The Canucks are the NHL’s most surprising breakout team. Can it last?

The Vancouver Canucks are off to the best start to a season in their 53-year franchise history. Their 8-2-1 record has them sitting second in the Western Conference, behind only Vegas, and their plus-26 goal differential is tops across the NHL.

NHL stat leaderboards are overflowing with Canucks players. Elias Pettersson is tied with Jack Hughes for the league lead in points. Quinn Hughes has a four-point edge in points from a defenseman. Thatcher Demko leads goalies in wins and shutouts and has one of the best save percentages. Brock Boeser is tied for third in the league for goals. Filip Hronek is tied for third among defensemen in points. J.T. Miller is top 10 in points.

The Canucks are arguably the NHL’s most surprising breakout team. The vibes are immaculate. But a lot of fans are wondering: Is this hot start sustainable?

It’s become a talking point because some underlying metrics suggest Vancouver’s been really lucky.

Jack Fraser from EliteProspects (JFresh) posted a graphic showing every team’s goal differential compared to their expected goal differential (expected goal differential is calculated based on the quality of each team’s shots and scoring chances). The Canucks had the widest disparity, which implies they’ve had lots of fortuitous bounces.

PDO is another stat people are referencing, which is also a proxy for luck. PDO is the sum of a team’s five-on-five shooting percentage and save percentage. For example, if your team is scoring on 8 percent of its shots at five-on-five and your goalies are stopping 92 percent of shots (.920 save percentage), you’d add those up and have a PDO of 100.

Over a large sample, most teams’ PDO settles around 100. Last year, for example, 25 of the NHL’s 32 teams had a PDO between 99 to 101.5. If a team’s PDO is way higher than 100, it can be a sign that they’ve been quite lucky. If a team’s PDO is way lower than 100, it can be a sign that they’ve been really unlucky.

The Canucks’ PDO is being heavily discussed because it’s 108.7 through 11 games, which is not only tops in the NHL, but the highest through any team’s first 11 games since 2007-08. That massively spiked PDO is a result of Vancouver owning both the highest five-on-five shooting percentage and save percentage in the NHL right now.

Yes, these are meaningful indicators that Vancouver will cool off. But here’s why I’m not too worried about the team despite what these metrics say.

First, let’s look at the history of teams that got off to a hot start and had the benefit of an inflated PDO. We can look at what happened for these teams as useful references for Vancouver’s situation.

I started by searching for NHL teams since 2007-08 that had a .650 or better points percentage and a 104 PDO or higher in the first 11 games. Thirteen teams popped up, 12 of which made the playoffs. That’s deeply encouraging right off the bat.

But let’s drill down even deeper. Vancouver’s subpar control of expected goals has been identified as a red flag, hasn’t it? OK, then let’s look at teams like the Canucks that had a hot record and inflated PDO and ranked in the bottom third of the NHL for controlling five-on-five expected goals through their first 11 games.

This gives us five historical matches:

Canucks historical matches through 11 GP



NHL final standings




PDO in first 11 games


xGF% Rank in first 11 games


Flyers (2020-21)

19th in NHL




Predators (2019-20)

16th in NHL




Blackhawks (2016-17)

3rd in NHL




Capitals (2009-10)

1st in NHL




Avalanche (2009-10)

12th in NHL




Data courtesy Natural Stat Trick

The good news is that four of these five teams ended up making the playoffs. We even see the 2009-10 Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals and the 2016-17 Chicago Blackhawks who finished third in the NHL.

The bad news is that all four of the playoff teams lost in the first round. Washington was upset by Montreal, although it was consistently a top team in the years to come. Chicago was shockingly swept in four games and missed the playoffs the next two years. Nashville lost to the Arizona Coyotes (!) in the 2020 bubble play-in round. Colorado lost in six games to the San Jose Sharks and missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons.

What happens for the Canucks once the playoffs begin is a conversation for another day, though. Step one is simply making the cut, especially in this city where the fans are playoff-starved. Sure, this unbelievable start could be a mirage big picture, but history tells us they should make the playoffs this season.

Another positive that’s been overlooked is that the Canucks rank 11th in the NHL in controlling 52 percent of five-on-five shot attempts. Vancouver’s in a spot where, yes, expected goal models hate them, but if you simply look at shot volume, they’ve been an above-average even-strength team.

Which metric should we trust more?

The honest answer is it’s too early to know. These are the odd discrepancies that pop up when you overanalyze small sample sizes. These metrics will be much more useful in signalling a team’s actual quality once we’re 25-30 games in.

Another important point is that Vancouver’s PDO is exaggerated by three blowout wins (8-1 against the Edmonton Oilers, 5-0 against the St. Louis Blues, 10-1 against the Sharks). If you ignored those three games, the Canucks’ PDO would be 103.4, which is much more reasonable, and they’d still have a 5-2-1 record.

The eye test will tell you that the Canucks have improved in key areas, too. Vancouver’s made a night-and-day difference in cutting down on rush chances against compared to Bruce Boudreau’s time last season (which is backed up by private analytics models).

Demko noted after Saturday’s game how much better the team has been at preventing cross-seam passes and backdoor tap-ins compared to last season. That’s been true at both five-on-five and on the improved penalty kill. Public analytics, which are predominantly based on a shot’s location, don’t account for the Canucks’ improvement at denying those deadly passes.

Vancouver’s new motion-based power play looks deadly.

One of the Canucks’ biggest problems last season was blowing leads. It was surprising and refreshing how clinically Vancouver shut down a talented Dallas Stars team in the third period on Saturday, as it surrendered just two high-danger chances. This has been an impressive pattern for most of the season.

Upgraded defensive and penalty kill personnel, Rick Tocchet’s changes and Demko’s bounceback seem like a sustainable recipe for defensive improvement this season. I certainly don’t expect the Canucks to be the second-best team at preventing goals against for the entire season but there’s reason for optimism.

Vancouver’s five-on-five goal scoring is probably the bigger question mark from a regression angle. The Canucks rank 28th in the league for five-on-five offensive shot rate, yet their goal-scoring rate is third best in the NHL because of their red-hot 13.3 percent finishing.

Overall, the Canucks are well-positioned. An 8-2-1 record gives them a big cushion in the standings, especially with how much Calgary, Seattle and Edmonton have stumbled out of the gate. A red-hot start means a lot in a league where even overtime losses are rewarded with points. Maintaining a playoff position shouldn’t be too challenging considering the Canucks have top-of-the-lineup star power, an excellent goalie and good special teams.

Colleague Dom Luszczyszyn isn’t very popular among Canucks fans these days, but his model has the team’s playoff odds at 87 percent as of Sunday night.

Yes, the Canucks are going to cool off, but nobody expects or needs them to finish near the top of the Western Conference. Pettersson, Hughes, Miller and the rest of Vancouver’s core are tired of losing. They’re sick of missing the playoffs. There are a ton of games still to be played but they might finally get another crack at playoff hockey.

— Data courtesy Natural Stat Trick

(Photo of J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser: Derek Cain / Getty Images)

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