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Canucks playoff preview: How does Vancouver stack up against the Predators?

The sharp stylistic contrast between the lockdown defensive game of the Vancouver Canucks and their first-round opponent, the high-flying, scoring-chance-generation machine that is the Nashville Predators, should make this first-round series a fascinating one.

On Saturday afternoon, both teams practiced one last time before Sunday’s Game 1. And if you watched both teams work closely, the discrepancy in their preparation was evident.

Vancouver dispensed with line rushes, and opened practice directly with drills. It was a fast-paced, business-like practice, filled with tactical coaching throughout — with defending the rush a particular point of emphasis for Rick Tocchet and his staff.

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Afterward, Tocchet discussed the need for his team to “embrace the pain” that accompanies success in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“There’s going to be pain and you’ve got to live it. You’ve got to crave that walk to the bus where you’re tired, limping or you’ve got a cut. That should be something you crave. You can’t be afraid of it.”

It’s a message that has the ring of philosophy behind it, but also a message with a long-term time horizon. For the Canucks, clearly, there’s a feeling that they’re just getting started.

The Predators, in contrast, opened their practice on Saturday with battle drills. Predators’ skaters were engaged in three-on-three battles down low, the pace high and the hooting and hollering of teammates with little exhibitions of skills were predominant. A loose, fun-looking practice ended with small area games.

“We really have nothing to lose,” said Predators head coach Andrew Brunette, working hard to cast his team as the underdog with no pressure on them. “We weren’t supposed to be here.”

The more experienced Predators are already trying to heap added pressure on the favoured Canucks, while keeping things loose themselves. Which makes sense. In a free-wheeling series, after all, the Predators have a chance to punch above their weight.

Meanwhile, the Canucks are sticking with their usual high-effort approach. They’ll look to keep things as rigid and structured as possible, because if this is a low-event series with few mistakes, that’s a series the Canucks will likely win.

With Vancouver preparing to host their first playoff game in nine long years, here’s our deep dive series preview of what to expect from the Canucks and the Predators matching up in the first round.


Forwards

Vancouver Forwards

LW C RW

Pius Suter

J.T. Miller

Brock Boeser

Nils Höglander

Elias Pettersson

Sam Lafferty

Dakota Joshua

Elias Lindholm

Conor Garland

Phil Di Giuseppe

Teddy Blueger

Ilya Mikheyev

Predators Forwards

LW C RW

Filip Forsberg

Ryan O’Reilly

Gustav Nyquist

Jason Zucker

Colton Sissons

Mark Jankowski

Anthony Beauvillier

Tommy Novak

Luke Evangelista

Cole Smith

Michael McCarron

Kiefer Sherwood

Before the season started, few would have expected a Ryan O’Reilly, Filip Forsberg and Gustav Nyquist top line to dominate, yet that’s exactly what we’re seeing. They’re electric, driving a 54.5 percent share of expected goals and controlling nearly 60 percent of actual goals. Forsberg scored 48 goals and 94 points (including 24 goals in his last 31 games), O’Reilly has turned back the clock and Nyquist probably had the most under-the-radar 75-point campaign of any player this season.

Vancouver’s top line is formidable too, as J.T. Miller scored 103 points, while Brock Boeser emerged as a 40-goal scorer. And they’ve been surprisingly elite when Pius Suter is the third wheel, which we’ve seen lately — in 192 five-on-five minutes as a trio, they’ve pummelled opponents to the tune of a 64.8 percent share of expected goals and a ludicrous 16-4 goal differential.

The top lines might not have much separation but the Canucks have two critical advantages: center depth and the quality of their middle six. Down the middle, Vancouver boasts Miller, Elias Pettersson, Elias Lindholm and Teddy Blueger compared to Nashville’s group of O’Reilly, Tommy Novak, Colton Sissons and Michael McCarron.

Pettersson will drive a “second line” that should have a decisive edge on the Novak or Sissons line. Conor Garland and Dakota Joshua, meanwhile, have been two of the best third-liners in the NHL this season, and have recently been centered by Lindholm. That line should be able to defend, forecheck, dominate possession and score.

Novak and Evangelista shouldn’t be slept on in Nashville’s middle-six, however. They’re fast, skilled and creative. They’re deadly off the rush and have had comparably dominant possession and scoring chance control numbers as Garland and Joshua together. Novak scored 43 points in 51 games last season and has produced 22 points in 31 games since the All-Star break.

The Canucks have more high-end forwards and a deeper group as a whole, but they need some of their depth contributors to produce closer to how they did in the first half.

Ilya Mikheyev had 10 goals and 20 points in 32 games — nearly all of that offence at five-on-five — up until Dec 31. But since Jan 1, Mikheyev has just one goal and 10 assists in 46 games — he needs to produce more, which is why he’s set to open the series on the fourth line. Suter was excellent in the first half but has scored just two goals in 32 games since the All-Star break. Blueger’s scored just one goal and six assists since the All-Star break. Sam Lafferty was substantially more productive in the first half, and the club will have to hope he can find that form if he opens the series on Pettersson’s wing. Vasily Podkolzin has yet to score an NHL goal this season, and seems set to wait to make his Stanley Cup playoff debut with Di Giuseppe looking likely to earn the fourth-line nod in Game 1.

Vancouver’s forward group has a decisive edge on paper, but the gap isn’t huge because of how hot Nashville’s forwards have been.


Defense

Canucks Defense

LD RD

Quinn Hughes

Filip Hronek

Carson Soucy

Tyler Myers

Nikita Zadorov

Ian Cole

Predators Defense

LD RD

Ryan McDonagh

Roman Josi

Jeremy Lauzon

Dante Fabbro

Spencer Stastney

Luke Schenn

Where this series is largely one of contrasts, on the blue line, the Predators and the Canucks are a near mirror image.

Both teams have a top-heavy blue line with first pairs anchored by Norris Trophy calibre lefty defenders who orchestrate the breakout, drive play through the neutral zone with their skating and excel in transition.

Predators captain Roman Josi is currently playing on his off side on a pair with Ryan McDonagh, who has bounced back significantly this season. Since the All-Star break the Predators have outscored their opponents by a whopping 16 goals with Josi on the ice at five-on-five, and by 13 with McDonagh on the ice.

Quinn Hughes will skate with Filip Hronek on a pair that’s been, for most of the season, among the most dominant in the NHL this season. While Vancouver outscored their opponents by a vast margin with that pair on the ice on the season at five-on-five, their results have come back to Earth significantly since the All-Star break. Since February 5th, Vancouver has outscored their opponents by six goals with Hughes on the ice at five-on-five, and by two with Hronek on the ice.

Beneath their top pair, the Canucks and Predators both lean on a group of big physical, more defensive-minded blueliners. Predators defenseman Jeremy Lauzon led the NHL in hits this season, and has some two-way ability in addition to his physical play style. Lauzon usually plays with Alexandre Carrier, although Carrier was injured in Nashville’s 81st game of the season and was held out of Game 82. We’d expect him to play based on how the Predators practiced Sunday, but if he can’t go, Dante Fabbro will fill that role.

Luke Schenn is familiar to Canucks fans, and is a steady, physical depth defender who has paired nicely down the stretch with young, left-handed puck mover Spencer Stastney on the third pair. Nashville seems poised to scratch British Columbia native Tyson Barrie to open the series, but he’s a potentially dynamic offensive depth option with some two-way limitations that could also factor into the series.

Vancouver’s second and third pairs are massive, and defensively oriented. Six-foot-7 Tyler Myers and 6-foot-4 Carson Soucy have emerged as the Canucks’ first-choice second pair, while 6-foot-6 Nikita Zadorov and 6-foot-1 Ian Cole seem poised to open the series as the Canucks third pair. Both of these pairs have managed solid defensive results, but could have their hands full defending the rush against Nashville’s productive depth attackers.

Given that Josi and Hughes have been the two best defenders on the planet this season, there’s very little separating the two blue-line groups in overall quality.


Tyson Barrie chases Quinn Hughes and the puck. (Donald Page / Getty Images)


Special teams

For the season as a whole, the Canucks have been superior on special teams. Vancouver’s power play ranks 11th compared to Nashville’s 16th. Vancouver’s penalty kill ranks 17th compared to Nashville’s 22nd.

Advantage to Vancouver, right? Not so fast.

The Canucks’ power-play results are boosted by an obscene first-month heater where they looked unstoppable. But from that point onward, Vancouver’s man advantage has had volatile highs and lows. Since the All-Star break, Nashville boasts the second-best power-play in the NHL. Vancouver, meanwhile, ranks 24th in that timeframe.

Josi is outstanding from the point, O’Reilly is an elite net-front player (team-leading 14 power-play goals) and Forsberg has a deadly shot from the flank. Nashville’s second unit is also significantly more dangerous and productive compared to Vancouver’s second unit.

From Vancouver’s perspective, there are signs that the power play is rounding into form. Under the hood, the Canucks’ man advantage ranks 11th in generating shots on goal per 60 minutes and sixth-best in expected goal generation since the All-Star break. By the eye, there have unquestionably been concerns at times with their movement, the speed of their passing and with Pettersson looking less dangerous as a shooting threat, but part of the underwhelming results may also come down to bad finishing luck. Sure enough, the Canucks’ power play has clicked at 26.7 percent over the last 10 games, which ranks top-10 in the NHL.

On the penalty kill, both teams profile around the middle of the pack. They’ve both had their various highs and lows.

The big difference in the special teams battle will come down to which power play can catch fire at the right time — Vancouver’s man advantage has been better for the season as a whole, but Nashville’s has delivered vastly superior second-half results.


Goaltending

Vancouver against Nashville is the only first-round series where both teams have the luxury of a star goaltender.

Let’s start with Juuse Saros. Since entering the NHL in 2016-17, Saros has saved the most goals above expected of any netminder besides Connor Hellebuyck according to Evolving-Hockey’s model. The 5-foot-11 Finnish netminder is exceptionally quick in his crease, particularly from side to side. That athleticism more than effectively compensates for his lack of size.

Saros is having a down year relative to his elite standards. He finished the regular season with a .906 save percentage, which is the first time in his career that he’s dipped below a .914 save rate. He’s gotten better as the season has progressed though and his adjusted metrics for the 2023-24 campaign are still solid — he’s saved 7.5 goals above expected according to Evolving-Hockey’s model.

Demko is having a banner year. He’s notched a .918 save percentage and was just behind Hellebuyck in the Vezina Trophy conversation before he went down with a knee injury in March. He’s a model goaltender in terms of his technical work, structure and efficient movement patterns. There was some uncertainty about how he might perform coming back from his injury, but he looked very sharp over the club’s final two games. He also has a history of hitting his peak form quickly — he was exceptional right away when returning from injury last season and was historically dominant when he had to step in mid-series against Vegas in the 2020 bubble playoffs.

In fact, there’s a chance a fresh, rested Demko might actually be an advantage. He was on pace for north of 60 starts before his injury and instead finished the regular season with just 51 games played.

The goaltending battle is close on paper. Demko has fewer miles on his body this season and had the superior campaign but Saros has a long track record of elite performance and has rounded nicely into form in the second half. Both goalies can steal a game or even a series.


Coaching and tactics

Tocchet and Brunette have overseen stunning turnarounds in their first full season behind their respective benches this season, and they’ve wrung the most out of their respective groups in very different ways.

Brunette’s Predators are more attack-oriented, in terms of how they use offensive zone possession and try to attack off of the rush. Stylistically the Predators are far more comfortable with a high-event game, although not unlike the Canucks, they utilize their offensive zone time for defensive purposes, and are among the best teams in the league at limiting the amount of time their opponents spend with the puck in the offensive end.

Tocchet’s Canucks are a bit more negative in terms of their puck management tendencies, although they play an aggressive game without the puck. Vancouver’s structure is built around a relatively deep 1-2-2 forecheck and a neutral zone wedge, designed to catch their opponents leaning on the breakout and counterattack the other way.

Vancouver combines that play style with a rigid set of puck management principles that sees the team prioritize maintaining offensive zone possession ahead of aggressively looking to make plays and generate scoring chances. The Canucks, for example, rank in the top five in offensive zone possession time, according to Sportlogiq, but are in the bottom third of the league in terms of the rate of shots, scoring chances and inner slot shots they create in that time.

This is the specific stylistic clash that makes this series so potentially fascinating.

Both of these teams want to play with the puck above all else, and thrive off of limiting their opponents’ zone time. Given that, only one club will be able to play their game at any given moment. Driving a territorial edge always matters in hockey, but it’s going to be everything in this series.

In terms of matchups, Carrier’s status will loom large here. Nashville typically uses the Carrier pair with Lauzon as a first-choice pair against toughs (presumably Vancouver’s Miller line), while using the Josi pair in the flow of the game. The Predators have also been comfortable all season using both the O’Reilly and Sissons lines against the toughest matchups, although in their previous meetings, Miller-O’Reilly appeared to be the preferred matchup for both head coaches.

All season Vancouver’s preference has been to use Miller in tough matchups with the Hughes-Hronek pair, although the return of Lindholm and his utilization between Joshua and Garland could be an interesting wrinkle for the Canucks’ consideration. With last change for the first two games of this series, could Tocchet attempt to use the Lindholm line against O’Reilly, freeing up Miller’s trio to go on the attack against the Sissons line, while Pettersson duels the Novak line?

Tocchet spoke after practice on Saturday about leaning a bit more on the matchup game in the playoffs, while being conscious not to let it disrupt the team’s wider overall flow. How the Canucks bench boss attempts to attack the Predators’ middle-six forward group — which is their most evident apparent weakness on paper — in the first two games of the series will be telling.


Predictions

Harman Dayal: Canucks in 6

Thomas Drance: Canucks in 7

(Top photo of J.T. Miller and Filip Forsberg: Donald Page / Getty Images)