March 28 2013 11:37AM
Mike Gillis hit two deadline deals out of the park back in 2011 with the acquisitions of Chris Higgins and Max Lapierre. Both forwards played significant roles in Vancouver’s Stanley Cup run, and both players enjoyed their time enough with the Canucks to re-sign in the summer of 2011 below market value (though Lapierre was an RFA that summer).
Will they do that again this summer?
Back in 2011, Lapierre signed a two-year, $2 million contract, while Chris Higgins inked a two-year, $3.6 million pact. The Canucks would obviously love to have both of them back, but the reduced salary cap is going to limit the money available to depth players.
Higgins and Lapierre could both earn more money and get more term if they tested the open market. I don’t think anyone in this market would blame them for wanting to maximize their salary – this could be one of the last opportunities to sign a (relatively) big contract for either of them.
With all of that being said, what is their worth on the open market? And what will the Canucks be willing to pay them? Let’s take a look.
I won’t hide any biases – I am a big Lapierre fan. I like the way he has transformed his game since coming to the Canucks. Sure, he still runs his mouth and has a face opponents want to cave in, but he answers the bell for his transgressions, and he has significantly cut down on antics that would be detrimental to his team. Along the way, he has emerged as a rock solid fourth line center capable filling in, in third line minutes.
Last season, he led the Canucks in penalties drawn per 60 minutes (1.1), and took fewer penalties per 60 minutes (0.8) than the likes of Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa, and Alex Burrows. In fact, he brought his penalty rate down under 1 for the first time since '09.
Lapierre played a large role in making the Canucks the third best team in overall faceoff percentage this past season (behind Boston, and San Jose). He was 52.1% overall in the circle, which placed him in the top-35 in the entire NHL. Where he really stood out though was in the defensive zone, where he won 55% of his draws.
Thanks to Alain Vigneault’s radical zone start deployment strategy, Lapierre does more heavy lifting than Atlas. The guy hasn’t even seen the offensive zone on a faceoff since 2011 (slight exaggeration maybe). The best part of Lapierre’s game is his ability to ratchet his game up a few levels in big games against top opposing teams. He is big and strong, and a great skater, too.
He can chip in with timely offense, and he’s the best fourth line center that the Canucks have had since… ever? (Editors Note: How dare Jeff fail to give Artem Chubarov his due!)
It is tough to find direct comparables for Lapierre. There aren’t many teams that deploy their forwards (and centers, in particular) like the Canucks do. Looking at the below chart, Lapierre sees arguably the toughest minutes of any center in hockey (from a zone-start perspective, at least) but he isn’t out there against the top opposing forwards all of the time (as evidenced by his negative Corsi Rel QoC). Ideally, the Canucks would have Lapierre and a healthy Manny Malhotra sucking up every single defensive faceoff, allowing Henrik Sedin lots of offensive opportunities, and most importantly, allowing Ryan Kesler (when healthy) to thrash opposing depth players. However, Malhotra’s injury changed all of that. Lapierre has still done his part, though, and he has been a key cog over the past two years in Vancouver.
This is a chart with every single NHL center who has played in 2013. Lapierre, unsurprisingly, isn't joined by many others on the far left side of the chart (he is one of the orange bubbles just below the 0.00 quality of competition line). Essentially, he plays against slightly below average competition (not a surprise for a depth center), and he starts almost every single shift in the defensive zone.
You can check these awesome charts out here (stick tap to Rob Vollman for creating this resource).
And thanks to this goal, Tanner Glass can walk around the city of Vancouver without getting harassed (if you have blocked out the entire series from your memory, remember Glass wiffing on a completely open net earlier in the game).
Chris Higgins is a very good two-way forward, but you don’t need to consult stats and numbers to confirm that. The eye test usually does the trick with him. He busts his rear end every single time he hops over the boards. He is a really smart player, and he is a phenomenal forechecker. He wins most of his board battles because of his superb instincts, his dogged work ethic, and his ability to take the right line to the puck on a consistent basis (an underrated attribute for checking forwards).
He has been a productive forward from an offensive perspective, as well, at least in Vancouver. Higgins can play anywhere in the lineup, including on the top line right wing (where he is right now). For that reason (and many others), he is the perfect role player.
Unsurprisingly, Higgins has played well over the past two games on the top line, and he played his best hockey this season while on a line with David Booth and Ryan Kesler for like a minute before both of them became re-injured. Better linemates = more success for him, and that equation rings true for almost all hockey players.
Even when Higgins was scoring 20+ goals with Montreal, his best attributes were his skating, tenacity, and his two-way play. The goals came naturally because of how hard he played. I think he got away from that a bit when he bounced around the league, as teams were maybe placing unrealistic expectations on him as a goal scorer. But put players in the right position to succeed - Alain Vigneault and his staff do a great job of this - and it's a whole new ballgame.
Mr. Filipovic looked at Higgins a few days ago, and the underlying numbers for Higgins this season are far below what we have come to expect from him. A reason for worry? Probably not. A reason to not re-sign him? Who knows. It depends how the Canucks view his decline in effectiveness - is it his own doing, or an environmental issue driven by his defensive responsibility? Higgins has bounced around the lineup a lot, and that has likely contributed to his decreased puck possession numbers.
All About the Benjamins
At the end of the day, though, money talks. Both players took reduced salaries two years ago in order to have a shot at the Stanley Cup. Will they do the same in 2013? It is difficult to speculate how the Vancouver cap situation will look in a few months (in Laurence Gilman we trust), as the compliance buyouts open up a number of options for the Canucks management team.
My own speculation – it will take a term of at least three years to keep each player in Vancouver. Higgins turns 30 this summer, and he keeps himself in phenomenal shape. While I wouldn’t worry about him for the next three years, if the Canucks believe the fall off in his possession numbers this season are age-related, then all bets are off. Lapierre recently turned 28 – he still has a lot of good hockey left in him, too.
Do the Canucks have anyone in the organization to replace either player? Probably not, especially for Lapierre. Even with Jordan Schroeder’s emergence as a defensively reliable center, the Canucks don’t have anyone capable of stepping in and playing defensive minutes at the NHL level. And it isn’t much different on the wing. Nicklas Jensen may get a taste of NHL action next season, but it would be unfair to expect him to chip in like Higgins does while playing superb defensive hockey. And speedster Billy Sweatt hasn’t progressed as hoped since the team signed him a few years ago.
There are many different ways to build a team under the cap. The key is to have a mix of young players on rookie deals (Chris Tanev, Jordan Schroeder, and Zack Kassian), and veterans on fair market value deals (Henrik and Daniel Sedin, heck, every Canuck veteran). Some teams, like Pittsburgh, choose to go the cheap/bargain route for their depth players. Unless the Canucks want to dip back into the free agent pool and take a chance on some players looking for a fresh start (like Higgins and Lapierre both were back in 2011), their best bet may be committing some term to these two guys.
Higgins and Lapierre are both fan favourites. You see #20 and #40 jerseys with regularity around the city. Both players are hard workers, they do whatever the team asks of them, and they consistently outperform their salaries.
There are a lot of memorable moments for each player. Lapierre's Game 5 goal is definitely his shining moment in Vancouver. For Higgins, he had a great series against Nashville, but the one play I remember most is his pass to spring Kevin Bieksa on a breakaway in Game 2 against the Sharks in the WCF.
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