The Oilers picked up their first loss of the season on Wednesday by a score of 5-3 to the Philadelphia Flyers. The following night, the Vancouver Canucks also got dropped by the Flyers.
Edmonton and Vancouver will play on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday with both teams looking to avoid going on a two-game losing streak. Here are your game notes.
1. This will be the second meeting between the Oilers and the Canucks this season. Edmonton opened up the season with a win over Vancouver on Oct. 13 in which they grabbed a 2-0 lead, blew it in the third period, and then eventually won in the shootout.
The Oilers won the season series with Vancouver last season, beating them six times over the course of 10 meetings. The season series was sort of split into two halves given Vancouver’s month-long battle with a COVID outbreak. They played five times before the outbreak, with Edmonton winning three of the meetings, and then they played five more times in May, again with the Oilers winning three times.
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2. The Canucks came into the 2021 season with not only legitimate playoff aspirations, but the goal of winning a series and potentially being the team that came out of Canada.
In 2020 when the NHL season was paused due to the pandemic, the Oilers were second in the Pacific Division with 83 points. The Calgary Flames were in third with 79 points and the Canucks were in fourth with 78 points but they had two games in hand on the Oilers.
It’s impossible to say what would have happened if the season had gone on as normal, but, ultimately, Vancouver wound up doing the best of any Canadian team in the playoff bubble that summer. Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Toronto lost their play-in-round series, Calgary and Montreal won their play-in-series and then lost in the first round, and Vancouver made it to the second round, where they lost to the Golden Knights in seven games.
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3. The hope for Vancouver was that their playoff run in 2020 was just the beginning of their competitive window opening. That hasn’t been the case.
The Canucks were a mess in the All-Canadian Division in 2021, as they finished dead last with a 23-29-4 record. Part of that awful result can be blamed on the team’s battle with COVID, as 25 different players tested positive for the Canucks over the course of a month, but the Canucks weren’t really in the mix even before their outbreak.
Vancouver started the 2021 season with a win against the Oilers and then promptly dropped five of their next six games. The closest they got to being competitive was a three-game winning streak in March that brought them to 16-16-2, but then they went ahead and dropped three games in a row immediately after.
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4. General manager Jim Benning’s response to Vancouver’s disappointing season was going all-in, unsurprising given his job likely hinges on the Canucks making the playoffs this season.
He traded a first- and a second-round pick to the Arizona Coyotes for Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland and managed to shed a trio of problematic contracts (Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel, and Jay Beagle) in the process. Benning also bought out the final year of Braden Holtby’s contract and replaced him with veteran backup Jaroslav Halak and signed Tucker Poolman and Luke Schenn to add some muscle to the team’s blueline.
5. How has it gone so far? Not great!
The Canucks are 3-4-1 so far and they’ve dropped games to the Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings, a pair of teams that are projected to finish the season in the basement of the league’s standings. Vancouver started their season on a six-game road trip and have lost both of their games since returning home.
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That’s a mediocre record in the first place, but the Canucks are actually overachieving given their underlying numbers.
6. Vancouver’s 45.92 expected goals for percentage, based on shot volume and quality at even strength, ranks 26th in the NHL. Offensively, they rank 25th in terms of expected goals, and, defensively, they rank 22nd in terms of expected goals against.
Jumping up to 22nd in terms of expected goals against is actually an improvement over last year, as the Canucks ranked dead last in the league in the category in 2021. The fact that the Canucks rank so poorly offensively is the surprise here. Vancouver was a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of expected goals for last year and they were without their top weapon, Elias Pettersson, for more than half of the season.
So, all told, based on the underlying numbers, the Canucks aren’t doing much well. Their defence, the area of the team that Benning paid such a high price to improve over the summer, has improved from being very bad to just bad, and their offence has been worse than expected.
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7. Things could be much worse for Vancouver early on but their goaltending has really kept them above water.
Thatcher Demko, who put together a breakout season in 2021 and earned the starter’s net, has been excellent. Through six starts, he has a .921 save percentage, a slight improvement on the .915 save percentage hs posted last year.
Jaroslav Halak, who was brought in to replace Braden Holtby, has also been very good, stopping 44 of the 48 shots he’s faced over the course of two starts. For the sake of comparison, Holtby posted an .889 save percentage in 21 games with the Canucks last year.
8. If the Canucks are going to do anything this year, they’ll need for their goaltending to remain very solid and they’ll need their offence to start rolling.
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Conor Garland and J.T. Miller both have eight points in eight games and Bo Horvat has scored four goals thus far, but a few of Vancouver’s top forwards haven’t been producing. Brock Boeser has just one goal in five games and Elias Pettersson has just four points in eight games.
Pettersson got injured in early March and ended up missing the rest of the season due to a hyperextended wrist. He said back in August that he was feeling 100 per cent and that he would be good to go at the start of the season, but he’s struggled early on. Pettersson’s expected goals for percentage is second-last on the team among forwards, ahead of only Alex Chiasson.
Vancouver’s offence will remain mediocre until Pettersson finds his game.