Two of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season have to be the Vancouver Canucks and New York Islanders. When the season began, nobody had any realistic expectations for these two except for them to lose and probably lose a lot.
So far, the opposite has been happening.
The Canucks, 7-6 overtime winners against Colorado on Friday in a completely insane game, are now 9-6-0 through their first 15 games and are being powered by their two young standout forwards, Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.
It is a surprising start because over the previous three seasons no team in the NHL (Vegas excluded, having only played in one of those seasons) had won fewer games, they lost two of their top-scorers from a year ago to retirement, and outside of the promise of Pettersson, Boeser, and Bo Horvat didn’t really have much going for them.
The Islanders, meanwhile, lost their best player — John Tavares — in free agency, entered the year with several more top players in contract years, and spent the offseason stacking a roster that was already full of depth players on long-term contracts with even more depth players on long-term contracts. It made no sense, and honestly, still probably doesn’t.
After completing a home-and-home sweep of the Penguins this past week, they enter Saturday’s game against New Jersey tied for first place in the Metropolitan Division and riding a four-game winning streak.
The early results are great, and early results matter. A lot. If they are good, they can give you a big cushion for later in the season when you might hit a slump and fall back to the back a little bit. If they are bad, like the early slow starts by the Kings and Panthers (which we wrote about here), they can end your playoff chances remarkably early because the points are almost impossible to make up.
But for as important as the results are, the process behind the results is often times just as important — if not more important — when it comes to sustaining them over the duration of the season.
That is where we start to see some red flags with the Canucks and Islanders because there is a lot of evidence that these two teams may not be playing as well as their early results might indicate, and that unless something changes there they could each be a house of cards just waiting to fall over.
Heck, the Canucks have actually been outscored this season by four goals and are 22nd in the league when it comes to goals against per game. The fact they are 9-6-0 right now with those two numbers is nothing short of insane. And it’s not like the Canucks haven’t had decent starts in recent years. In 2015-16 they were 6-2-4 (a 110-point pace) after 12 games. They won four games in a row to start the 2016-17 season. A year ago they were 8-5-2 after 15 games (only one point off their current start). All of those starts resulted in finishes that had them near the bottom of the Pacific Division and Western Conference.
The Islanders, meanwhile, are currently being carried by incredible starts by their two goalies (Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss). If those two see any sort of a regression things could turn ugly for the Islanders very, very quickly.
Both of these teams have the same flaws when it comes to the way they are playing. They are both among the bottom-five teams in the league in terms of controlling shots and scoring chances, both sitting south of the 45 percent barrier when it comes to shot attempt share and scoring chance share. In other words, both teams are getting badly outshot and outchanced on a nightly basis.
There are a handful of teams in the league that are able to outperform their shot attempt numbers because they have difference-making high end talent or exceptional goaltending. Or both. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals the past two years come to mind. The Montreal Canadiens over the past few years had a season or two like that because Carey Price would be able to stand on his head and steal games. But most teams when they have that much of a territorial disadvantage tend to lose. A lot.
Since the start of the 2007-08 season there have been 18 teams that were below the 45 percent mark in terms of shot attempt differential and scoring chance differential on Nov. 3 (Saturday’s date). Of those 18 teams only five of them ended up making the playoffs that season. Only one of the six teams since the start of the 2011-12 season were able to do it.
Now, that is not entirely relevant to the situations the Islanders and Canucks are in because a lot of those teams managed to get off to terrible starts in the standings. The results were matching the way they playing. Things made sense.
But what about the teams that exceeded their early season shot and chance numbers and managed to actually win some games, collect points, and get off to decent starts?
Well, let’s take a look at them specifically.
There have been 10 teams since the start of 2007-08 that were under 45 percent in both shot attempts and scoring chance share through the first month of the season and managed to have a points percentage above .500 in those game.
Five of them went on to make the playoffs. Five of them collapsed, at times in spectacular fashion (looking at you, 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs).
Obviously a bit of a mixed bag in terms of season-long results and an ability to either maintain the early success, or improve upon the process.
It should go without saying that it is better to win these games early in the season even if you’re not playing all that well. The points matter, and they help and they can put your team in a good position. Think of it as a head start in a race. Especially if you are a team like the Canucks that is playing in a division as completely craptacular as the Pacific Division currently is because, honestly, who among that collection of mediocrity scares you?
But even with the early wins, and even with the brilliance of Elias Pettersson, the surprising play of Lehner and Greiss in New York, and the fact the Islanders have a sleeping giant of a superstar in Mathew Barzal that hasn’t really erupted yet this season, there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of these teams being able to maintain what they have already done. And recent history of teams in their position and playing the way they have does not paint a completely promising picture.
(Shot attempt, scoring chance data via Natural Stat Trick)