Vancouver Canucks: Analyzing the team’s dependence on goaltending

VANCOUVER, BC - DECEMBER 19: Nicolas Deslauriers
VANCOUVER, BC - DECEMBER 19: Nicolas Deslauriers /

The Vancouver Canucks have had highs and lows this season. Their potential success this season was highly dependent on their goaltending tandem. We will take a look at how the quality of goaltending has affected the team’s progress.

No one (including myself) expected much from this season’s iteration of the Vancouver Canucks. The team had superficial forward depth, putting pressure on the younger players. Fortunately, the youth movement paid immediate dividends with Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi leading the charge.

Most importantly, any hopes of the playoffs would require incredible goaltending from both Jacob Markstrom and Anders Nilsson. The pair of Swedish netminders wanted to establish themselves as legitimate starters in this league.

The early run of games to start the season put the Canucks on Cloud Nine. Despite it being November, the excitement for the possibility of playoff took this fanbase by storm. There were conversations about sustainable play over the remaining 67 games of the season. However, many dismissed this as negative conjecture because we could cheer for something.

Well, it is December and this playoff-bound team has hit a rash of injuries and has plummeted to 25th in the league. What’s the old saying about counting chickens before they hatch? Before we start using the injuries excuse for the third year in a row, let’s consider something.

J.D. Burke notes the Canucks have had a significant impact due to injuries. However, I think this is a larger reflection of a shallow team that depends too much on one line and goaltenders to win games. You need secondary scoring to survive an 82 game grind. Your team defence can’t be porous. Goaltending does not have to be perfect, but teams relying on this too much are usually unable to sustain their success.

The first fifteen

Like I mentioned earlier, those first 15 games  were somewhat magical. The Vancouver Canucks were 8-5-2 and looked like a threat for a playoff spot. Nilsson had a pair of shutouts in only four starts and Markstrom was 5-4-2.

At the time of writing my first article about the Canucks netminders, Nilsson was overperforming (the shutouts tend to do that) and Markstrom was underperforming. Both goalies were expected to produce save percentages at around .930 at 5-on-5. When those numbers evened out, the Canucks would have the second best goaltending in the NHL based on this metric on Corsica.

Things were great in the land of the Canucks. Boeser looked like a superstar in the making and against all odds, the Canucks were getting the goaltending that they needed. There were many forwards on the team with high shooting percentages, including the Killer B line.

Related Story: Debating the number one goaltender

Corsica also showed high PDO values for this line, indicating favorable shooting percentages as well as goaltending when they were on the ice. In other words, a little luck was on their side. As good as the counting stats were, the line’s CF% was under 50, meaning the the line they were matched with produced more shots than the Killer B’s.

When I use these stats to describe what is happening, I am not saying that the Killer B’s are bad players. Far from it.

But, you need to understand that the line was eventually due for a regression, especially since at times they were the only source of the team’s offence. It’s really a reflection of the lack of support from some veterans who were suppose to insulate these young players.

The next twenty

A season can change directions very quickly. I know that almost everyone reading this and your first instinct will be to blame injuries. I’ll indulge you. Let’s look at the Canucks before Bo Horvat’s injury on December 5th.

Since that 15th game on November 7th, the Canucks went 6-5-2. That stretched included the wretched road trip through California, including the 4-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks and 5-2 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights.

Why isolate these two games? Anaheim faced a healthy Canucks lineup missing their top two centres, best defencemen and several role players in their bottom six. Several AHL players were in that lineup and had no issue putting up 35 shots. Markstrom had a sub-.900 save percentage, but only had 20 shots on goal.

The Golden Knights had their fourth-string goaltender embarrass the Canucks at home where the team only had 21 shots on goal. These two games should have opened your eyes regarding how fragile this team becomes when they get average to below average goaltending.

More from The Canuck Way

Let’s get to the meat of this downfall. In the 20 games since the magical 15 to start the season, the Canucks have won SEVEN games. Yes, they have gone 7-11-2 since November 7th.

Markstrom has only had three games with a save percentage over .900 in his last 12 starts. During these recent thrashings, he has had a sub-.800 save percentage in two of his last three.

Nilsson has fared a little better with only four sub-.900 starts since November 7th. He still kept his save percentage above .800 in that 7-2 beating on Tuesday.

Lastly, I want to compare each goaltender’s actual and expected even strength save percentages (Sv% vs xSv%, respectively). Corsica shows Nilsson has a Sv% of .920 and a xSv% of .920. Looks like he is right on the money!

Markstrom has a Sv% of .924 and a xSv% of .923, putting him right on the money as well. Both goaltenders have had their season totals normalize to this point. I want to stress that Markstrom has played 500 more minutes than Nilsson.

The root of their problems

The Canucks are struggling for many reasons. Injuries are a factor, but its lazy to blame their recent play on injuries. They can’t produce at even strength and consistency is a factor in terms of generating shot attempts. Oddly enough, the power play has been one of the few bright spots of this season, which is been different from what we are accustomed to.

Our goaltending is lacking consistency and that is extremely obvious with Jacob Markstrom. This is why neither goaltender has firmly established themselves as a true number one. There is a good amount of luck when it comes to goaltending and it is not a recipe for success to count on them to bail you out when you give a sloppy effort.

I wouldn’t blame Nilsson for most of those goals on Tuesday because one forward line in particular let him down. The Sedin line was terrible, leaving Nilsson out to dry on multiple goals. Our defence have not been good and the team in its entirety have been terrible.

Are the Canucks really this bad that we should expect them to get run out of the building each night? No. However, what you are seeing now is the reality of relying too much on goaltending to win. The injuries have exacerbated the problem, but this team is not as good as those first 15 games showed.

The Canucks are going to be in a huge hole by the time Horvat and Baertschi return. Brandon Sutter might soften the damage, but don’t expect the Canucks to outgun their opponents. You won’t see five goals scored every game.

Look at the NHL stats page. The Vancouver Canucks are 28th in goals per game and due to this horrendous stretch of games, they have surrendered the 5th most goals in the NHL. They are 28th in shots generated per game and it appears the rest of the league have figured out how to exploit Travis Green’s system.

Adjust your expectations

There is an expectation for goaltending and if Nilsson and Markstrom have an even strength percentage of around .930, then they are fine. I can understand the concern because both goalies have absolute save percentages that are barely over .900. You can’t, in good faith, put the blame squarely on their shoulders (even if you reach up that high).

It’s time for the Canucks to look in the mirror and fix the problems with their total team defence, especially on the penalty kill. It is costing them games and putting them down early. The rest of this team needs to start committing to boring hockey. They can’t generate chances efficiently, but the hope is to minimize the attempts against.

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I would say brace yourselves. This season could get very ugly by the time February rolls around.  Luck is a funny thing. It always seems like the Canucks never get any form of it during the season. Well, if goaltending is going to be their recipe for success, they are going to need a lot of bounces going their way to keep their heads above water.