On Vancouver’s Center Depth, Steve Pinizzotto versus Aaron Volpatti, and Mindless Panic


"Welp the Canucks lost this guy on waivers, guess we’re screwed" – a dummy.
Photo Credit: Rich Lam/Getty Images

I can’t remember a more histrionic week in Canucks coverage. I suppose that’s inevitable when the team loses a couple of games in ugly fashion, will be without their best two-way forward for another month at least, and waives a fourth liner (who they maybe could’ve traded for a late-round draft pick, I guess). But nothing we’ve seen this week dramatically changes my assessment of this club or their trajectory, and the tone of the conversation seems particularly divorced from reality (even by Vancouver sports media standards).

Look, I get it, it’s tough to sell papers these days, but here’s the thing about cogent analysis: if the tone shifts dramatically from week to week, then that analysis probably isn’t of a very high quality. We all know that the Canucks aren’t a contender without Ryan Kesler, this isn’t a surprise, but the timeline we’ve been given for his return suggests that he’ll be back in time for the playoffs. It strikes me that this recent "panic" is unfounded and simplistic and we may as well address that at length. 

The Kesler Injury and Center Depth

Without Ryan Kesler in the lineup, the Canucks are not an elite hockey team by NHL standards. But that doesn’t mean they’re not a playoff team – not even close – they remain a very good club with enviable goaltending, a fringe top-five defense-corps and one of the best top-lines in the league. Not only is that enough to win the Northwest Division this season, but it would be enough to scrape into the postseason as a fifth or sixth seed in the Western Conference even if the Canucks played in a tougher division.

Kesler is probably the Canucks’ single most critical player on special teams, he’s their best face-off man and he’s easily their best player in all three zones at even-strength. In short, he’s irreplaceable and his absence will reverberate throughout the lineup.

All that being true, however, he’s out for four to six weeks as a result of his broken foot, and appears very likely to return in time for the playoffs. After two straight President’s Trophy victories, the Canucks aren’t going to be judged on their regular season performance anyway, and with a whole whack of games remaining against the moribund Northwest Division – I don’t see this as a huge cause for concern.

Yes, a collection of centers including Henrik Sedin, Jordan Schroeder, Maxim Lapierre and Andrew Ebbett isn’t good enough for a team with designs on the Stanley Cup. But that statement squirrels the debate since that group doesn’t need to be "Stanley Cup good" over the next six weeks, they just need to be "tread water for a month and change" good, and that’s a task they’re probably up to. 

Canucks fans, taking their cues from the media, love to bitch and moan about Vancouver’s ever narrowing "window" and in particular focus on Alain Vigenault’s mistreatment of and inability to develop young players. This myth, by the way, remains the most fact-resistant misnomer in conversations about the team, considering how it ignores the career arcs of Kesler, Burrows, Edler, Bieksa, Tanev, Hansen, Raymond, Schneider; or in other words, about half of the club’s current roster. Of late, this notion in particular ignores Jordan Schroeder, who at the age of 22 has emerged as a capable top-9 centreman at the NHL level this season.

Were it not for Jordan Schroeder’s performance over the past month, I might be significantly more worried about Vancouver’s centre depth in Kesler’s absence. But Schroeder has crushed it in his first seventeen NHL games and his partnership with Mason Raymond and David Booth holds particular promise going forward. Schroeder’s production isn’t quite there yet at even-strength (that’s mostly percentage related) and he’s playing Downy soft competition, but he’s been remarkably steady as a two-way player. 

Jordan Schroeder isn’t ready to excel in Ryan Kesler-type minutes facing the toughest matchups the opposition has to offer, but in a prescribed second-line role he looks to have the ability to help a good team win games. The Canucks will count on him to maintain his current level of performance over the subsequent six weeks while Kesler’s foot heels, and they’ll also need to rely on one of Alex Burrows or Maxim Lapierre to do battle against the top-end of their opponent’s rosters in Kesler’s stead. More on that in a bit, but I see good reason to believe that Schroeder is up to the task.

Meanwhile at the bottom end of the roster, the Canucks have Maxim Lapierre and Andrew Ebbett, and here’s where the Canucks may want to make a move in Kesler’s absence. It’s pretty clear that the club doesn’t like the idea of Lapierre in a top-9 role though he’s proven capable in that spot on occassion in the past (most notably during the 2011 playoffs). Andrew Ebbett on the other hand, really shouldn’t be relied upon to be more than a short-term stop-gap in a top-9 role.

When Kesler was out to begin the season, the Canucks turned to Alex Burrows, who centered Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen on a specialized defensive line that got their teeth kicked in possession-wise but played low-event hockey successfully against the likes of Taylor Hall and Anze Kopitar. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Canucks turn to that group again (with Kassian bumping up to Burrows’ spot on the top-line) in lieu of some sort of player acquisition.

In the meantime, we should expect the Canucks to kick the tires on guys like David Steckel (a pressbox fixture in Toronto this season), who wouldn’t cost much in the way of asset treasure to acquire and who can at least win faceoffs and play 10 minutes a game should Ebbett continue to underwhelm.

So if we consider the all-world dependability of Henrik Sedin, the emergence of Jordan Schroeder, and the low-cost of adding a bottom-six centreman on the trade market or the waiver wire; this situation seems an awful lot less dire than some are making it out to be. Add in the inhibited aspirations of the team over the next six weeks in fending off the Wild and the Oilers in order to win the Northwest Division in Kesler’s absence, and if you’re seriously questioning the direction of the team as a result of this: you’re off your fucking rocker.

Aaron Volpatti vs. Steve Pinizzotto

Losing Aaron Volpatti on the waiver wire, when apparently teams were lining up to claim him, is a bit of an odd maneuver. Surely the Canucks knew that they woudln’t be able to sneak him through (and if they didn’t, that’s some weak asset management) and I don’t quite understand why they didn’t deal him for at least a late-round draft pick. This is the rare baffling maneuver from the Canucks brain-trust – who have managed the waiver wire and retained depth as well as any NHL club over the past four years.

But realistically, we’re talking about a late-round pick – a lottery ticket with a hundredth of a percentage chance of turning into anything useful several years down the line. This isn’t a huge loss and it’s possible that the Canucks just weren’t recieving any offers worth a damn, partly because they had no leverage (other teams knew they had to expose Volpatti on waivers, and were reluctant to pay up).

If this was a typical thing that happened continually to the Canucks, I’d criticize the management team. But it seems to me that they were caught between a rock and a hard place with Pinizzotto’s return from injury. On the heels of bad news regarding Kesler and a couple of bad defeats, the timing stinks, but this is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.

Anyway, it’s worth remembering that Volpatti is a likable player but he’s also a 27 year old forward with zero upside and limited speed. He’s not a player who is a complete liability at five-on-five – and for that reason alone he was a reasonably valuable piece – and he’s supremely replacable.

I also think there’s good reason to prefer Steve Pinizzotto anyway.

Just based on their AHL stats, it’s clear that Pinizzotto is the more skilled player offensively. You might also remember that Volpatti wasn’t even going to make the team out of training camp in 2011 until Pinizzotto got injured and Volpatti one-punched Brad Winchester to earn a spot on the opening night roster. The Canucks have a history of preferring Pinizzotto and based on my having watched the two at the AHL level, I think that’s justified. 

As for those of you who think the Canucks, a team unfairly noted for lacking "toughness" or whatever, couldn’t afford to lose Aaron Volpatti because he’s a quality fighter and a good hitter – you need to get a load of what Pinizzotto can do. Here’s a fun fight from a couple of years ago where he devastates a Flyers farmhand with a hit on the forecheck (the sort of hit, I might add, that Volpatti wouldn’t even get to because he’d be a step or two behind the play) and then answers the bell against a pretty tough guy in Zac Rinaldo and absolutely feeds him:

From what I’ve seen of the two: Pinizzotto is the more talented player, he’s the faster skater and he equals Volpatti (at least) in his hitting and martial skills. As for those going on and on about Pinizzotto’s "fragility," it’s worth remembering that Volpatti had offseason surgery this past summer so it’s not like he’s been the model of durability either. Frankly, this is a no-brainer in my view.

Conclusion

This week has done nothing to change my assessment of the Vancouver Canucks. Kesler’s injury hurts, obviously, but they remain one of five or six realistic Stanley Cup contenders this season – albeit it a step below the Blackhawks, Kings, Penguins and Bruins. WIthout Kesler there might be a few tense moments where it’s not clear whether or not the Canucks can ultimately win the Northwest Division, but I doubt even that’ll happen. With their goaltending quality, defensive depth and dynamite top-line: the Canucks have enough to limp into homeice advantage for the first round of the postseason. If Kesler can return at full speed by late April, this will be a club to be reckoned with. And no, losing Aaron Volpatti on waivers does fucking bupkis to change that, come on.

  • JCDavies

    Nice breakdown of the situation. I don’t see the team making any major moves before the deadline…but last year they shocked me with the Hodgson move, so we’ll see.

    As an aside, I can’t help but think that if only the bandwagon fan-base read more Canucks Army and listened to less radio we could be reasonable about these ‘dire’ situations.

  • @Alex I’m not sure if it’s the Team1040 chatter or the newspapers, but I do tend to think that the sports media in Vancouver is supremely reactionary. Lots of the guys are really talented and I enjoy reading and listening to their shap, but yeah, lots of over-reactions to just about everything for some reason.

  • Thank you for the in-depth reasonable analysis of the current situation. I wish I could take this post, put it into cookie form, and then shove it into the mouths of the doom and gloom Canucks fans that seem to be sprouting up en masse lately.

  • JCDavies

    “Look, I get it, it’s tough to sell papers these days, but here’s the thing about cogent analysis: if the tone shifts dramatically from week to week, then that analysis probably isn’t of a very high quality. ”

    This. So much of this!!! Thank you for saying it.