Canucks rising to the top as other Canadian NHL teams flounder

Almost every Canadian NHL squad is falling short of expectations in some way, shape, or form — but not the Vancouver Canucks.

If you take a look at which NHL teams are falling short of expectations early in the NHL season, many of them have something in common: they call Canada home.

While not every team disappointing its fanbase thus far resides in the Great White North, many of the league's Canadian franchises have fallen on their faces early.

Only the San Jose Sharks have produced fewer points (1) than the Edmonton Oilers (5) this season, whose goaltending situation is so grim they waived Jack Campbell on Tuesday. The Calgary Flames are only two points ahead of Edmonton, and the second year of the Jonathan Huberdeau experience is looking a lot like the first as the team's offence sputters.

In the nation's capital, the Ottawa Senators are dealing with more than their share of drama thanks to the Shane Pinto suspension, the forfeited draft pick from the Evgenii Dadonov trade in 2021, and the departure of GM Pierre Dorion.

On the ice, the Senators have been an underwhelming bunch, going 4-6-0, pushing questions about D.J. Smith's job security to the forefront.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have been more average than disastrous, but they've only won half of their games and many of their offseason acquisitions have struggled to fit in as the Brad Treliving era gets underway.

You could argue that the Montreal Canadiens and Winnipeg Jets have been fine relative to expectations, but both teams have lost more than half of their appearances, plus significant injuries to Kirby Dach and Gabriel Vilardi have made it harder for each to evaluate what they have in-house.

It's not complete doom and gloom across the board, but it's hardly a stellar showing for the teams of a hockey-mad nation that hasn't seen a Stanley Cup win since 1993.

The notable exception to the trend of Canadian teams stumbling is the red-hot Vancouver Canucks.

The Vancouver Canucks have been on fire to start the season. (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Vancouver Canucks have been on fire to start the season. (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Vancouver is off to a 9-2-1 start, giving them the third-best record in the NHL. The Canucks haven't just won, they've posted a dominant goal differential, outscoring their opponents by a whopping 54-24 margin.

This team has scored more goals than any other unit in the league while just two clubs have dug the puck out of their net fewer times than the Canucks.

Those kind of results suggest that a Vancouver squad that's made the playoffs just once since 2014-15 is on the warpath, ready to produce a season for the ages.

Unfortunately for the Canucks — and anyone considering them Canada's best chance at a Stanley Cup win — there are some significant red flags to be found here. That might sound odd with the decisive wins Vancouver is piling up, but the underlying numbers suggest this team will encounter some speed bumps along the way.

That starts with goaltending. Although Thatcher Demko has been an above-average starter more often than not, the level he's currently playing at is unsustainable.

Prior to 2023-24, the 27-year-old had never posted a save percentage above .915 and his GSAA total from 168 games of work sat at +10.0. In nine games this season he's produced at +11.8 mark by the same metric. It's unfair to expect a goaltender who's never placed above seventh in Vezina Trophy voting to become the kind of monster Demko has been.

The Canucks haven't enabled Demko to thrive by playing incredible defence, either. They rank 19th in the NHL in shot suppression (31.3 shots against/game) and only three teams have conceded more high-danger chances than the 165 they've allowed.

Offensively, Vancouver seems to be benefitting from some excellent puck luck. The team is scoring on an absurd 15.4% of its shots. For a little context, the Oilers led the league at 11.8% last season, driven by a historic power play.

Vancouver's power play has been a good story early in the season converting at a 32.6% clip, and it's possible that unit could help drive offensive gains for the Canucks — particularly with the unit's quarterback Quinn Hughes in the midst of a stellar season.

Those shot and goal numbers are notable considering the 24-year-old has never topped eight goals in a season, and averaged just 1.97 shots per game in 2022-23.

Even if Hughes is truly finding a new level, and the power play keeps humming, the Canucks simply can't maintain the shooting percentage they're running now, which will slow the offence down to an extent.

In all likelihood, Vancouver is going to get squeezed on both ends by declining goaltending and better work between the pipes from their opponents.

That could put more of a spotlight on the fact this team doesn't drive play consistently in 5v5 situations:

Via Naturalstattrick.com
Via Naturalstattrick.com

Vancouver is the type of team capable of outperforming those numbers considering that Demko is a good starter — even if he can't keep his current pace up — and the team has solid finishers, headlined by current NHL points leader Elias Pettersson.

Despite those qualities, Vancouver won't be able to keep steamrolling teams unless it tightens up its game a bit and gets a little less reliant on Demko and the leakiness of opposing creases. A full quarter of the Canucks' games so far have come against Edmonton, after all.

That doesn't mean the Canucks aren't on the way to a successful season. Reaching 95 points would only take an 89-point pace from here on out. For a team with a 29-14-5 record in the Rick Tocchet era, that seems like an attainable level that would likely result in a playoff spot. Getting to 100 points certainly isn't out of the question, and with the Oilers floundering a top-three spot in the Pacific Division is well within reach.

Vancouver's hot start has put the team in an excellent position to reach the postseason and take a meaningful step forward as a franchise — but despite its early results, it might be a bit early to consider the team one of the NHL's best.