With Zack Kassian injured and out of the lineup with the dreaded "upper-body injury," the Canucks called up hulking winger Byron Bitz from Chicago yesterday. Bitz impressed with his pugilism and surprising array of back-hand saucer passes during his eight game call up earlier this season and he’ll find himself back in the Canucks lineup tonight. Observers have long expected that Bitz would join the team for the postseason, and now that he has, it’ll be very interesting to see how Vigneault handles his fourth line personnel.
Clearly, Gillis prioritized beefing up the fourth line over the past ten months, and while a rash of injuries to the likes of Aaron Volpatti and Steve Pinnozotto derailed that plan somewhat, the team has inarguably shored up the quality of their depth forward group. Between Manny Malhotra, Maxim Lapierre, Zack Kassian (assuming his injury is relatively minor), Byron Bitz, Dale Weise and Andrew Ebbett, the Canucks boast a reasonably impressive stable of forwards who can successfully fill in on the fourth line. It’s a bonanza of depth compared to the meagre offerings the team boasted last season when Vigneault’s options were limited to the likes of a raw Cody Hodgson, Victor Oreskovich, Jeff "the backchecker" Tambellini, Tanner Glass, a wounded Manny Malhotra in the finals, and Alexandre Bolduc’s bionic shoulder.
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Let’s break down the fourth line options one by one, and discuss what each brings to the table and, perhaps, takes off of it. We’ll begin with the lynchpin, Manny Malhotra:
While he’s taken some heat from ignorant analysts for his lack of offensive production and his team low plus/minus, Malhotra has played some of the most uniquely difficult minutes in the league this season, and has handled his role successfully. If Canucks fans as a whole had a firm grasp of advanced statistics, Malhotra would be the hands down winner for the team’s unsung hero award (I wouldn’t call any of the trio of more likely winners: Higgins, Hamhuis or Lapierre unsung, really). There were months of the season, where Malhotra’s offensive-zone start rate barely eclipsed 1% – now that my friends, is unsung.
Malhotra is going to be a mainstay on the fourth line all postseason long. He’s among the league leaders in face-off percentage (again), and he leads all Canucks forwards in short-handed ice time for a reason. Malhotra wins defensive zone draws, he clears the zone, and he gets off of the ice; It’s a unique role, and one that has been essential for one of the leagues better defensive clubs.
If the team is healthy (a big if the deeper you get into the postseason), Lapierre will certainly hold down a spot on the fourth line. As the attrition begins in earnest, however, Lapierre will probably be the first of this "depth forward group" to bump up the lineup. His versatility could see him centering the third line if Pahlsson is injured (or ineffective) and he could even play in the top-6, for a short run of games, if it’s required. Entering the postseason, and assuming Daniel returns to the lineup, Lapierre is the other guy who you can pencil in on the fourth line for the long-haul.
Lapierre has re-invented himself this season, he’s reigned in the sort of play that earned him a bad reputation around the league, and has played hard, physical hockey. He’s the team’s leader in hits, he’s played well in tough minutes, he’s won more faceoffs than he’s lost and he’s even dropped the gloves seven times this season. His evolution as a professional hockey player has been a joy to watch, frankly, and with his grinding game and secret offensive upside, he’ll continue to be among the team’s most useful bottom-6 forward options this Spring.
Lapierre’s offensive play is a bit of a wild card heading into the postseason, and I’ll be curious to see if he gets a shot as pivot on the second unit power-play. While much of his recent hot-streak has been percentage driven, he probably deserves a chance in that role. I hypothesize that he could have some success there, especially once he morphs into playoff Lappy.
Dale Weise has had a very strong rookie campaign, but it’s escaped notice among Canucks fans and the Vancouver media. As an NHL rookie, Weise has dressed in 66 games, been deployed in a unique way (the extreme way Vigneault uses his fourth line isn’t practiced by any other NHL team) and he’s generally played safe, low-event hockey.
That Dale Weise has started 80% of his shifts in the defensive end, and finished nearly 50% of his shifts in the offensive end, is a testament to his ability to move the puck forward. Weise’s presence on the ice this season has also had a cooler effect, as he’s successfully sucked the offense out of the game at both ends of the ice. When you’re a fourth line forward, playing difficult minutes, that’s really valuable (and something AV in particular like to see from the bottom end of his lineup). Weise has the lowest goals/against per sixty rate of any Canucks regular this season, and when you consider the minutes he’s played and his deployment – that’s pretty impressive.
Admittedly, Weise doesn’t bring the imposing physical dimension that Bitz does, he’s not as good an energy guy as Lapierre and he’s not the possession player that Andrew Ebbett is. However, his ability to move play forward and make the sort of good on-ice decisions that prevent goals against is very useful for a fourth line winger. It’s not the sort of skill that fans often appreciate, but it is the sort of skill the Canucks’ head-coach most certainly does (see Rome, Aaron).
In his eight game call up earlier this season, Byron Bitz reached fan-favorite status in no time. He’s just a massive dude, he’s articulate, he can beat up the opposition’s toughs and he showed some surprising touch when he was put with the Sedins.
He’s also a great story, having come all the way back from hernia related health issues that nearly cost him his playing career. He says he’s feeling better (though he was ravaged by flu symptoms for most of the past month) and It’s hard to isolate his impact by the numbers, since he played all over the lineup during his earlier eight game stint.
When I spoke to him in mid-March, he discussed the differences between playing on your average fourth line and playing on Vancouver’s "defense-only" fourth lines. He spoke about "taking pride in your defensive play" and understanding your role. Bitz is a smart guy, and a fantastic depth option. However, though his eight game performance indicates that he should be able to fill a fourth line role well – Weise has a larger sample of success playing those difficult minutes this season. Bitz’s playoff audition begins tonight!
Andrew Ebbett’s play this season, in fifteen games, has been really interesting. Like all Canucks skaters who’ve primarily been deployed on the fourth line, his Ozone start% is a league outlier (~30%). Where Malhotra, Weise and company, haven’t managed to keep their heads above water in this role, however, Ebbett has.
Ebbett’s corsi and fenwick are both positive, which, is pretty remarkable considering his usage. Fifteen games isn’t a big sample, and Ebbett’s a diminutive forward who doesn’t bring the physical dimension that Kassian, Bitz and Weise do, but he’s the best at "driving play" in difficult minutes among all of the fourth line options.
He’s also able to center the second unit power-play, and had an extremely strong performance there on Tuesday night against Anaheim. Against some teams, it’s virtually assured that Vigneault will opt to matchup size with size, however, don’t be surprised if Ebbett’s possession skills and power-play ability keep him in the lineup (provided he stays healthy) this postseason.
Zack Kassian’s performance with the Canucks has been a mixed bag, which, isn’t a surprise given his age and professional experience. On some nights, he’s looked dynamic – he’s got a massive body, uses it well to protect the puck down low, and possesses an impressive array of graceful, pirouette-like moves for a man his size. On other nights, he looks lost in the defensive end, and on zone-exits in particular.
Kassian is a long-term project, which, the Canucks understood when they acquired him from Buffalo. If he’s able to recover quickly from his injury, he’s the most naturally skilled of all the fourth line options. He’s also the least experienced, and his defensive game is especially raw. When the games matter, will Vigneault trust him in the lineup over Bitz, Weise and Ebbett? That’s a situation worth watching closely if the team is able to win a round or two this Spring.