The bookmakers didn't like the prospects for the Vancouver Canucks this season. One pegged the odds of a Canucks' Stanley Cup at 66 to 1 – alongside some of the other long shots such as the Colorado Avalanche and the Florida Panthers.
Media prognosticators didn't see much, either. Grantland, among the more negative, marked Vancouver as the third-worst team in the league, outdone in forecast futility only by Carolina and New Jersey.
And yet here are the Canucks, four games in at 3-0-1, atop the Western Conference on Thursday, with one of the best starts in franchise history.
The team's singular all-star is Ryan Miller, the 35-year-old goaltender whose headline numbers are a ridiculous 1.21 goals-against average and 0.955 save percentage. Led by Miller, the Canucks have delivered wins against key division rivals, all on the road – Anaheim, Calgary, and Los Angeles. It's the type of start that will serve the Canucks well later.
But the strong start is largely lucky, looking at a few numbers beyond the wins, goals for and against.
The Canucks rank 22nd of 30 teams in puck possession, measured at even-strength, score-adjusted – according to numbers compiled by war-on-ice.com.
This doesn't mean the Canucks are doomed. Calgary made it to the playoffs last spring, and past the Canucks, playing this sort of hockey, where the opponents have the puck much more often. But the prospects don't look great if Miller is a little more human, a little more himself. Miller has a 0.915 career save percentage and was 0.911 last season. Then, the Canucks will begin to falter.
"You're not going to dominate a lot of games," Daniel Sedin said on Thursday. "It's more about coming on the right side with wins. So far, so good. It's huge coming up with a few wins early on, just for the confidence."
Given it's only four games in, anything anyone says right now can be stamped with a "only four games in" asterisk. But it is no coincidence that the No. 2 and No. 3 puck possession teams at the moment, Montreal and San Jose, were a combined 7-0 with 25 goals for and seven against before Thursday night's games.
Vancouver's puck possession problems date to last season, when the team surprised observers by cracking 100 points. A year ago, the team had an unexpected hot start, too, first place in the NHL in late November. However, even at that point, Vancouver was a so-so possession squad. It deteriorated from there, and Vancouver finished 20th of 30 teams in possession, before the Canucks were ousted from the playoffs by the younger and faster Calgary Flames.
It's not clear puck possession matters to Vancouver's coaches, if the team manages to squeeze out wins. The team's top possession player so far is 23-year-old Sven Baertschi, who started the season on the second line before various demotions and a steadily dwindling playing time.
This is typical Willie Desjardins, the head coach who, at 58, is starting his second NHL season. He is deeply conservative and heavily risk adverse. He was partially absent in the pre-season, after hip replacement surgery. The team's opening-night roster was, for the Canucks, a radical departure, an unheard-of bet on youth with three rookies.
It felt and looked like the true beginning of Trevor Linden's Vancouver Canucks.
Yet under Desjardins's direction, young players are given little chance to make a mistake. Missteps are punished. Baertschi's playing time being slashed is one example. Jake Virtanen is another. The 19-year-old rookie didn't dress the first three games and in the fourth he played fairly well against the Los Angeles Kings before one bad shift midway through the game. He was thereafter benched until he was tossed a token shift in the game's final minute when it had already been decided.
"It's not the try league," Desjardins said on Thursday. "It's the get-it-done league."
He underlined, for him, the essential need for a player to have "history."
"We have to win games," he said.
The mantra is fine enough but it feels empty if the wins are scored with luck and hot goaltending – while the theoretical commitment to the team's future, the youth brigade, spends more time watching than playing.
Maybe it's not luck. The immediate test is St. Louis Blues on Friday night in Vancouver, a game against a Cup contender and dominant possession team that begins a five-game home stand.
The sojourn at home ends against another Cup contender and dominant possession team, Montreal.