Delivering the Sauce: What Should the Forward Lines Look like when Booth and Kesler Return?

What are the Canucks going to do with their forward lines when Ryan Kesler and David Booth are both ready to return from the injured reserve? The Canucks haven’t been lighting the league on fire offensively, but not many expected them to without two of their best possession players.

Assuming Kesler and Booth are both back within the next week to 10 days (and that seems like a safe assumption based on what we’ve heard), how will Alain Vigneault put his lines together?

Well, he will have some options. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Scoring Depth

Jordan Schroeder has acquitted himself quite well over the past two weeks. His defensive and neutral zone play has been particularly impressive, and it has allowed him to see more ice time than a rookie center typically would with the Canucks (even with the Kesler injury). Centers have a lot of responsibility in Alain Vigneault’s system, and Schroeder has shown that he isn’t a liability without the puck. The offense will come as his comfort level increases – he has shown flashes of creativity on the power play and at even strength, especially with Mason Raymond.

Kassian has been really solid on the top line, but when push comes to shove I expect Burrows to be back there in big games and down the stretch. The Canucks won’t want to put too much pressure on Kassian, unless he proves he is ready for it by continuing to produce and bring the same level of intensity and effort to each game. Kassian is currently averaging 21 shifts per game, up from the 15 shifts per game he averaged in Vancouver after the trade in 2011-12. His training last summer has given him the conditioning necessary to play more, but will be be able to sustain in the long term?

Sedin – Sedin – Burrows/Kassian (depending on the time of game and opponent)

Higgins – Kesler – Booth

Raymond – Schroeder – Hansen

Malhotra – Lapierre – Weise/Kassian Volpatti

Move Kesler Over

In this Schroeder profile for the Canucks website, I mentioned the idea of moving Kesler to the right wing, similar to what happened when the Canucks signed Mats Sundin during the 2008-09 season.

It would allow Schroeder to stay on the roster, while still having a more typical shutdown line centered by Lapierre to give the tough minutes to. And it would give Booth and Kesler a speedy playmaker to play with. Kesler still had a lot of the responsibilities of a center when he played with Sundin and Demitra (more so because Sundin wasn’t the fleetest of foot), and he would likely reprise that role with a rookie as his center.

Sedin – Sedin – Kassian/Burrows 

Booth – Schroeder – Kesler

Higgins – Lapierre – Hansen

Volpatti – Malhotra – Weise/Kassian

I really like the above lines, but I’m not sure if Vigneault would be willing to give them a try at this point.

Classic Vigneault

However, the fact remains that Vigneault would probably prefer to not go with a 5-9 rookie as his third line center. Cody Hodgson centered the third line last year, but Kesler played the role of shutdown center (and his offensive production suffered accordingly). During Kesler’s 40 goal season in 2010-11, the tough minutes were swallowed up by Malhotra, allowing Kesler to show off his wrist shot and offensive prowess a bit more.

Sedin – Sedin – Burrows/Kassian

Raymond – Kesler – Booth

Higgins – Lapierre – Hansen

Volpatti – Malhotra – Weise/Kassian

These lines look a bit more like a “typical” hockey roster, with two scoring lines, a checking line, and a grinding/energy line. Raymond has been sneaky good to start the season, and he looks much stronger on the puck than he did at any point last year (which shouldn’t have been a surprise considering how serious his back injury from 2011 was). Raymond could play the role of distributor to his two American linemates, and it would allow Lapierre and his two buzz saws on the wing to eat up all of the tough matchups and defensive assignments.

The Pair System

This idea was floated by Thom Drance when we were talking the other night. Vigneault has gone with it in the past, and a lot of other coaches around the NHL like to use it from time to time as well. Instead of having line combinations, Vigneault would establish “pairs” or combinations of two players, and then a third player would rotate on and off of the line, depending on game situation, opposition players, and so on.

There are two potential sets of pairs I see with the current roster:

Sedin – Sedin

Kesler – Booth

Schroeder – Raymond

Malhotra – Lapierre

With Kassian, Burrows, Higgins, and Hansen rotating throughout the lineup. Burrows and Higgins in particular are very versatile players, which helps with this kind of roster structure.

Or without Schroeder:

Sedin – Sedin

Kesler – Booth

Lapierre – Hansen

Malhotra – Weise

With Burrows, Raymond, Higgins, and Kassian rotating throughout the lineup.

In Conclusion…

Vigneault is going to have to make some tough decisions in the next little while. Does Schroeder stick around, even when Kesler returns to the lineup? Does Vigneault trust Schroeder enough to give him a reasonably tough two-way role? Does he give Kesler the shutdown minutes again? Does he think about moving Kesler to the right side, where he flourished with Mats Sundin and Pavol Demitra back in 2008-09? What line combinations would you go with to give the Canucks the best chance to win?

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  • BrudnySeaby

    These are the good kinds of tough decisions.

    I’m surprised that you had an alternative slot for Kassian in most of those lines, but not for Burrows. I could see Vigneault rolling with Sedin/Sedin/Kassian and Burrows/Kesler/Booth for a really deadly top six, or Sedin/Sedin/Kassian, Higgins/Kesler/Booth, Raymond/Schroeder/Burrows, Malhotra/Lapierre/Hansen, for a pure-scoring top line, two balanced scoring/checking lines, and a really excellent pure checking line. The speed of the middle-six in that configuration would be scary.

    • BrudnySeaby

      Av went with in 2011, with the 3rd line taking on tough minutes and allowing Kelser’s line to play against the opponents bottom 6. This is when Vancouver had it’s greatest success.


    • BrudnySeaby

      The ideal part of a Kesler/Booth return (and everyone else is healthy) is you end up with a Hansen or Raymond on the 4th line. That is outstanding depth.

  • BrudnySeaby

    I hope that AV keeps Schroeder in the line-up. So far we’ve ben picking up points and it is only expected that we pick up more points when Kesler (and Booth) come back. As long as we keep doing that, keep Schroeder in the line-up so he can gain valuable experience.

    Basically the same goes for Kassian. Keep him up with the Sedins as much as possible [even though Burrows is (temporarily?) back with the twins to kick-start their play]. Having two rookies learn the ropes might prove valuable down the line and hopefully in a long play-off run.

    So in short, accommodate the young players as much and as long as possible as long as they don’t hurt the overall game outcome.

    • BrudnySeaby

      If the 3rd line can take on tough minutes, you could shelter Schroeder on a 4th line with Malhotra and Hansen/Raymond and create a line with a bit more scoring ability.

  • BrudnySeaby

    1(Sedin ,Sedin, Burrows),2(Booth, Kesler,Kassian)
    3(Raymiond, Schroeder, Hansen) 4(Higgins,Lapierre,Pinizzotto)

    These Line Combos would work much better. Kassian is much better than Higgins and should play on the second(right hand shot playing right wing helps too!!). Pinizzotto is is ready to play in Chicago and will be ready when both Kesler and Both are back. Volpatti AHL, Weise AHL, Malhotra…..Retire!!

    • khlhfs

      This is the configuration from last year with a young, unproven centre on the 3rd line that would leave the Kesler line with increased checking duties.

      What do you do if Schroeder’s line can’t score consistently? Kesler will be too busy going up against Toews or Kopitar or Thornton to score. That leaves you with one scoring line?

  • BrudnySeaby

    Great post Jeff. Interesting things to think about. I have a feeling that Schroeder gets pushed out of the line-up upon their return. He’s not a 3rd or 4th line guy, and I could see AV being hesitant to put him on the 2nd line, given the more experienced options we have.

    I do wonder though if Kesler or Booth really are only 10 days away. Kesler didn’t sound very confident when the media talked to him yesterday.

  • khlhfs

    Given that Schroeder’s Corsi is deep in the red and that he’s posted a mere 3 assists to this point. I’m curious what it is that makes you guys think he should be replacing Kesler (a selke winner and proven producer) as your #2 center?

  • BrudnySeaby

    And I don’t understand people who are so eager to see Malhotra retire or be traded from the Canucks. The guy has a ton of upside and is king in the face-off circle. Given that AV likes to deploy the lines differently from most coaches, I can’t see him give up on Malhotra and the advantage he brings on the dot.

    • khlhfs

      If you take a gander at the Canucks budget for next season you’ll notice that they are in a slight pinch (although lessened by the cap friendly deal edler signed.) They can reasonably only keep 1 of Lapierre or Malhotra and given the ages of both it’s clear that AV has, rightly, chosen Lapierre as the new 3rd line center. Everything you see this year is about grooming Lapierre for that role, IMO.

  • Malholtra isn’t getting 2.5 from anyone next year. With Luongo shipping out and the cap shrinking contract sizes, I could see Manny taking a haircut, resigning to stay with a contender he has roots with.