Vigneault’s Blender

The… Canucks… Lines… Chopped… And… Screwed.

It is becoming obvious that the Canucks have become Hamlet. First of all, they’re being visited by the ghost of Tebow. Secondly, with Jannik Hansen struggling, something is rotten in the state of Denmark; and now, apparently, Alain Vigneault has gone mad. According to Botch, here’s what the lines looked like at practice:

D. Sedin – Kesler – Burrows

Bitz – Henrik – Raymond

Booth – Hodgson – Hansen

Malhotra – Lapierre – Weise

Indisputably, that’s pretty weird. But while Vigneault catches a lot of flack in the Vancouver market for some of his seemingly absurd roster moves, to his credit: he’s willing to make ballsy decisions, and is cheeky about the over-wrought reactions some of his line combinations engender.

Read on past the jump!

Back to the Shakespearean theme: if Vigneault does roll the lines he showed in practice today, then there is method to his "madness" and there are the obvious reasons why today’s "shake-up" makes sense. It’s an open challenge to a roster that has struggled over the past six weeks (yes, it has been that long). It is especially a challenge to the Sedins, who, despite starting in the offensive zone nearly 80% of the time, have been getting their teeth kicked in possession-wise with the score tied for well over a month. The Sedins are clearly being sent a message: you want to stay together, then you’ll have to play better. 

Tonight will also be the second straight game in which Byron Bitz will be given top-9 minutes. Bitz generally impressed in his debut on Saturday, but as Harrison Mooney pointed out: the team needs to see if he can handle top-9 spot duty, and they have to do so before the trade deadline. The clock is ticking and every opportunity to evaluate Bitz’s top-9 suitability needs to be seized.

Beyond those obvious factors, there are also a couple of subtle reasons why this shake-up does make some sense. The first has to do with puck-movement. The team’s possession game has cratered since the team’s 3-0 victory over the hapless Minnesota Wild on December 19th, and one phase of the game where the team has noticeably struggled has been their passing. The Canucks have been among the best passing teams in the league for a few seasons now, but that just hasn’t been the case recently. 

Hypothetically, this shake-up is a concerted effort on Vigneault’s part to change that. With two of hockey’s best play-makers (Daniel and Henrik) skating on separate lines, hopefully the team’s passing and possession game will pick up. Each line now carries a legitimate "play-making" forward (Henrik, Daniel, Hansen). Sure, skating Bitz (9 career goals in 88 games) with Henrik remains an odd choice, but a strategic adjustment aimed at distributing the team’s passing skills in a more balanced fashion seems sensible. Certainly it doesn’t qualify for the "Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys" level of insanity.

Speaking of balance, there’s one more reason why today’s new line-combos subtly makes some sense. We all remember the second round series between the Predators and the Canucks last May, when Shea Weber and Ryan Suter managed to bottle-up the Sedin line. Thankfully, Ryan Kesler came through and man-handled the rest of the Predators to lead the Canucks to a six game series victory.

In Suter and Weber, the Predators have the best defensive pairing in the NHL, but the quality of their defense-corps falls off significantly past that. The Predators blueline personnel are like Dolly Parton: unapologetically top-heavy. Rather than match up the Canucks’ struggling top-line against Weber and Suter, Vigneault has split up the twins and decided to go with a more balanced attack.

By attacking the Predators in a more balanced fashion, Vigneault is theoretically forcing Barry Trotz to pick his poison. If we assume that the Predators vaunted top pairing will be matched up primarily with Kesler, Burrows and Daniel, then either the Henrik and Raymond line or the Hodgson and Booth combo will see numerous opportunities against lesser competition. That’s a prospect that, far from pure unadulterated madness, actually sounds auspicious.