Play-In Preview #5: Vancouver vs. Minnesota
An Analytical Breakdown of the NHL's Play-In Round
(This preview has been updated to reflect training camp line combinations)
Talk about an improbable matchup. The Vancouver Canucks have missed the playoffs in four consecutive seasons, and back in October it would have been fair to predict that they would have kept that streak going. Even after a Hail-Mary trade of a 1st round pick for J.T. Miller and the supposedly “win-now” signing of Tyler Myers, the Canucks looked like a bubble team at best entering the year, and while they haven’t entirely blown away those expectations (a 92-point pace isn’t worth planning the parade over), they’re in a good position to take a first step here. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Wild have fired a GM and a coach in the past year, traded their best goal scorer, and have made no moves to improve the roster since the season began - and yet here they are. Despite their reputation as the quintessential “mild” team the Wild have been an analytical darling in the past few seasons, which has led to some speculation that they could make an unexpected run like the Hurricanes did in 2019. Does this group have it in them, or are they doomed to underperform for good?
In this piece I’ll go through the two teams’ play-driving, offensive, and defensive stats before comparing their respective forwards, defencemen, and goaltenders. For information on the stats used, refer to this explainer article or visit EvolvingHockey and MoneyPuck. You can also read my previous previews of EDM-CHI, PIT-MTL, NSH-AZ, and CAR-NYR
The Wild, as has frequently been the case in recent years, were one of the best playdriving teams in the NHL this season. They finished 4th in the league in expected goals for percentage, just outside of the top 5 in actual goals for percentage, and outplayed their opponent in 62% of their games. They were an above-average possession team in every single month of the season, and backed it up by actually outperforming their shot metrics in four out of six months. The Canucks were not nearly as strong in this department, finishing in the bottom half of the league across the board in each of those categories. The underlying numbers strongly favour Minnesota. Winner: Minnesota
When you think of the Minnesota Wild, is the first thing that comes to mind “dynamic scoring talent”? That might be a decent sign that their shooting and goalscoring numbers are due for some heavy regression. Out of the 15 forwards who played more than 10 games for the Wild, 11 of them shot over 10%, six over 14%. Don’t bet on that lasting. Considering that the team was only an above average scoring chance-generator in one month (March), and finished just outside the bottom five overall in that category, Minnesota is unlikely to keep racking up goals. It doesn’t help that their best sniper, Jason Zucker, is no longer on the team.
Conversely, the Canucks hovered around league-average in terms of expected goals, actual goals, and shooting performance, although their finishing fortunes varied wildly from month-to-month. Their powerplay was elite this year, featuring unsurprisingly strong performances from the team’s best players but also important contributions from guys like Adam Gaudette and Josh Leivo.
The Wild fare better in most offensive categories, but I just can’t ignore the unsustainability of their numbers. Maybe they won’t fully crash down to earth in a five game series, but it’s not a guarantee at all. Winner: Toss-Up
The Wild are an exceptional quality-chance suppressing team, finishing only behind the Boston Bruins in terms of suppressing expected goals against. The defend the blueline well and allow very few opportunities off the cycle which a strong matchup against the way the Canucks play offensively: as Mike Kelly of The Point notes, the Canucks create the bulk of their offence off the cycle, where they ranked first in the league. The only problem is their utterly incompetent goaltending, which ranked worst in the league in terms of save percentage above expected and dragged their actual goals against to around league-average. Minnesota didn’t get decent goaltending in any month, although it did improve a bit in 2020 when they started playing Devan Dubnyk less.
The Canucks are far less impressive, as their team defence is the main reason for their poor playdriving numbers. They ranked in the bottom half of the league across the board, struggling to suppress offence. SportLogiq data suggests that the Canucks are particularly weak at defending in transition, allowing plenty of chances and goals off the rush (not an area that the Wild are well-equipped to exploit, but nonetheless). Add in the fact that their goaltending was actually merely average overall this season and this is pretty cut and dry. Winner: Minnesota
These two teams’ forward groups are constructed in pretty much the opposite way. The Canucks are extremely top-heavy, driven almost entirely by an elite first line and weighed down by a sub-replacement bottom six. In contrast, the Wild are unexceptional at the top of the lineup but make up for it with far superior depth.
It’s hard to really express how instrumental Elias Pettersson is to the success of the Vancouver Canucks. He took a major step forward this year, finishing 2nd in the NHL in Wins Above Replacement. J.T. Miller was a perfect complement this season, and deadline acquisition fit in very nicely as well. The second line is more of an issue, especially because coach Travis Green has a tendency to feed them to the wolves, playing by far the toughest assignments. Despite decent goal and point totals (boosted heavily by empty nets), both Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson had horrific results this year, and the addition of Boeser probably isn’t enough to fully mitigate that. The bottom six is mostly a collection of borderline-replacement level players who play a brand of “defence” that just makes life harder for their goalie.
What the Wild lack in top-of-the-lineup flash they more than make up for in depth. Their top six is an odd patch-work made up of veterans like Eric Staal and Zach Parise, and young breakout players like leading scorer Kevin Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek. Alex Galchenyuk is a clear weak point at the 3rd line centre spot, but Marcus Foligno is so strong defensively that the third line should fare pretty well regardless. Finally, that fourth line ranks as the third-best in the play-in in terms of projected WAR.
This one is really tough. The Canucks have easily the better star power but they are incredibly shallow: when Elias Pettersson is on the ice, the Canucks score 63% of the goals and 55% of the expected goals. Without him, it’s 42% and 46%. The Wild have evident holes in their lineup, but superb depth that could dominate possession against Vancouver’s bottom six. Winner: Toss-Up
The Wild have an overwhelming advantage on the blueline. Their top pair, featuring should-be Norris contender Jared Spurgeon, ranks near the top of the league despite Ryan Suter’s precipitous decline; Quinn Hughes and Chris Tanev have slightly better defensive numbers combined, but Tanev’s total lack of offence makes this a pretty decisive win for Minnesota. The second pairs are closer because of Matt Dumba’s poor season, but the Wild have the benefit of the league’s top defensive defenceman to compensate for that. Finally, Carson Soucy and Brad Hunt had very strong results in a limited sample, which gives them the edge over all-defence no-offence Oscar Fantenberg and all-offence no-defence Tyler Myers. Winner: Minnesota
In the net, the Canucks have a crystal-clear advantage. Jacob Markstrom might be overrated by those who would give him total credit for his team’s playoff position, but he’s still a borderline top ten starting goalie by all public versus expectation models. This season he hovered around his expected performance almost all season long, with a tiny waver in December and January. By coincidence, Devan Dubnyk followed an almost identical trajectory, but with a significantly lower baseline. He was the league’s second-worst goalie here with by far the lowest save percentage above expectation among post-season qualifiers. His abysmal 5v5 performance squandered the Wild’s sparkling team defence, as it has for the past few seasons. His weakness against chances from the cycle (despite the infrequency with which Minnesotas allows them) will be something that the Canucks can readily exploit. Winner: Vancouver
These two teams match up very oddly against one another. The Canucks are a top-heavy team that cannot score or defend at 5v5 when the top line is off the ice. Almost their entire offence is built on the cycle, which the Wild are very good at defending but very poor at… uh… goaltending against. Their biggest weakness is defending the rush, an issue that their opponent is ill-equipped to exploit.. Minnesota is due for a colossal shooting percentage regression but it seems like a longshot to expected the save percentage to rise as well. As I’ve always said, goaltending is a crapshoot, and I’ve been very hesitant so far to consider it a decisive factor in one of these series as a result. But it’s a lot easier to be consistently bad than consistently good, and Devan Dubnyk has been the former. Prediction: Vancouver in 5.