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.