The Canucks had a rotating door of third line centres last season, and never really found the right fit.
Despite a second straight season at the absolute top of the league table, the Vancouver Canucks were unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs in the first round this Spring. Changes are clearly required to put this club over the hump, but the front-office has elected to return the entire coaching staff (a move we generally support) so those changes are going to have to come in the form of roster moves this offseason.
We’re spending this week looking at the Canucks’ areas of need, for a series quite creatively dubbed: Canucks Team Needs. Yesterday we looked at the team’s gaping hole in the top-four of their defense-corps, and today, we’ll turn our attention to club’s most pressing need: a reliable tough-minutes centreman for the third line.
Read past the jump for more!
The third line centre role is an essential one for the Vancouver Canucks, partly because of the unique way that Alain VIgneault likes to deploy his forwards. In the summer of 2010, Mike Gillis signed Manny Malhotra to a three year 2.5 million dollar deal and in Malhotra’s first season with the team, he was deployed as an "enabler." Vigneault would hard-match Malhotra and his line-mates (primarily Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen) against the opposition’s top offensive group, which, freed up Ryan Kesler to exploit favorable match-ups, and wreck havoc against the opposition’s usually over-matched third and fourth lines. Vigneault also used Malhotra – one of the NHL’s elite face-off specialists – to soak up defensive zone starts, which, allowed him to deploy the Sedin line almost exclusively in the offensive end of the rink.
Manny Malhotra should’ve won the Selke in 2010-11, he was that good. Instead, the Selke was awarded to Ryan Kesler, for his 40 goal performance, which, ironically came in a season in which he didn’t have all that much defensive responsibility. In game 72 of the 2010-11 season an errant puck struck Manny Malhotra in the eye in a game against the Colorado Avalanche. It was a freak accident and a devastating injury that almost cost Malhotra his eye and his playing career. Though Malhotra made it back and played in the Cup Finals, he just wasn’t the same player and he didn’t reach his 2010-11 level of effectiveness last season.
In 2011-12, the Canucks deployment patterns changed somewhat, partly because the "third line centre" role was in flux throughout the season. In 87 games last year (including the playoffs) the Canucks used four players there: Cody Hodgson, Maxim Lapierre, Manny Malhotra and Samme Pahlsson.
Cody Hodgson was the club’s most frequent third line centre up until he was traded in late February. Hodgson is a skilled player, but he’s not a reliable defensive option or a quality face-off man. In fact, starting in late December Cody Hodgson was being deployed "Sedin-style" in an effort to inflate his trade value. Needless to say, Hodgson didn’t offer Kesler or the twins the same level of "protection" that Malhotra did the season previous.
To overcome this, Vigneault tailored a role for his fourth line in which they started well over 80% of the time in the defensive end, chipped pucks out of the zone, and quickly changed. This allowed the Canucks to continue to deploy the Sedins exclusively in the offensive-zone. Without a quality defensive centreman manning the middle on the third line, however, Vigneault’s ability to attack the soft underbelly of his opponent’s rosters with Ryan Kesler was mitigated – and Kesler carried a significantly heavier defensive load in 2011-12, then he did in 2010-11.
Gillis’ moves at the deadline were, it seems to me, partly motivated by a desire to return to 2010-11’s deployment patterns. It was thought that Pahlsson would be able to play the opposition’s top-players to a draw, and allow Kesler to enjoy easier circumstances. It seemed to work down the stretch of the regular season, but Pahlsson proved to be a liability taking defensive zone draws in the playoffs, and absolutely got his teeth kicked in by the Kopitar line against the Kings in the postseason.
Now, in fairness to Pahlsson, elite defensive centers like David Backes and Martin Hanzal got their teeth kicked in by the Kopitar line too, but the fact remains that Pahlsson wasn’t up to the task. That Vigneault stopped putting Pahlsson out there to take defensive zone draws against the Kings (preferring to trust Kesler and Malhotra to do so) tells you all you need to know about whether the Canucks will try to bring Pahlsson back next season.
Possible In-House Solutions
Maxim Lapierre held down the third line centre role during last years run to the Cup Finals. From game three of the Canucks second round series against Nashville, to game seven of the Stanley Cup Final – Maxim Lapierre held down Malhotra’s "enabler" role, centered Torres and Hansen, and was extremely effective. Considering how good he was during the 2011 playoffs, that he was never really used as the team’s third line centre for any extended period of time last season seems very odd.
Lapierre’s deployment is especially odd because he quite literally played all over the lineup this past season. Lapierre centered the fourth line, while Malhotra baby-sat Hodgson on the third line in October and November. When Malhotra bumped down the lineup to centre the fourth line, Lapierre was his winger. When David Booth was out and Chris Higgins was battling his zombie staff infection, Lapierre played on Hodgson’s wing. Finally, when Daniel was knocked out for the balance of the regular season – Lapierre filled in on the top-line and was actually productive in that spot.
So to recap: Lapierre filled in at wing and centre on the third and fourth lines, and was a top-six forward down the stretch and into the postseason. Yet, he spent fewer than ten games playing centre on the third-line, even though he was a difference maker in that spot during the 2011 Playoffs. I think it’s safe to describe Lapierre’s usage last season as Alain Vigneault’s single most mystifying personnel decision – and that’s saying something.
The point of all this is that it’s possible that Maxim Lapierre could adequately fill the "enabler" role as the team’s permanent third line centre. Looking at the data, I’m convinced it’s at least worth a shot. Lapierre is signed through next season on an extremely cost-effective deal (1 million per), he’s played this role effectively in the past during high-stakes games, he’s good in the circle, his two-way game is solid, and his skill level is extremely under-rated. Despite his resume, however, I’m not convinced that he’ll get the chance.
We’ve described Malhotra’s career derailing injury already, and we’ve obsessed over his unique usage all season long. Malhotra faced easily the most difficult circumstances in the league last season, and probably of all time at the NHL level, so it’s hard to get a proper analytical read on how "diminished" his abilities are as a result last season’s injury. Most observers agree, however, that Malhotra hasn’t been the same since his eye injury.
Malhotra still brings value: he remains an unquestionably elite face-off man, and he’s extremely useful penalty killer. He’s also paid 2.5 million per season, which, is an awful lot for a fourth liner and penalty-kill specialist.
From a pure, amoral "business of hockey" perspective: buying out Malhotra’s contract is an appealing option. According to Capgeek it would save the Canucks 1.66 million against the cap in 2012-13, and cost them only 833 thousand the season after. 833k against the cap in 2013-14 is a paltry amount, and Laurence Gilman’s cap-wizardry would probably ensure that the team never even noticed it (even though Higgins, Edler, Burrows and Lapierre all are on contracts that expire following this upcoming season).
That said, Malhotra is a team leader, a local icon and an all-around good guy. He exudes the sort of character traits the Canucks want to project as a team, and in the community. As a General Manager, Gillis has proven himself to be an extremely loyal operative, so it’s possible he wouldn’t even consider this course of action.
Maybe Malhotra can find enough of his game to be a serviceable third line centre for the Canucks next season, in fact, we really hope he does. But for Alain Vigneault’s deployment schemes to work, having just a "serviceable" third line centre won’t cut it. Malhotra at this point looks to me like a useful penalty-killer, and a defensive zone start specialist. He’s a luxury item as a fourth line center, but, through no fault of his own, I don’t know that he fits in a legitimate contender’s top-nine forward group anymore. The entire thing is impossibly sad and hopefully he can prove me wrong.
I’m pretty sure this ship has sailed. Pahlsson is reportedly considering retirement anyway, and may play for Modo (Markus Naslund’s SEL team) next season.
Jordan Schroeder/Ryan Kesler
I tend to be very high on Jordan Schroeder’s prospects as an NHL pro. He’s undersized, but he’s extremely quick, moves the puck well and is responsible defensively. He doesn’t, however, fit the mold of an "Alain Vigneault third line centre."
There’s another guy, however, who does and that’s Ryan Kesler. Kesler recently had labrum surgery that will keep him off of the ice for six months, and Jordan Schroeder will have a tremendous opportunity this fall to win a spot in the Canucks top-six. If Schroeder can manage that, and if he is successful in that spot out of the gate, perhaps Kesler could take on the "enabler" role next season. Certainly Kesler has got all of the credentials (and then some): he’s a Selke winner, he’s a stellar two-way force, he wins face-offs and he can clearly drive play in tough circumstances.
Sure, Ryan Kesler isn’t paid five million a year to be a defensive specialist, and starting him less than 40% of the time in the offensive zone isn’t the most efficacious allocation of resources. But, if Schroeder is good enough to produce offense in 14 or so sheltered even-strength minutes per game next season, maybe it makes sense for Kesler (still easily the best two-way player on the team) to do the bulk of the heavy lifting next season.
The Open Market
While the Canucks have several reasonably attractive in-house options to address their "need" at third line centre, I’d suggest to you that the team probably believes another piece is needed. Certainly the club thought they needed a centre who wasn’t Lapierre or Malhotra for the third line at the trade deadline when they brought in Samme Pahlsson, and I don’t see any reason why the calculus would have changed on that front.
Luckily for the Canucks, there are a plethora of reasonable depth center options on the open-market this summer. While I’m not convinced any of them can "replace" what Malhotra brought to the table in 2010-11, you could do worse than the likes of Jarret Stoll, Dominic Moore, Paul Gaustad, Jim Slater, Chris Kelly, Jay McClement and Torrey Mitchell.
Of those names, I think we can cross Dominic Moore off of the list (simply because I don’t think anyone from the Moore family would ever willingly play for the Canucks franchise, and fair enough).
Jarret Stoll has had a marvelous playoff run and his presence in the middle would bring some much needed size to the Canucks. But before you get too excited: Stoll hasn’t really been counted on as a "tough minutes" option during his time in Los Angeles, and he’s likely to get overpaid this summer.
The same goes for Chris Kelly, who wasn’t tasked with shutting down the opposition’s top players this season in Boston, and whose offensive explosion was completely driven by the percentages.
Paul Gaustad and Torrey Mitchell are quality pieces, but I see them as really good fourth liners.
That leaves Jim Slater and Jay McClement, both of whom are very solid in the circle, play difficult minutes and are exceptional penalty-killers. Between the two, I somewhat prefer McClement who has more top-nine upside and is arguably the leagues best single penalty-killer, but I expect that he’ll be well sought after on July first.
The Trade Market
That the Canucks are going to try and move Roberto Luongo this summer is the worst kept secret in the league, and perhaps they could fetch a tough-minutes center in the return for their star netminder. Tampa Bay, for example, employs Nate Thompson and Dana Tyrell, both of whom are young, solid defensive centers. Ultimate Sedin troll Dave Bolland is also rumoured to be available, god forbid.
We also know that the Canucks were very interested in Carolina’s Brandon Sutter, and tried to pry him out of Raleigh in exchange for Cody Hodgson last season. Sutter is an absolute beast, and would be a great fit if the Canucks could find the right deal to appeal to Jim Rutherford (which, I highly doubt they could). Same goes for Dallas’ Steve Ott.
For Alain Vigneault’s deployment schemes to work, the Canucks need a borderline dominant possession player to hold down the third line pivot spot. Pahlsson wasn’t up to the task last season, and neither was Malhotra, while Lapierre never really got an extended look there. The club has several in-house options, some of which are reasonably attractive. As such, it’s probably not worth breaking the bank, in either cap-space or treasure, in order to address this particular area of need this summer.
If the Canucks can get the likes of Slater or McClement signed at a reasonable cap-hit, or swing a deal for a potential game-changer like Sutter – that would be excellent (even though that would probably mean the team is spending 6+ million on assorted depth centremen). However, if the Canucks go into the 2012-13 season with Henrik, Schroeder, Lapierre and Malhotra down the middle, and add Kesler to that mix when he’s fully recovered, they’ll still probably be a legitimate contender.