Delivering the Sauce: Max Lapierre Deserves a Shot in the Top-9

Max Lapierre was one of the most consistent and effective forwards during Vancouver’s ill-fated Stanley Cup run in 2011. He went up against some of the best centers in the Western Conference, and in keeping his head above water against tough competition – he fared pretty well for himself.

Despite his success in the 2011 postseason, Lapierre hasn’t really been given the opportunity to center the third line in Vancouver since. While his game may be better suited to fourth line minutes (he stays fresher, which, allows him to play a high energy brand of hockey each time he hops over the boards), I can’t shake the feeling that Lapierre deserves a long look on Vancouver’s third line.

Why? Let’s find out.

Thomas Drance took the third line vacancy to task back in May with this column. Drance wrote:

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.

As mentioned above, Lapierre did a great job when given the role during the postseason last year.

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.

An example of Lapierre’s strong play:

I agree with Drance, it is very odd that Lapierre hasn’t been given a chance to earn that role on a full-time basis. Perhaps the Canucks like Lapierre for his versatility, and the fact he can play all over the lineup: since the club has acquired him, he hasn’t really had set linemates (save for the 2011 playoffs).

The club traded third-line center Cody Hodgson away at the deadline back in March, and replaced him with a more prototypical checker in Samme Pahlsson. Pahlsson, who had clearly lost a few steps since his Conn Smythe-worthy performance in 2007 with the Anaheim Ducks, struggled mightily in Vancouver’s first round series against the Kings.

It can be difficult to properly evaluate Vancouver’s forwards, when compared with forwards on other teams because of the unique zone-start strategy that Alain Vigneault employs. In the 2011 postseason, Lapierre started only 29.1% of his shifts in the offensive zone. He faced the hardest competition of any Canuck forward (who suited up for at least 20 games), effectively taking over for Malhotra, who was out with an eye injury. Lapierre started only 22.2% of his shifts in the offensive zone last season (he suited up for all 82 regular season contests).

In his four previous seasons before joining the Canucks, Lapierre’s offensive zone start percentages were 39.7 (2007-08), 49.3 (2008-09), 47.6 (2009-10) and 46.3 (split between Montreal, Anaheim, and Vancouver). Unsurprisingly, Lapierre’s best offensive season in the NHL came during the season in which he saw the highest percentage of offensive zone starts – 15 goals and 28 points in 2008-09. The fact that he was able to score nine goals and chip in with 10 assists last season while playing such defensive minutes speaks to his versatility and his ability to not be an offensive black hole (for lack of a better term). It also speaks to the fact that Lapierre spent a handful of games playing on Henrik Sedin’s right-side after Daniel went out with a concussion…

Beyond defense, and his versatility, Lapierre also contributes positively in other ways. Some great digs from the So You’re An Expert blog:

Last season, he led the Canucks in penalties drawn per 60 minutes (1.1), and took fewer penalties per 60 minutes (0.8) than the likes of Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa, and Alex Burrows. In fact, he brought his penalty rate down under 1 for the first time since ’09.

Lapierre played a large role in making the Canucks the third best team in overall faceoff percentage this past season (behind Boston, and San Jose). He was 52.1% overall in the circle, which placed him in the top-35 in the entire NHL. Where he really stood out though was in the defensive zone, where he won 55% of his draws.

Beyond Lapierre, there are a number of other interesting in-house candidates to fill the vacancy. Jordan Schroeder strikes me as having the potential to be a solid two-way forward eventually, but as a rookie he definitely won’t be trusted to play a defense-focused role. Alex Friesen could be a prospect to watch in a few years – he has the skills (faceoff ability, skating, defensive awareness, physical play) to succeed in the position, even if he is only 5-10 and 180 pounds.

Malhotra still serves a purpose on the team – he wins a ton of faceoffs, and he is a respected voice in the lockerroom – but he isn’t an offensive contributor at this point (and who knows if he ever will be again). The Canucks will need more offense from whoever they plug in on the third line…

On the trade front, the Canucks could look to pick someone up in a trade. Marcel Goc on Florida is an intriguing name who played extremely difficult minutes for the Panthers quite effectively last season. He’s got the ability, I think, to be effective and reasonably productive even if he were to take a Malhotra/Slater-like 400 or so defensive zone draws next season. Matthew Lombardi in Toronto appears to be the odd man out on the roster there, and could probably be had for a song. And then there are the rumors that Chicago offered Dave Bolland to the Canucks…

Also on Wednesday it was reported that the Canucks and Jason Arnott have a "mutual interest" in possibly teaming up next season. Arnott doesn’t have the legs to play the role he used to, but in limited minutes he could still be an asset for the team.

As it stands right now, Ryan Kesler is likely going to miss part of October. However, he may not even miss any games if the start of the season is delayed. Assuming Kesler returns fully healthy without missing any action (a big assumption, mind you), the Canucks still need to fill the third-line centre spot. Malhotra can play a fourth line role while taking a lot of faceoffs, but would that bump Lapierre to the wing? His late season offensive success in 2011-12 aside, Lapierre struggled in Montreal after moving to the wing, and he was eventually traded to Anaheim after losing his spot on the roster…

The way I see it, it’s clearly time for the Canucks to reward Lapierre for his hard work and solid play in a variety of roles. It’s time to give Lapierre an extended shot to play as the club’s full-time third line center.

  • Mantastic your comment implies we should have rewarded Daniel and Henrik for their Art Ross seasons by putting them on the 4th line.

    Lapierre deserves a 3rd line spot because all indications suggest he would play very well there.

    My issues with this are twofold. First, there are other options to fill this role. It’s entirely possible that Manny regains his form. If no, it’s entirely possible that someone is available via trade or FA. If the role can be filled by someone else then Max can keep doing what he’s doing. As an extension of that point, he ain’t broke right now, so why fix him? The Canucks have had an issue with their 4th line for years and Lapierre is the lynchpin of any solution to that problem this year.

    Second issue is we’re trying to re-sign Edler and Burrows next year and Lapierre is a UFA currently getting 1.0 against the cap. He’s getting a raise. If he’s our 3rd line centre it suddenly becomes a bigger raise. I’d rather not have to pay him that much, and as a 4C his price tag drops.

    • Mantastic

      that’s no where CLOSE to what i am implying…

      Canucks “3rd line” (1st checking line) traditionally does the heaviest lifting of the 4 lines and the “4th line” (2nd checking line) does the 2nd heaviest lifting…

      from elevating lappy from 4th to 3rd line center would be giving him more responsibily meaning more minutes facing harder opponents, worse ZS ratio, so that is hardly a “reward”

      Sedins demoted to the 4th line is no where close to what i imply… meaning they face the 2nd hardest opponents and play the least amount of minutes…

      • But you are missing one thing, probably the most important thing. The quality of Lapierres linemates goes up exponentially by moving to the 3rd C role. Given his production on the 4th is it really inconceivable his production will rise with much better linemates.
        Furthermore, playing against the teams “top players” only means tougher defensive assignments. Often the teams best players are not the greatest at playing defence.

  • And being on the 1st vs. 4th line means more minutes and more responsibility via pressure to score… so why would being promoted from 4 to 1 be a “reward”, by your logic?

    Really, being given a bigger role on the team is always a reward. And a bigger role always implies more responsibility and harder minutes. Those players are more valuable, and players WANT that. So of course it’s a reward.

    • Mantastic

      going from 4th to 1st (for the CANUCKS) would be a reward because he would playing in an offensive line and with the Sedins; easier ZS, higher chance to score and worse opponents, instead of grueling defensive tasks.

      traditionally with any other team, being bumped up from the 4th to 3rd would be a reward but not with the Canucks, which are far from traditional

      if you can’t understand that, how can you cheer for the canucks?

  • KleptoKlown

    A coach shouldn’t downplay a player because that player becomes a UFA the following off season.

    I like Lapierre as the utility player. He seems to adapt quite well in whatever situation he is put in. He’s definitely better than a 4th line player getting 6-8 minutes a game, and would be perfect playing a 3rd line checking role so long as he has the proper wingers.

    Imagine signing Doan and dropping Burrows to the 3rd line to play with Lappy…could be an agitating line.

  • KleptoKlown

    I think Lappy could do it but it leaves us without much depth – not good come playoff time. I’d be much happier if we got Goc from the panthers – would be a great player under AV.

  • KleptoKlown

    Totally agree, great article.

    It’s really strange Lappy wasn’t used on the 3rd line C last season. He maybe played 2 or 3 games there. There must be some reason why AV doesn’t want him there.

    I think Gillis needs to get a centre in the Luongo deal. He needs Huberdeau or Bjugstad. Kesler is out till Dec (as per his agent), and he’s been seriously injured in the last 4 straight seasons. He’s Salo_v2. They can no longer rely on him to be healthy in the post season (the probabilities are against him). No more short term fixes, time to bring in a young guy who can move up when Kes is injured. Lappy can take the tough mins until then.

    On a side note, I bet Gillis is asking for Bjugstad and Goc. Goc has a very affordable contract and it expires in 2 yrs. Coincidentally, Bjugstad will finish college in 2 yrs (if he doesn’t leave earlier).