The Oilers picked up their first defeat of the season Wednesday with a 5-3 score for the Philadelphia Flyers. The following night, the Vancouver Canucks were also dropped by the Flyers.
Edmonton and Vancouver are set to play at Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday, with both teams seeking to avoid going on a losing streak in two games. Here are your game notes.
1. This will be the second meeting between the Oilers and Canucks this season. Edmonton opened the season with a win over Vancouver on Oct. 13, taking a 2-0 lead, blasting it in the third period and eventually winning the shootout.
The Oilers won the season series with Vancouver last season, beating them six times in 10 meetings. The season series was in a way split into two halves given Vancouver’s month-long battle with a COVID outbreak. They played five times before the outburst, where Edmonton won three of the meetings, and then they played five more times in May, again with the Oilers winning three times.
2. The Canucks entered the 2021 season with not only legitimate playoff hopes, but the goal of winning a series and potentially being the team that came out of Canada.
In 2020, when the NHL season was put on hiatus due to the pandemic, the Oilers were number two in the Pacific Division with 83 points. The Calgary Flames were in third place with 79 points and the Canucks in fourth place with 78 points, but they had two games left on the Oilers.
It’s impossible to say what would have happened if the season had gone as usual, but in the end, Vancouver ended up making 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 advanced to the second round where they lost to the Golden Knights in seven games.
3. The hope for Vancouver was that their playoff run in 2020 was only the beginning of their competitive window opening. That has not been the case.
The Canucks were a mess in the all-Canadian division in 2021 when they finished dead last with a record of 23-29-4. Part of the terrible result can be shot on the team’s match with COVID, as 25 different players tested positive for the Canucks over the course of a month, but the Canucks were not really in the mix, even before their outburst.
Vancouver started the 2021 season with a win over the Oilers and then promptly dropped five of their next six games. The closest they came to being competitive was a three-game winning streak in March that brought them to 16-16-2, but then they went on to lose three games in a row immediately after.
4. General manager Jim Benning’s response to Vancouver’s disappointing season went all-in, not surprisingly, as his job is likely to depend on the Canucks reaching the playoffs this season.
He swapped a first- and a second-round pick for the Arizona Coyotes for Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland and managed to throw a trio of problematic contracts (Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle) in the process. Benning also bought the final year of Braden Holtby’s contract and replaced him with veteran backup Jaroslav Halak, signing Tucker Poolman and Luke Schenn to add some muscle to the team’s blue line.
5. How has it gone so far? Not good!
The Canucks are 3-4-1 so far and they have dropped games to the Buffalo Sabers and Detroit Red Wings, a pair of teams expected to end the season in the basement in the league standings. Vancouver started their season on a six-game road trip and have lost both of their games since returning home.
It’s a mediocre record at first, but it’s actually the Canucks overperformers given their underlying numbers.
6. Vancouver’s 45.92 percent expected goal, based on shot volume and quality at steady strength, ranks 26th in the NHL. Offensively, they are in 25th place in relation to expected goals, and defensively, they are 22nd in relation to expected goals against.
Jumping up to a 22nd place relative to expected goals against is actually an improvement over last year when the Canucks lay 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 team compared to expected goals for last year and they were without their best weapon, Elias Pettersson, for more than half of the season.
So all in all, based on the underlying numbers, the Canucks are not doing very well. Their defense, the area of the team that Benning paid so high a price to improve over the summer, has gotten better from being very bad to just bad, and their offensive has been worse than expected.
7. Things could have been a lot worse for Vancouver early on, but their goalkeeping has really kept them afloat.
Thatcher Demko, who put together a breakout season in 2021 and earned the starter net, has been excellent. Through six starts, he has a .921 save percentage, a slight improvement over the .915 save percentage hs posted last year.
Jaroslav Halak, who was brought in as a replacement for Braden Holtby, has also been very good and stopped 44 of the 48 shots he has encountered during two starts. For the sake of comparison, Holtby posted a .889 save percentage in 21 games with the Canucks last year.
8. If the Canucks are to do anything this year, they need their goalkeeping team to stay very solid and they need to use their offensive line to start rolling.
Conor Garland and JT Miller both have eight points in eight games, and Bo Horvat has scored four goals so far, but a couple of Vancouver’s best strikers have not produced. Brock Boeser has only one goal in five games, and Elias Pettersson has only four points in eight games.
Pettersson was injured in early March and ended up missing the rest of the season due to a hyper-extended wrist. He said back in August that he felt 100 percent and that he would be good to go at the start of the season, but he has struggled early. Pettersson’s expected percentage goal is the penultimate on the team among strikers, ahead of only Alex Chiasson.
Vancouver’s attack will remain mediocre until Pettersson finds his game.