Vancouver Canucks: What It Takes to Make the Playoffs — by the Numbers

Apr 25, 2015; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames left wing Brandon Bollig (25) during the warmup period in game six of the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Vancouver Canucks at Scotiabank Saddledome. Calgary Flames won 7-4. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 25, 2015; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames left wing Brandon Bollig (25) during the warmup period in game six of the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Vancouver Canucks at Scotiabank Saddledome. Calgary Flames won 7-4. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports /

In 2015-16, the Vancouver Canucks were far from reaching the playoffs. But yet, they want to try again.

Making accurate predictions isn’t easy. Not in the NHL, not elsewhere in hockey, not in real life. The analytics communities in all major sports have taken the first steps, but we are still far from being able to predict, for example, next year’s playoff participants.

Just after the 50-game mark in the 2015-16 season, Sportsnet’s Stephen Burtch published a piece projecting the regular-season finish. He used a model that combined the best tools we currently have, but failed to make an accurate prediction for this year’s playoff teams — even though over 50 games had been played already.

In the Pacific Division, Burtch predicted the Calgary Flames to finish second, with the Edmonton Oilers in fourth and the Anaheim Ducks in fifth. We now know that didn’t happen. Of course, that is in no way Burtch’s fault — who could have predicted the Ducks’ outstanding finish? Still, it shows us that, at this point, there is simply no way to accurately project how a season is about to go.

So, instead of trying to predict where the Vancouver Canucks will finish the upcoming season, I wanted to focus on what they theoretically have to do to get into the playoffs. Using the simplest numbers out there.

To win games, teams have to score more goals than they surrender. It’s that simple.

So, I took a look at all teams’ goal numbers over the past three seasons (post-realignment) and what it took, on average, to get in. Then, I went back to look at the Canucks’ goal totals last season to see how far away they really were from the playoffs, and what it will take to get there this time around.


Over the past three seasons, the average NHL playoff team scored 235.875 goals and surrendered an average of 208.375 for an average goal differential of 27.5. Since teams cannot score fractions of goals, let’s make that a total of 236 goals for, 208 goals against, and a differential of 28.

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The most goals a playoff team has ever scored in that time was 267, recorded by the 2013-14 Chicago Blackhawks. The lowest-scoring playoff team since 2013 was the Los Angeles Kings with 206 goals for. Los Angeles went on to win the Stanley Cup that season, after beating Chicago in the Conference Finals.

The main reason why Los Angeles was so successful while scoring far fewer goals than all other teams was of course their defense — and goaltender Jonathan Quick. In 2013-14, the Kings were not only the team with the fewest goals scored, but also that with the fewest goals against, at 174.

You don’t just win by scoring the most goals. You win by scoring more goals than your opponents.

The 2013-14 season also set a third record — the best goal differential. With only six fewer goals scored than Chicago and just three more goals against than Los Angeles, the Boston Bruins had a goal differential of 84.

As a little motivation for us Canucks fans, the 2015-16 Detroit Red Wings got into the playoffs with a minus-13 goal differential. The Atlantic Division was also the weakest in the league, but the Pacific isn’t much stronger.

Pacific Division

Still, we obviously don’t have to focus on what it takes to get into the playoffs for an Atlantic Division team. Far more interesting is what a team needs to do to win a divisional playoff spot in the Canucks’ Pacific Division.

On average, Pacific Division playoff teams score 236 goals. That is, as you might have noticed, exactly league average as well. The highest goal total of the past three years was recorded by the 2013-14 Anaheim Ducks, while the lowest goal total was recorded by the aforementioned 2013-14 LA Kings.

The Anaheim Ducks are interestingly also the team that recorded the most goals against in a single season by a Pacific Division playoff team. In 2014-15, one year after their goals-for record, the Ducks won the division despite surrendering 226 goals. That total, along with an exactly average goals-for total of 236, led to the worst goal differential (10) a Pacific team had in the past three years.

But even that is probably not what the Vancouver Canucks should be aiming for.

Western Conference Wild-Card Spots

If we assume the Canucks really have a chance to make the playoffs this season, the most likely scenario is a wild-card spot. The California teams are better on paper and the Edmonton Oilers have Connor McDavid, which could leave the Canucks competing for fifth in the division. Unfortunately, they also have to battle the Central Division for a wild-card spot, which doesn’t exactly make things easier.

Now, let’s start with something positive. While the NHL and Pacific Division both have an average of 236 goals for, no Western Conference wild-card team has ever scored more than 235. The average for wild-card teams is 224.5 — or 225 in full goals — which almost seems doable. In 2013-14, the Minnesota Wild got in with just 207 goals, which definitely sounds possible, even for the Canucks.

That year, the Wild also had the worst goal differential a Western Conference wild-card team ever had. With 206 goals against, they came to a differential of plus-one. Without trying to defend anyone on the Canucks, a goal differential of plus-one is probably what Vancouver should aim for.

Vancouver Canucks

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However, we mustn’t forget that Vancouver had the second-fewest goals in the entire NHL last season. They only scored 191 times, which is 45 goals below league and Pacific Division average, and 15 below the fewest a playoff team has ever had. So, hypothetically, the Canucks will need to score 15 more goals next season at the very least. That is, if they have a defense and goalie tandem that don’t give up more than 205 goals.

Last season, however, the Canucks also ranked 24th in goals against. They were scored on 243 times, which resulted in a minus-52 goal differential — league-worst. Even the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers had a better goal differential. Just let that sit for a second.

So, the Canucks were 15 goals away from the worst goals-against total a Western Conference wild-card team ever had. But, if they finished the upcoming season with 228 goals against, that would obviously mean they would have to get to at least 229 goals for to move up to a plus-one goal differential.


Scoring 15 more or getting 15 fewer against doesn’t sound that bad. But what we really need to look at is the minus-52 goal differential. If the Canucks want to make the playoffs, they will have to lift that up by at least 53. That could be something like surrendering 30 fewer goals while scoring 23 more.

The Canucks signed a legitimate top-line scorer in Loui Eriksson and the young players like Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi are only getting better. Vancouver also added Anton Rodin, who will hopefully be able to chip in a goal or two as well. The power play could be better with the additions of Eriksson and Philip Larsen.

But is all that enough?

On defense, the Canucks basically substituted Erik Gudbranson for Dan Hamhuis and brought in Larsen. However, Larsen has yet to earn a roster spot and he isn’t famous for being a defensive juggernaut. Nothing really changed here, and the goalies remain the same as well.

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So how can they move away from 243 goals against?

The Vancouver Canucks had a busy offseason, making several moves in an attempt to improve the roster. They probably succeeded, but that doesn’t mean they are a legitimate playoff team now. Even considering last season’s injuries, improving by roughly 55 goals is a really, really tough task.

Numbers cannot predict where the Canucks are headed, but they sure can show how far away they are from the playoffs.