Aaron Volpatti and the “New Age Fourth Liner”

Aaron Volpatti does something that Darcy Hordichuk can’t…
Be on the ice at the same time as the opposition’s top-line.

Occasionally, albeit rarely, a story like Aaron Volpatti re-signing with the Canucks – falls through the cracks and we don’t comment on it for a couple of days. On Friday, however, Ivy League graduate, pugilist and Revelstoke native Aaron Volpatti re-upped with Vancouver’s club on a one year deal worth $600,000 in the NHL, and $105,000 in the AHL (or the maximum amount an AHLer can be paid without requiring re-entry waivers when he is shuttled between the big club, and their affiliate). 

Read past the jump for more.

 Last season Aaron Volpatti appeared in 23 games before he was sidelined for the rest of the regular season with a torn labrum, and the season previous he appeared in 15 games as a call-up with the Canucks. In his 38 career NHL regular season games: Volpatti has laid out big hits, fought 7 times (amassing a 1-6 win/loss record according to hockeyfights.com) and occasionally contributed some offense (2 G 1 A 3 Pts). 

Going into last season, it looked like the Canucks had something of a log-jam in terms of fourth line wingers. If that’s a spot of hyperbole, and it is, then at least there was a significant level of competition at training camp to begin the year. Mark Mancari was seen as too slow, Mike Duco emerged as a fan favorite but was probably seen as too small, Victor Oreskovich quickly wore out his welcome, Owen Nolan was PTO fodder, Steve Pinozotto impressed but got hurt, and Aaron Volpatti outlasted them all. He sealed his place on the opening night roster with a stellar preseason performance in San Jose, where he blocked several shots on a couple lovely penalty-killing sequences, and memorably one-punched Brad Winchester:

When Mike Gillis subsequently claimed Dale Weise off of waivers, it became apparent that, of the fourth line candidates listed above, only one had made the team, and that guy was Aaron Volpatti.

In the first couple of months of the 2011-12 season, the fourth line played reasonably well in difficult circumstances. Volpatti and his most frequent line-mates (Maxim Lapierre and Dale Weise) were sheltered in terms of competition, and were significantly underwater by the underlying numbers, but they started four times as many shifts in the defensive-zone as the offensive-zone and generally were successful at driving play forward. As an energy-line, they were as good as the Canucks have had in years, though that isn’t saying much. Most importantly: Aaron Volpatti averaged just a hair under 9 minutes of ice-time per game, nearly all of it at even-strength.

The Stanley Cup Final this past season was played between the New Jersey Devils and the Los Angeles Kings – two teams with quality fourth lines. Their fourth lines played a big role in both club’s respective playoff success. In summarizing how the LA Kings won the Cup, Gabriel Desjardins of Behindthenet.ca singled out the bottom of the Kings roster:

The bottom six on the [LA Kings] roster… are somewhat unique in the NHL: they can all play. And they cost less than $4M between them. A better decision than stocking your fourth line with fighters.

At the end of the same blog post, Desjardins discussed five lessons NHL teams can take from LA’s success and he rounded back to this point, stating: "Make sure your bottom six can play. No goons."

While Aaron Volpatti has built his reputation as a pugilist, he’s not a heavy-weight (185 pounds) and the underlying numbers point to a guy who can at least play replacement level hockey on the fourth line. He’s 27, so he’s unlikely to improve much beyond that, but for what it’s worth he understands the importance of being more than a brawler at the NHL level. Here’s what he told Brad Ziemer last week:

"I know what role I need to fill and I am comfortable with it [but] I think I can contribute more offensively. I just want to concentrate on getting better. The new-age fourth-liner isn’t playing four or five minutes a night any more. You have to be able to play the game."

That’s a really nice quote. Smarts don’t necessarily win hockey games, but I still like to root for a guy who can flash some intelligence. Beyond that, there’s some reason to believe that Volpatti can fulfill the ideal of a "new-age fourth-liner" for the Canucks, and contribute regularly as more than just a knuckler, but as a hockey player too.