June 04 2013 10:19AM
Tanner Glass - Wikicommons Media
It has been a while since the Canucks have had a consistent trio of players on the fourth forward unit. Max Lapierre, for the most part, has played the role as fourth line center since coming over at the 2011 trade deadline, but to say that he has seen a revolving door of wingers would be a significant understatement.
Just because a fourth line is the fourth most important forward unit, that doesn’t mean that it should be overlooked.
There aren’t many NHL teams with a consistent fourth line nowadays, though. As depth players mature and improve, their salary demands increase. And because of this, teams continue to have to find more cost-effective options to place on the fourth line. This can be done through the draft or through smart open-market signings.
Over the next week, the past, present, and future of Vancouver’s fourth unit will be analyzed. Today, we look at the left winger(s).
All line combinations have been pulled from DobberHockey’s Frozen Pool Fantasy Tools. Let’s start with 2008-09, shall we? The first season of the Mike Gillis tenure saw a fourth line of tough guys Darcy Hordichuk and Rick Rypien centered by shot blocker Ryan Johnson.
Hordichuk was signed by the Canucks on July 1st, 2008, and he played in 73 regular season games in 2008-09 (four goals and an assist). He obviously wasn’t brought in for his hockey playing abilities – Hordichuk was regarded as one of the tougher guys in the league, he didn’t take bad penalties, and he was a great teammate, too. He was highly regarded at the time of the signing, as evidenced by the fact that the Hurricanes gave up a draft pick to secure his rights from Nashville before free agency actually began. That kind of trade doesn’t happen often with enforcers.
Unsurprisingly, Hordichuk’s possession numbers were awful:
|SEASON||NAME||TEAM||Corsi Rel QoC||Corsi Relative||Off Zone Start %|
He saw fluff minutes (against opposing fourth lines and third defensive pairings), and he struggled to get the puck out of the defensive zone (this was particularly apparent against Chicago in the second round of the playoffs, where Johnson, Hordichuk, and Rypien were completely over their head).
Their postseason numbers were u-g-l-y:
That fourth line, however, gave us one of the most surprising goals in Canucks history:
Hordichuk originally had signed a two-year contract, but he played in only 53 games in 2009-10. His possession numbers that season were nearly identical to the one previous. Wingers Tanner Glass and Matt Pettinger also saw time on the fourth line – Glass played over on the right side a bit, too. Glass turned out to be a good find by the pro scouting department – he wasn’t as tough as Hordichuk in terms of fighting, but he was better at everything else related to the game of hockey. Pettinger was brought over in the Matt Cooke trade and his tenure was a forgettable one.
Hordichuk didn’t play in any of the 12 postseason games that season (against Los Angeles and Chicago). The fourth line left wingers consisted of Michael Grabner, Tanner Glass, and Matt Pettinger. Grabner’s possession numbers (in a sheltered role) were pretty good that spring.
Hordichuk wasn’t re-signed for 2010-11. The Canucks were the best team in hockey that year, but their fourth line was still very much a mixed bag. Peter Schaefer, Tanner Glass, Sergei Shirokov, Jeff Tambellini, and Aaron Volpatti all saw time on the left side during the regular season. Glass established himself as the fourth line left winger during the postseason, although Tambellini still found his way into the lineup thanks to his skill and versatility. There was no set combination, though – Glass played only 6% of his shifts with his most common linemates:
|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|
|4.20%||EV||34 DESBIENS,GUILLAUME - 15 GLASS,TANNER - 18 SCHAEFER,PETER|
And it was more of the same in the postseason that year:
|13.48%||EV||15 GLASS,TANNER - 40 LAPIERRE,MAXIM - 38 ORESKOVICH,VICTOR|
|9.39%||EV||15 GLASS,TANNER - 27 MALHOTRA,MANNY - 38 ORESKOVICH,VICTOR|
|9.24%||EV||15 GLASS,TANNER - 38 ORESKOVICH,VICTOR - 13 TORRES,RAFFI|
And compare that to Boston’s fourth line during the same Cup run:
|35.09%||EV||11 CAMPBELL,GREGORY - 20 PAILLE,DANIEL - 22 THORNTON,SHAWN|
|10.29%||EV||11 CAMPBELL,GREGORY - 20 PAILLE,DANIEL - 49 PEVERLEY,RICH|
The Canucks didn’t re-sign Glass (which has turned out to be a mistake), and he headed to Winnipeg on a two-year deal to play for the Jets. Glass wasn’t a great player, but he was very serviceable in the role, and Vancouver has struggled to replace his consistency. In fact, they tried to re-sign him last summer, but he chose to go with the Penguins instead (the offers were reportedly identical).
2011-12 brought more of the same – an uncertain fourth line. Volpatti was back. Mike Duco was supposed to challenge for a spot, but he proved in short order to be nothing more than an AHL energy guy. Manny Malhotra shifted over to the left wing (although he still took faceoffs), as he wasn’t as effective a two-way center after the brutal eye injury. There was a bit more stability that season on the fourth unit after Dale Weise was claimed on waivers from the Rangers. Lapierre centering Malhotra and Weise was the most common unit:
|15.90%||EV||40 LAPIERRE,MAXIM - 27 MALHOTRA,MANNY - 32 WEISE,DALE|
And that brings us to 2013. To be frank, the fourth line was a mess this season. Volpatti was lost on waivers. Tom Sestito came over to replace him. Sestito is a big guy and a good skater, but he isn’t very good at hockey. His re-signing was a bit of a curious one. As a 13th or 14th forward, Sestito is fine to have around. But he isn’t an everyday fourth line left winger on a good hockey club. Steve Pinizzotto failed to deliver much of anything – like Duco, he was brought in with a lot of hype from management, and didn’t really accomplish a whole lot. Another miss by the pro scouts.
Why have the Canucks been unable – or unwilling – to find a long-term fit for the fourth line? They made a mistake letting Glass walk. Duco and Pinizzotto were both misses (not Tommi Santala bad, mind you). Sestito isn’t the answer. Billy Sweatt has completely stagnated in the AHL, too. When he was signed, many expected him to develop into a Todd Marchant-like speedster on a checking line, but he isn’t an NHL prospect at this point. Is Sweatt, a former 2nd round draft pick, simply bad development, or is it just a case of a player not taking the next step?
Having a good fourth line isn’t vital to the success of a team in the regular season, but it is in the playoffs. Look at the four remaining clubs as an example. Boston’s fourth line is the best in hockey, and it isn’t close. Pittsburgh doesn’t have a consistent fourth unit, but whatever trio they ice is always quality – imagine having Brandon Sutter on Vancouver’s fourth line? That is called depth, by the way. Chicago and Detroit have done a great job developing late round draft picks like Marcus Kruger and Joakim Andersson, respectively, and both organizations have also done a great job with pro scouting in filling out their bottom six spots (Viktor Stalberg, Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad, Michal Frolik, Drew Miller, and Patrick Eaves, among others).
The Kings have drafted really well – even picks that have failed to develop into scoring players have found homes in the NHL – this includes Trevor Lewis, who has quietly developed into a really good hockey player. Dwight King and Brad Richardson are two others.
Darryl Sutter has had a hand in LA’s much-improved fourth unit:
When Sutter took over the Kings, the previous head coach, Terry Murray, was regularly dressing fighter Kevin Westgarth in his lineup. That stopped almost instantly when Sutter took over and the Kings fourth line was then made up of guys like Brad Richardson, Jordan Nolan, Colin Fraser and Kyle Clifford. Those guys all have toughness, but they also have enough skill to consistently outplay other teams' fourth-line tough guys and fighters. And that was a huge advantage for the Kings last season.
Sestito is under contract for two more years at $750,000 per. The team must have seen something in him, or have plans to use him as an extra forward. He is young and it appears that they are worried about not having any toughness on the roster. No real other explanation for the signing. There are zero other left wing options in the organization. Literally. None.
Weise is a right winger. Kassian is a right winger who has struggled on the left side (especially with outlet plays in the defensive zone). Sweatt and Pinizzotto won’t be back. The rest of the depth chart is a sad state of affairs, quite frankly.
This is really the only option for the Canucks (again, unless they want to use Sestito as an everyday player).
Bickell is a UFA (as is Stalberg), but he is looking more and more like a top nine forward with his strong play this season. And he will very likely receive a contract with more zeros in it than one typically given to a fourth line winger. Matt Cooke is also a UFA, and he’s the last really good fourth line winger the Canucks have had (he eventually worked his way up to the top line in Todd Bertuzzi’s absence). But Cooke’s reputation will follow him everywhere, and he is in his mid 30’s. Other intriguing options include Raffi Torres (another player with a reputation), Ruslan Fedotenko (well past his prime as an effective NHL player), Blake Comeau, Eric Nystrom, and Matt Hendricks.
Of all of the options listed above, Comeau is the most intriguing. He’s only 27 (young for a UFA), he has 361 games of NHL experience, and he is a pretty decent depth player, too. He isn’t a fighter or a banger, but he can skate, make plays, pitch in offensively and not cost your team while playing 8-10 minutes a night. Comeau has a 24-goal season in the NHL to his credit – how many potential fourth line options can say that? He played his junior hockey in Kelowna and makes his summer home there, too. That being said, if all Kelowna residents wanted to play here, the Canucks would be a perennial all-star team.
Comeau was traded at the deadline from Calgary to Columbus for a 5th round draft pick. It was a very “meh” move at the time, although Comeau did have a nice finish to the season for the Jackets (five points in nine games – the same number of points Hordichuk had in 73 games back in 2008-09).
The Canucks need to rebuild their fourth line. Finding a center is the most important part of that, but they shouldn’t neglect the wing position, either. As Gillis has found out, it isn’t easy to find – or keep – quality depth forwards in the NHL.
My suggestion – sign Blake Comeau (or find the next Tanner Glass in the AHL or elsewhere). It is time to find some stability for the bottom six.