks and the rest of Western Canada. What’s notable about that season, however, was the abnormally low number of points needed to make the playoffs.

It took only 87 points for the Minnesota Wild to lock up the last Wild Card spot that season. The Wild locked up the second Wild Card spot the year before, but it took 99 points to get them the last playoff spot in the West.

What’s eerily similar between that season and the 2018-19 campaign is not only the overcrowded Wild Card race, but the fact that the top five teams in the West are heads above the rest.

In 2015-16, Dallas, St. Louis, Chicago, Anaheim and Los Angeles that finished above 100 points (although it was the 98-point San Jose Sharks who made the finals). This season, there’s a even bigger gap between the top five teams in the West and the rest.

As of writing, Winnipeg, Nashville, Calgary, San Jose and Vegas all have 60 points or more. The next best teams in the Conference are the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche, who are tied with 50 points.

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Vancouver Canucks
If Pettersson, Horvat and Boeser are healthy (sorry Goldy), could that be enough to push the Canucks into the playoffs?
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

It all shapes up for an intriguing race towards the playoffs. Seven teams are within five points of each other. Those seven teams (Dallas, Colorado, Minnesota, St. Louis, Anaheim, Edmonton and Vancouver) will be fighting for three playoff spots (One Central Seed, Two Wild Cards), but who stands above the rest?

In Vancouver, there are murmurs about a playoff push for the first time in a long time. If Pettersson, Horvat and Boeser stay healthy, it feels like this year’s team is too good to bottom out, but can they actually contend for a playoff spot?

Let’s take a look at the seven teams in question to see who has the postseason advantage?

Standings

It wasn’t too long ago that Colorado was leading this by the length of a Nikita Tryamkin stick, but their recent losing streak has brought them down to the Wild Card race. Nonetheless, they still lead the pack here in points percentage.

The one outlier here looks like the Anaheim Ducks. While every other team has at least 20 ROW’s, Anaheim only has 16. All year they’ve miraculously stayed in the playoff picture despite an anemic offence, but that seems to finally be catching up to them. At the moment, the Ducks have lost 12 straight games.

Following stats are score-adjusted, even strength totals unless otherwise specified, courtesy of Evolving Wild and Natural Stat Trick.

Possession

wild card possession stats
Despite scoring more goals this season, the Canucks haven’t really improved in the possession department at even-strength.

This doesn’t bode well for the Canucks. Even though they are scoring more this season, their scoring chance differential is similar to previous years. In fact, their 44.25% scoring chance differential is currently worst in the NHL.

Anaheim is right behind Vancouver in the race for scoring chance futility. Even though their defence was supposed to be a strength, it looks like their lack of offence is leading to more chances on John Gibson. That, or the defence just isn’t as good as it’s made out to be.

This chart bodes well for the Central Division teams, especially the Minnesota Wild. They allow the least number of scoring chances at even-strength, and their scoring chance percentage is fifth overall in the league.

Even since Matt Dumba went down with injury, the Wild are still allowing just 22.06 scoring chances per 60, which is still best in the league.

Goals vs. Expected Goals

goals versus expected goals minnesota wild lead.
Once again, the Wild’s strong possession numbers elevate their expected goals total.

Even though the Minnesota Wild lead the pack in scoring chances against, they rank 17th in goals allowed. If you’re wondering why their expected goals for total and real goals for total don’t match, there’s your main culprit.

Goaltending has also played a factor in St. Louis, and you see now that the team has started winning some games with good netminding (hello, uh, Jordan Binnington?)

For the Canucks their success is carried ahead by a higher shooting percentage. Only Buffalo has a lower expected goals for total than the Canucks.

It does mean that the Canucks are capitalizing on their chances, but usually when we see this movie, things start to balance out. We saw that on the Canucks latest road trip, and even against Arizona, where they would often outshoot the opposition but still lose the game.

PDO

Ducks have highest PDO among wild card teams.
The Ducks win something! Highest PDO!

Here’s why John Gibson has been a Vezina nominee all season long. Even though the Ducks have the second-lowest shooting percentage among these teams (and register the second-least amount of chances), they still remain in the playoff hunt. However, even Gibson’s magic is wearing off. His save percentage since December 1st is only .902, and his record over that time is 5-7-4.

This shows you how much hot goaltending matters down the stretch. Bad goaltending has sunk the Blues, and it’s behind the Wild’s fall down the standings as well. For those in Vancouver holding out faint hope for the playoffs, you better hope that Markstrom keeps up his run. He’s now 10-3-1 with a .925 save percentage since Christmas.

Special Teams

special teams impact wild card teams.
Minnesota reigns supreme, Dallas is less average.

The Wild are the only team to rank top ten in both power play and penalty kill, making it seem like goaltending is really their only issue. They’re almost like the Western Conference version of Carolina. They create chances, do everything right, yet can’t score enough or make enough saves. Devan Dubnyk has been hot and cold, while Alex Stalock is still a replacement-level goaltender.

Colorado power play and penalty kill rankings are at opposite ends of the spectrum, which isn’t surprising. Their power play ranks sixth overall, but their penalty kill is 27th overall. Since December 1st, Colorado’s penalty kill is at a paltry 69.8% efficiency.

The Blues are another team that needs to turn their special teams play around. On the season it’s been adequate, but their power play and penalty kill are both bottom ten since December 1st.

Point Projections

projected points western conference wild card teams.
If you’re looking for a glimmer of hope in Vancouver and St. Louis, they do have some of the easiest schedules remaining, according to Power Rankings Guru.

These are how the point projections line up with three spots up for grabs. Although lots can change, Colorado seems like a good bet to lock down the final spot in the Central division. Their losing streak has really pushed them down the standings, but if they get back to their early-season form, they should be the front-runner to avoid a Wild Card playoff birth.

Borrowed point projection models from Hockey Viz and The Athletic don’t paint favourable pictures for the St. Louis Blues and Vancouver Canucks. However, if you’re looking for a glimmer of hope, look no further than the remaining schedules.

Both the Canucks and the Blues have the easiest schedules remaining among these seven teams battling for playoff spots, according to Power Rankings Guru. Their math also dictates that the Canucks have endured the second toughest schedule so far, which makes sense since the team has already gone on multiple, lengthy road trips.

The Verdict

With this being January, all seven teams still have a sliver of hope. Even the Arizona Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks have faint hope, although I believe they have too many flaws are are too far out of the picture to make an impact at this point.

If there’s one thing that’s clear from this exercise, it’s that the four Central Division teams in the hunt here have an upper-hand in most categories above Anaheim, Edmonton and Vancouver. There’s certainly a “what-if” scenario with each team, but all three Pacific Division teams will need their superstars to come through for them to have any chance.

Looking at you, McDavid, Pettersson and Gibson.

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Montreal Canadiens
Can Elias Pettersson push the Canucks to the playoffs in his rookie year?
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The safe bet here based on the numbers is that Colorado and Minnesota will lock up playoff spots. I’d also rule Anaheim out unless John Gibson can play at a .940 save percentage the rest of the way. They’re offence is non-existent, and it doesn’t help that they’re currently the league’s most injured team. That being said, they usually find a way to squeak in.

After that, it’s pretty wide open. Dallas should be a decent bet to make it, but they are a heavily flawed team. The same goes for Edmonton, Vancouver and St. Louis, but Dallas is the only team that rocks a bonafide number one centre, number one defenceman and number one goaltender. No offence to Jacob Markstrom or Jordan Binnington.

Who do you see making the playoffs? Do you think Elias Pettersson will carry the Canucks to the dance?

Poll

Do you think the Canucks will squeak into the playoffs?

This poll is closed

  • 41%
    Yes, believe in EP baby
    (23 votes)
  • 58%
    No, too many flaws on the roster
    (32 votes)
55 votes total Vote Now