Pre-Season Roster Battles

Will Keith Ballard start the season in the Canucks Top-Six?

Great news – the Canucks are dressing an NHL quality line-up this evening against Anaheim, and will probably do so again tomorrow against the Sharks. Tonight the Canucks will go with what many expect to be their opening day top-6 forward group (The twins, and Burrows, Sturm-Hodgson-Samuelsson) as well as their projected top-4 defense and Luongo in net. I’m excited – we haven’t really enjoyed some high-quality "Sedinery" since the Western Conference Final – and I require a hit of that.

Though the "core" of the team is beginning to see action with three games left in the preseason, there are still some roster battles to be fleshed out. Who will replace Kesler? Who will begin the season as the teams left defenseman on the third pairing? And which two players will line up outside Maxim Lapierre on the fourth line? Let’s take a quick look!

2nd Line Center:

Cody Hodgson – The Frontrunner

For the most part Cody Hodgson has received rave reviews all preseason long, and if tonight’s lineup is any indication – and it probably is – Hodgson is the leading candidate to occupy the second line center role in Kesler’s absence. Hodgson has shown well in the preseason, and though he hasn’t dazzled – he’s proven he’s an NHL caliber talent, who certainly looks ready to stick. He’s strong on the puck, he wins puck battles, he makes smart, safe plays (which, has to endear him to Alain Vigneault) and he doesn’t look lost on the defensive side of the puck.

In tonight’s game he gets a chance to skate with two experienced top-6 forwards in Samuelsson and Sturm who have combined to score a lot of goals in their respective NHL careers. With the Sedins likely to draw most of Anaheim’s attention, Hodgson should get some soft match-ups to attack. A big game tonight and his role on the opening night roster will probably be a slam-dunk – Unless…

Chris Higgins – The Dark-horse

Unless – Alain Vigneault decides to go with a dark-horse candidate, which would be such an AV move. When I wrote this summer about "Filling in for Ryan Kesler" I didn’t even consider Chris Higgins. Higgins played center as a younger player – but has mostly been a winger throughout his NHL career. Apparently he’s spent a lot of time in practice on the left wing (alongside Hansen and Malhotra) but has also spent a fair bit of time at center.

With the Sedins and, quite possibly, Hodgson likely to be held out of tomorrow’s game against San Jose – it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Higgins get a shot at center. Higgins doesn’t have the offensive pop that he had when he was a regular twenty goal scorer for the Habs, but he’s a possession whirlwind who does a lot of the little things that help a hockey team win games. If Hodgson shows poorly this evening, or if Vigneault decides to go in a more veteran direction – Higgins could get the nod.

Jordan Schroeder – Risk/Reward

It’s my impression that Jordan Schroeder has been the most dangerous player of the four second line center candidates. While he had a downright awful AHL rookie campaign last season – Schroeder looks to have rebounded in a big way, and has impressed with his combination of speed and skill this preseason. Schroeder makes smart decisions with the puck and has a tremendous first step through the neutral zone, but the biggest surprise has been his defensive awareness. I wasn’t expecting it from the flashy, under-sized American – but Schroeder is wily on the defensive side of the puck and has made some stand-out defensive plays both in the Prospects Tournament in Penticton, and this Preseason with the "Wolves in Canucks clothing." His major deficiency shows up during puck battles, when Schroeder looks lost in the corners. While I doubt Schroeder makes the team, and I certainly don’t think he’ll surpass Hodgson on the depth-chart – I’m certain his play has served to raise his stock in the eyes of the organization.

Andrew Ebbett – The Vet

Ebbett is fine, but I think he’s the least likely of the four players we’re discussing to be on the opening night roster filling in for Ryan Kesler. Ebbett does everything reasonably well, but he doesn’t stand out at anything and I’m not even sure he’s better defensively than Schroeder. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that Ebbett will be on waivers next week, and that he’ll begin the season in Chicago.

Expectation: Hodgson starts the season centering the second line.

Third Pairing Defenseman – Left Side.

Keith Ballard – The Expensive 6th Defenseman

Keith Ballard is probably the front-runner – especially with Aaron Rome lost to injury – to begin this season on the Canucks third pairing. This is a sorry state of affairs – he should damn well be the front-runner, he gets paid four and a half million a season and is due to continue to make that much for a number of years. Alas – for all of his physical tools, Ballard is erratic and I’m not sure he’s better suited to a third pairing role than either of Rome or Alberts. Ballard has a few surefire assets – he hits hard, he blocks shots and he’s a tremendous skater. Beyond that, his hockey IQ, and especially his shot-selection, leaves a lot to be desired.

Even when Ballard does something that stands-out to fans watching the game, it’s usually something that I don’t think would particularly impress Vigneault. In the first game of the preseason, when Ballard circumnavigated the Flames end on his own – Twitterers squealed with delight – but do you think that sort of marauding improvisation impresses the Canucks brass? I really don’t. There’s already questions about whether or not Ballard has fallen back into Vigneault’s dog-house based on the fact that Ballard won’t play this evening. While such speculation is probably putting the pumpkin (that’s been transformed into a carriage) in front of the mouse (that’s been transformed into a horse)  – it wouldn’t be a huge surprise were Ballard to fail in his bid to secure an opening day spot in the Canucks top-6.

If I were to hazard a guess – I’m of the opinion that Ballard’s chemistry with Chris Tanev may be his saving grace. So long as those two play well together, I’d expect Ballard to suit up on the left-side of the Canucks third pairing on October 6th. 

Andrew Alberts – The Big Guy.

Andrew Alberts is a competent third-pairing option – though he’s probably a hair less effective than both Aaron Rome and Keith Ballard. When he first came to the Canucks from Carolina, Alberts was a plodding defenseman who looked totally lost in the Canucks system. Every summer, however, he seems to improve his foot-speed and become more reliable. What Alberts brings to the table is his size, his penalty-killing prowess and his hitting ability. In terms of Albert’s negative attributes, one would be remiss if they didn’t mention his penchant for taking penalties. If Aaron Rome hadn’t hurt himself – Alberts would’ve been guaranteed to start the season on the teams "press-box" fourth pairing. With Rome out, however, I think Alberts has an outside shot at winning the right to right play fifteen minutes on opening night.

Prediction: Ballard gets the nod, but only just. 

Fourth Line Wingers

Mike Duco – Super-Pest

Mike Duco has established himself as the front-runner for one of the fourth-line wing spots. He’s fast enough, he has better hands than Tanner Glass and he’s just about the most exasperating character to play against. It’s the pre-season, the games don’t even count, and the opposition HATES Duco. It’s like he gives star players, and their head-coaches rabies – they just foam at the mouth. Duco has shown some hustle, heart and one major unique skill this pre-season. Is that enough to earn himself a spot on the fourth line – at least to begin with? I have to think so. No other fourth line candidate has stood out quite like Duco has.

Victor Oreskovich – Trending Downward

Most observers expected Oreskovich to be a lock for a fourth line winger spot headed into camp. He impressed all through the postseason with his hard-hits, his speed and his ability to control the puck down-low in the offensive zone. If you look at his underlying numbers, however, you’ll see that relative to the amount of time he spent on the ice – he didn’t often have the puck in the offensive zone.

Vigneault has called out Oreskovich publicly this preseason and his pay has been less than inspired. While I’m not sure that "Oreo" has responded sufficiently well to stave off the threat from the likes of Duco – I’d expect him to get the nod because, simply put, he’s the last man standing. Before Pinnizotto went down indefinitely on Sunday night, I was pretty sure that Oreskovich was going to be the odd-man out. But with Pinnizotto, and now Bitz out indefinitely, Oreskovich has a glimmer of hope. He’ll have to be looking to take the body and probably also to punch someone (sadly) to try and restore his stock in the eyes of Vigneault and the Canucks brass, but I think he’ll hold onto his spot.

Mark Mancari – But is he a Fourth Liner?

Mancari has played well this pre-season – there’s no denying that. He’s demonstrated some versatility, and some touch, and he has a wicked hard shot. His problem is that – though he’s a giant of a MAN(cari) he’s not the most physical player and he’s not the fastest skater. Simply put – he looks like a top-six AHL power-forward, not a scrappy, grinder for an NHL team’s fourth line.

With that said, after the Tanner Glass whiff in game-5 – I think the Canucks are interested in, perhaps, having a bit more skill on their fourth line than they possessed last season. Though I still expect Mancari to begin the year in Chicago, he definitely has as good a chance as anyone not named Mike Duco at making this team. If he throws a couple stand-out body-checks – those chances could increase further.

Aaron Volpatti – The Bruiser

Volpatti is tough as nails, and played pretty well in his limited time with the big club last season. I thought his best preseason game was the game he had on Sunday night against San Jose, but I’m not sure it’s enough. The team is looking to upgrade their fourth line, and considering Volpatti couldn’t crack the fourth line last year during the postseason, I doubt the team sees him as that upgrade.

I wouldn’t count Volpatti out – he’s the only other heavyweight other not named Todd Fedoruk – but I can’t see him beating out the likes of Oreskovich and Duco for a roster spot.

Todd Fedoruk – The Last of the PTOs

Well, he’s not really the "last" PTO guy still with the team – Anders Eriksson is still there as well – but he’s the last forward. Basically he had a couple tilts with Darcy "waste of a roster spot" Hordichuk in the preseason game against Edmonton, and he’ll last on the roster so long as the Canucks management team believes on some level, that they needs a staged-fighter. 

Fedoruk has battled a lot of personal demons, and some gruesome injuries – so on a personal level – I’m rooting for him. All of my instincts as a Canucks fan, and as a fan of the sport of hockey, however, point me towards a wildly different conclusion. Fedoruk has looked slow, and hasn’t impressed in the defensive zone or in the offensive zone. Keeping him on the roster and dressing him regularly – even just against thugged up divisional opponents – strikes me as a waste. Because I have no idea what Canucks management thinks about carrying a designated enforcer on the roster – It’s tough to gauge what Fedoruk’s chances are, but if I had to hazard a guess – I think that Fedoruk will be cut either this week or next.

Prediction: Duco-Lapierre-Oreskovich.