After winning eight of their past 10 games, fans in Vancouver are starting to wonder whether the Canucks – led by new head coach Bruce Boudreau – can claw their way back into the playoff race. I think the answer is yes.

Let’s set aside some obvious points for a moment. The Canucks cap situation is ugly, and any roster additions will likely have to come through cost neutrality. The team’s best player, 23-year-old centre Elias Pettersson, is amid a hideous offensive slump. And even with a whipsaw of a rebound since bringing Boudreau into the fold, the Canucks are still well outside of the playoff race and playing in a much more competitive Pacific Division this time around.

But this year’s team, however painful it’s been to watch at times, is showing progress. Perhaps in a meaningful way.

If you have watched the Canucks from a glass-half-full approach, there are a few things to hang your hat on. The first is that this team is quite credible at even strength, the most important game state by far. This season, Vancouver ranks 15th in the league in goal differential there (+3), inside playoff-calibre range.

The goals break out accordingly:

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This is a critical takeaway, certainly if you are fond of the glass-half-full approach. A season ago, an embattled Montreal Canadiens team sprinting on the treadmill of mediocrity had shown one core competency heading into the postseason: defending the run of play at even strength and driving a favourable goal differential there despite heaps of roster and execution concerns.

From a personnel standpoint, this Canucks lineup feels night and day in comparison to last year’s Canadiens team – you don’t think of this lineup, one predominantly led by skill attackers up top, as a strong defensive group and weak in the offensive zone. But that’s what they are.

Boudreau and the new-look Canucks coaching staff are trying to break that down. But compare this Canucks lineup, which hasn’t changed much from their All-Canadian division look a year ago, and you can see that the results are materially different:

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Last year’s Canucks team was a mess, finishing -37 goals in 56 games and generally being outplayed by the rest of the Canadian clubs.

The only area that graded relatively well, amusingly enough, was the team’s penalty kill, where Braden Holtby and Thatcher Demko stopped 87 per cent of the shots faced despite Vancouver finishing 26th in expected goals conceded there. Said another way: the goaltending was bailing the Canucks out more than the raw goals against numbers indicate.

This season, the penalty kill is still giving up a ton of room and opportunity to their opponents, grading dead last in expected goals faced. Demko (82 per cent stop rate) hasn’t been able to marginalize that pressure in any way, and so the Canucks have been buried in the standings in large part because of how futile the penalty kill has been.

And yet! I come back to that even strength defensive grade this season, where the Canucks have conceded fewer goals than all but two teams in the NHL. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, and although it’s somewhat goaltender-driven, the Canucks are still a respectable 15th in expected goals conceded this year. That’s tremendous year-over-year progress, and theoretically would mean more upside to a beleaguered penalty kill that hasn’t slowed down anyone this season.

Just look at where Canucks opponents are getting shots from in the offensive zone. It’s not particularly threatening, despite obvious roster limitations on the blueline (via HockeyViz):

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I’m still unsure if the Canucks can finish off this mid-season rally and chase down a playoff spot – if not because they piled up so many losses early on, then for the fact that they are playing in a division where at least three teams (Vegas, Calgary, Edmonton) appear stronger on merit, and the three California teams have all improved year-over-year.

But the Canucks are building a credible defence under the radar. And armed with one of the better coaches in NHL history, counting them out seems quite premature.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey, HockeyViz