Fixing the Fourth Line: The Center of Attention

Jeff Angus
June 10 2013 03:10PM

 
Max Lapierre - Wikicommons Media

Last week, we looked at some internal and external options for the Canucks to use for the fourth line wings. On the left side, there isn't much organizatonal depth, and my suggestion was to find a proven NHL player (Blake Comeau, for example). On the right side, though, it makes sense to bring Restricted Free Agent Dale Weise back, as he has proven to be an effective player at times and he is still fairly young. Zack Kassian is also an option, but the club is likely hoping that he steps into a top nine spot and stays there.

How about up the middle? Once a strong suit of the Canucks, the center ice position has been in disarray in recent years, due to the freak eye injury to Manny Malhotra and the spate of injuries to Ryan Kesler. Maxim Lapierre likely won't be back (all indications point to the club wanting to go a different direction), and he served the team well during his two years here. However, he isn't an irreplaceable player, and there are several intriguing options for the spot both within and outside the organization.

Let's look at a few of them.

The past

All line combinations have been pulled from DobberHockey’s Frozen Pool Fantasy Tools.  UFA center Ryan Johnson was given a two-year contract in the summer of 2008 (Mike Gillis' first at the helm of the club) to come in and anchor the fourth line. 

He was an anchor all right, but not in the way the club had hoped.

For $1.15 million per season, Johnson was being paid a premium for his, shall we say, "unique" talents.  Johnson led the NHL in shot blocks in 2007-08 (105), and that likely boosted his worth on the open market. Johnson came to the Canucks recommended by then-team employee Scott Mellanby, who watched the St. Louis Blues extensively.

Johnson had nine points in 62 games in 2008-09 for the Canucks, and his possession numbers (as mentioned in the previous posts in this series) were awful. The fourth line of Hordichuk-Johnson-Rypien/Pyatt/Raymond/Hansen saw a lot of defensive zone starts against very easy competition, and they still struggled mightily.

Again, I am of the opinion that Corsi and similar stats aren't the be-all and end-all of analysis, but the numbers are pretty glaring in this case, even with the zone starts factored in. The fourth line, simply put, was in over its head against the rest of the NHL. And the numbers were even worse in the playoffs, when the Canucks were up against two good teams (St. Louis in Round 1, and Chicago in Round 2).

The fourth line wasn't a huge problem during the regular season. Johnson's shot-blocking was constantly referenced as an asset, but it led to a number of injuries (gee, you don't say?), and it also tied in to Johnson's poor possession numbers. It's kind of hard to block shots when you have the puck and/or are in the offensive zone.

His linemates in 2008-09:

Frequency Strength Line Combination
10.49% EV 36 HANSEN,JANNIK - 24 HORDICHUK,DARCY - 10 JOHNSON,RYAN
10.14% EV 24 HORDICHUK,DARCY - 10 JOHNSON,RYAN - 37 RYPIEN,RICK
10.04% EV 24 HORDICHUK,DARCY - 10 JOHNSON,RYAN - 21 RAYMOND,MASON
8.93% EV 24 HORDICHUK,DARCY - 10 JOHNSON,RYAN - 9 PYATT,TAYLOR

In year two of his contract, Johnson missed time with various injuries (including one sustained during a scary head-on collision with the end boards). He finished with five points in 58 games. Not great production, but offensive production wasn't what the Canucks were expecting based on how their fourth line was constructed.

There was a bit more stability that season on the fourth line, thanks in large part to the emergence of left winger Tanner Glass.

Frequency Strength Line Combination
19.94% EV 15 GLASS,TANNER - 10 JOHNSON,RYAN - 37 RYPIEN,RICK
18.21% EV 24 HORDICHUK,DARCY - 10 JOHNSON,RYAN - 37 RYPIEN,RICK
7.54% EV 15 GLASS,TANNER - 24 HORDICHUK,DARCY - 10 JOHNSON,RYAN
6.14% EV 18 BERNIER,STEVE - 15 GLASS,TANNER - 10 JOHNSON,RYAN
5.28% EV 36 HANSEN,JANNIK - 24 HORDICHUK,DARCY - 10 JOHNSON,RYAN

Johnson still spent most of his time with Rypien and Hordichuk, but Glass proved in short order to be a much better hockey player than Hordichuk. Johnson saw roughly the same zone starts this season (around 30% in the offensive zone), and he once again struggled mightily against weak competition. The Canucks ran into the Kings and Blackhawks in the playoffs that year, and history repeated itself - the fourth line was in way over its head once again. Johnson's Corsi Relative was -65! Again, I know Corsi has its limitations in analysis, but that is a number that is impossible to ignore. And yes, his sample size of four games is a small one. Essentially, per 60 minutes of ice time, when Johnson was on the ice the Canucks were giving up 65 more shots directed on their goal compared to what they were directing on the opposition's goal.

Not exactly a recipe for success.

Johnson wasn't brought back for 2010-11. And the fourth line saw a revolving door of centers that year, and the Canucks didn't suffer for it. Why? Well, it helped that Manny Malhotra was swallowing up tough minutes like Pac-Man, and Kesler and Sedin were absolutely dominating offensively. 

Frequency Strength Line Combination
6.62% EV 49 BOLDUC,ALEXANDRE - 15 GLASS,TANNER - 54 VOLPATTI,AARON
5.91% EV 49 BOLDUC,ALEXANDRE - 15 GLASS,TANNER - 36 HANSEN,JANNIK
4.41% EV 15 GLASS,TANNER - 40 LAPIERRE,MAXIM - 10 TAMBELLINI,JEFF
4.2% EV 34 DESBIENS,GUILLAUME - 15 GLASS,TANNER - 18 SCHAEFER,PETER
3.42% EV 15 GLASS,TANNER - 36 HANSEN,JANNIK - 27 MALHOTRA,MANNY
3.1% EV 15 GLASS,TANNER - 38 ORESKOVICH,VICTOR - 10 TAMBELLINI,JEFF

Alex Bolduc played a lot that year, and the Canucks used a number of other center options before bringing in Lapierre at the trade deadline (a move that was announced well after the deadline had concluced). The Canucks would rely on Lapierre a lot more than they had anticipated, as Malhotra's devastating eye injury occured soon after the deadline. Lapierre moved up to line three, and the revolving door of centers returned to line four.

Malhotra played on line four after he returned in the Stanley Cup Final. Bolduc saw a few games in the postseason, too. Lapierre bounced back between lines three and four. Lapierre's possession numbers weren't very good that spring, but he played really, really tough minutes and did a pretty good job at it.

He also scored one of the biggest goals in Canucks history in Game 5 against Boston:

After the season concluded, Lapierre quickly re-signed with the Canucks (two years and $2 million total). He had established himself as a good fourth line center after coming from Anaheim, and the team liked the element of size, grit, and speed he brought in limited minutes.

The present

No one in the organization has come out and said anything, but it looks like the club will let Lapierre test free agency.

Again, Maxim Lapierre has been a good player for the team since the trade two years ago, but the team may want a different look on line four. What that is, I'm not really sure. And the fourth line utilizaton will depend a lot on who they bring in to coach. Will the line get the Vigneault treatment (easy matchups with a ton of defensive zone starts)?

Lapierre's 2013 linemates:

Frequency Strength Line Combination
26.47% EV 40 LAPIERRE,MAXIM - 29 SESTITO,TOMMY - 32 WEISE,DALE
15.44% EV 36 HANSEN,JANNIK - 40 LAPIERRE,MAXIM - 21 RAYMOND,MASON
13.97% EV 40 LAPIERRE,MAXIM - 13 PINIZZOTTO,STEVEN - 32 WEISE,DALE

The future

Internal options

The Canucks, even if they bring Lapierre back, still likely need to find another bottom six center. Does Jordan Schroeder step in and center line three? Again, it depends on how the new coach wants to utilize his lines. We have seen in the past that the Canucks are incredibly effective when Kesler is freed up from the primary checking duties, but the team may not have that luxury any more.

Brendan Gaunce and Kellan Lain have both been mentioned as potential options on the fourth line next year. Gaunce had a very good 2012-13 season in the OHL, and he is definitely pro ready in terms of size and strength. But how about his play away from the puck? He also played quite a bit on left wing this year, and it may be asking a lot of a rookie to come in and contribute right away.

Although they are both rookies, Lain is quite a bit older than Gaunce. He turns 24 this summer, and is a beast on the ice (6-6 and well over 220 pounds). He had zero points in 13 AHL games in Chicago after signing with the Canucks, but the team didn't pursue him for his offensive game. He plays with a lot of grit and snarl, he's good in the faceoff circle, and he can play away from the puck.

Gaunce is going to be a really good player, but I'm not sure putting him in a fourth line role is the best thing for his long-term development. Alex Friesen is another young center in the organization, but he is still very raw and very slight and has a lot of work to put in at the AHL level before he can be mentioned as a potential NHLer in the future. Andrew Ebbett is a UFA, and as a 13th/14th forward, he is fine. But he isn't a guy you should be penciling into an opening night lineup. 

External Options 

There are external options aplently this summer if the Canucks want to bring in a proven center to anchor the fourth line (in a good way this time, hopefully). David Steckel, Matthew Lombardi, Boyd Gordon, and Kyle Chipchura are all interesting options. The team could opt to go for size (Steckel), grit (Gordon, Chipchura), or speed (Lombardi). 

Gordon is a player who the CanucksArmy has touted as a solid acquisition in the past.

Boyd Gordon is something of a Don Maloney/Dave Tippett special. Discarded by the Washington Capitals following the 2010-11 season, Gordon has been reborn in the desert as a defensive ace and a top-nine centreman.

He's absolute nails in the faceoff circle, having taken one thousand seven hundred and forty-three draws over the past two seasons, winning exactly a thousand of them. For those keeping score at home that gives him a faceoff winning percentage well over 57% over the past two campaigns.

More importantly is that he wins those draws in the defensive end of the ice: he took over 350 defensive zone faceoffs a year ago, and is on pace for a Manny Malhotra-like 457 defensive zone draws over an 82 game season this year.

My Suggestion

The Canucks would be better off to find an effective third line center and give Lain a shot at the fourth line gig. If he doesn't work out, there will likely be a number of NHL veterans looking for work. The lower salary cap this season is going to take a lot of money away from the lower-end UFAs. But if the team can find a way to bring in one of the aformentioned UFAs on the cheap, that would also be an advisable strategy. 

The team, according to some, needs to get bigger and younger. Lain and Gaunce both fit the bill there. However, they also can't sacrifice experience, either. It isn't easy to step in and contribute right away, even if it is on the fourth forward group.

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Jeff shares his Canuck-related thoughts with the Army a few times per week. His work can also be found over at DobberHockey.com, as well as his personal blog, AngusCertified.com. Give him a follow on Twitter @anguscertified.
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#1 Time to get it right
June 10 2013, 06:58PM
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For too long now, the 4th line has been a mess. It's time to get it right.

I suggest both Chipchura and Gordon. Both can play 3rd or 4th line mins. Both played tougher mins in Phx and both have good underlying #'s. Chipchura can be had for around $900K ish. Gordon maybe around $2M for a 3 yr deal. They really need both these guys.

Chipchura can fight, hit, check and is great defensivly.

Gordon is a Malhotra replacement. Wins faceoffs, great Pker, can eat tough mins so Kes can face easier mins.

I really hope they don't resign in Phx so Gillis can grab them.

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#2 Eric Blacha
June 10 2013, 07:09PM
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Sign Lapierre again, and Gordon. I don't get why wouldn't want him back, I hope new coach gives him a word.

Gordon is just a great guy to anchor your line

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#3 Lemming
June 10 2013, 07:47PM
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Gordon, Chipchurra or Lombardi are all solid bottom-6 NHL centers. I really hope the Canucks are aggressive this off-season.

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#4 Beantown Canuck
June 11 2013, 12:19PM
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Matt Cooke is a UFA. Perhaps he'll return for round 2? What a ridiculous trade when we gave him up for Pettinger.

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