Fixing the Fourth Line: The Left Wing

Tanner Glass – Wikicommons Media

It has been a while since the Canucks have had a consistent trio of players on the fourth forward unit. Max Lapierre, for the most part, has played the role as fourth line center since coming over at the 2011 trade deadline, but to say that he has seen a revolving door of wingers would be a significant understatement.

Just because a fourth line is the fourth most important forward unit, that doesn’t mean that it should be overlooked.

There aren’t many NHL teams with a consistent fourth line nowadays, though. As depth players mature and improve, their salary demands increase. And because of this, teams continue to have to find more cost-effective options to place on the fourth line. This can be done through the draft or through smart open-market signings.

Over the next week, the past, present, and future of Vancouver’s fourth unit will be analyzed. Today, we look at the left winger(s).

The past

All line combinations have been pulled from DobberHockey’s Frozen Pool Fantasy Tools. Let’s start with 2008-09, shall we? The first season of the Mike Gillis tenure saw a fourth line of tough guys Darcy Hordichuk and Rick Rypien centered by shot blocker Ryan Johnson.

Hordichuk was signed by the Canucks on July 1st, 2008, and he played in 73 regular season games in 2008-09 (four goals and an assist). He obviously wasn’t brought in for his hockey playing abilities – Hordichuk was regarded as one of the tougher guys in the league, he didn’t take bad penalties, and he was a great teammate, too. He was highly regarded at the time of the signing, as evidenced by the fact that the Hurricanes gave up a draft pick to secure his rights from Nashville before free agency actually began. That kind of trade doesn’t happen often with enforcers.

Unsurprisingly, Hordichuk’s possession numbers were awful:

SEASON NAME TEAM Corsi Rel QoC Corsi Relative Off Zone Start %
2008-2009 Season DARCYHORDICHUK VAN -1.25 -19.9 37.6

He saw fluff minutes (against opposing fourth lines and third defensive pairings), and he struggled to get the puck out of the defensive zone (this was particularly apparent against Chicago in the second round of the playoffs, where Johnson, Hordichuk, and Rypien were completely over their head).

Their postseason numbers were u-g-l-y:

SEASON NAME Corsi Relative
2008-2009 Playoffs RICKRYPIEN -19.7
2008-2009 Playoffs DARCYHORDICHUK -33
2008-2009 Playoffs RYANJOHNSON -41.1

That fourth line, however, gave us one of the most surprising goals in Canucks history:

Hordichuk originally had signed a two-year contract, but he played in only 53 games in 2009-10. His possession numbers that season were nearly identical to the one previous. Wingers Tanner Glass and Matt Pettinger also saw time on the fourth line – Glass played over on the right side a bit, too. Glass turned out to be a good find by the pro scouting department – he wasn’t as tough as Hordichuk in terms of fighting, but he was better at everything else related to the game of hockey. Pettinger was brought over in the Matt Cooke trade and his tenure was a forgettable one.

Hordichuk didn’t play in any of the 12 postseason games that season (against Los Angeles and Chicago). The fourth line left wingers consisted of Michael Grabner, Tanner Glass, and Matt Pettinger. Grabner’s possession numbers (in a sheltered role) were pretty good that spring.

Hordichuk wasn’t re-signed for 2010-11. The Canucks were the best team in hockey that year, but their fourth line was still very much a mixed bag. Peter Schaefer, Tanner Glass, Sergei Shirokov, Jeff Tambellini, and Aaron Volpatti all saw time on the left side during the regular season. Glass established himself as the fourth line left winger during the postseason, although Tambellini still found his way into the lineup thanks to his skill and versatility. There was no set combination, though – Glass played only 6% of his shifts with his most common linemates:

Frequency Strength Line Combination

And it was more of the same in the postseason that year:

Frequency Strength Line Combination

And compare that to Boston’s fourth line during the same Cup run:

Frequency Strength Line Combination

The Canucks didn’t re-sign Glass (which has turned out to be a mistake), and he headed to Winnipeg on a two-year deal to play for the Jets. Glass wasn’t a great player, but he was very serviceable in the role, and Vancouver has struggled to replace his consistency. In fact, they tried to re-sign him last summer, but he chose to go with the Penguins instead (the offers were reportedly identical).

2011-12 brought more of the same – an uncertain fourth line. Volpatti was back. Mike Duco was supposed to challenge for a spot, but he proved in short order to be nothing more than an AHL energy guy. Manny Malhotra shifted over to the left wing (although he still took faceoffs), as he wasn’t as effective a two-way center after the brutal eye injury. There was a bit more stability that season on the fourth unit after Dale Weise was claimed on waivers from the Rangers. Lapierre centering Malhotra and Weise was the most common unit:

Frequency Strength Line Combination

And that brings us to 2013. To be frank, the fourth line was a mess this season. Volpatti was lost on waivers. Tom Sestito came over to replace him. Sestito is a big guy and a good skater, but he isn’t very good at hockey. His re-signing was a bit of a curious one. As a 13th or 14th forward, Sestito is fine to have around. But he isn’t an everyday fourth line left winger on a good hockey club. Steve Pinizzotto failed to deliver much of anything – like Duco, he was brought in with a lot of hype from management, and didn’t really accomplish a whole lot. Another miss by the pro scouts.

The present

Why have the Canucks been unable – or unwilling – to find a long-term fit for the fourth line? They made a mistake letting Glass walk. Duco and Pinizzotto were both misses (not Tommi Santala bad, mind you). Sestito isn’t the answer. Billy Sweatt has completely stagnated in the AHL, too. When he was signed, many expected him to develop into a Todd Marchant-like speedster on a checking line, but he isn’t an NHL prospect at this point. Is Sweatt, a former 2nd round draft pick, simply bad development, or is it just a case of a player not taking the next step?

Having a good fourth line isn’t vital to the success of a team in the regular season, but it is in the playoffs. Look at the four remaining clubs as an example. Boston’s fourth line is the best in hockey, and it isn’t close. Pittsburgh doesn’t have a consistent fourth unit, but whatever trio they ice is always quality – imagine having Brandon Sutter on Vancouver’s fourth line? That is called depth, by the way. Chicago and Detroit have done a great job developing late round draft picks like Marcus Kruger and Joakim Andersson, respectively, and both organizations have also done a great job with pro scouting in filling out their bottom six spots (Viktor Stalberg, Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad, Michal Frolik, Drew Miller, and Patrick Eaves, among others).

The Kings have drafted really well – even picks that have failed to develop into scoring players have found homes in the NHL – this includes Trevor Lewis, who has quietly developed into a really good hockey player. Dwight King and Brad Richardson are two others.

Darryl Sutter has had a hand in LA’s much-improved fourth unit:

When Sutter took over the Kings, the previous head coach, Terry Murray, was regularly dressing fighter Kevin Westgarth in his lineup. That stopped almost instantly when Sutter took over and the Kings fourth line was then made up of guys like Brad Richardson, Jordan Nolan, Colin Fraser and Kyle Clifford. Those guys all have toughness, but they also have enough skill to consistently outplay other teams’ fourth-line tough guys and fighters. And that was a huge advantage for the Kings last season.

The future

Internal options

Sestito is under contract for two more years at $750,000 per. The team must have seen something in him, or have plans to use him as an extra forward. He is young and it appears that they are worried about not having any toughness on the roster. No real other explanation for the signing. There are zero other left wing options in the organization. Literally. None.

Weise is a right winger. Kassian is a right winger who has struggled on the left side (especially with outlet plays in the defensive zone). Sweatt and Pinizzotto won’t be back. The rest of the depth chart is a sad state of affairs, quite frankly.

External Options

This is really the only option for the Canucks (again, unless they want to use Sestito as an everyday player).

Bickell is a UFA (as is Stalberg), but he is looking more and more like a top nine forward with his strong play this season. And he will very likely receive a contract with more zeros in it than one typically given to a fourth line winger. Matt Cooke is also a UFA, and he’s the last really good fourth line winger the Canucks have had (he eventually worked his way up to the top line in Todd Bertuzzi’s absence). But Cooke’s reputation will follow him everywhere, and he is in his mid 30’s. Other intriguing options include Raffi Torres (another player with a reputation), Ruslan Fedotenko (well past his prime as an effective NHL player), Blake Comeau, Eric Nystrom, and Matt Hendricks.

Of all of the options listed above, Comeau is the most intriguing. He’s only 27 (young for a UFA), he has 361 games of NHL experience, and he is a pretty decent depth player, too. He isn’t a fighter or a banger, but he can skate, make plays, pitch in offensively and not cost your team while playing 8-10 minutes a night. Comeau has a 24-goal season in the NHL to his credit – how many potential fourth line options can say that? He played his junior hockey in Kelowna and makes his summer home there, too. That being said, if all Kelowna residents wanted to play here, the Canucks would be a perennial all-star team.

Comeau was traded at the deadline from Calgary to Columbus for a 5th round draft pick. It was a very “meh” move at the time, although Comeau did have a nice finish to the season for the Jackets (five points in nine games – the same number of points Hordichuk had in 73 games back in 2008-09).

The Canucks need to rebuild their fourth line. Finding a center is the most important part of that, but they shouldn’t neglect the wing position, either. As Gillis has found out, it isn’t easy to find – or keep – quality depth forwards in the NHL.

My suggestion – sign Blake Comeau (or find the next Tanner Glass in the AHL or elsewhere). It is time to find some stability for the bottom six.

  • orcasfan

    When you say that there are no “other left wing options in the organization”, why are you ignoring Blomstrand and Mallet? Not saying they would be a fit on the 4th line, but you never know.

  • antro

    Do you think the Canucks have given up on Lapierre? That would seem to be a mistake, because he doesn’t seem like a bad 4th line centre. I’m not sure what his salary demands are now.

  • orcasfan

    In terms of icing a competitive team in 2013-2014, the biggest worry is the Canucks using Gaunce & Lain as their 3rd and 4th line centres due to cap restrictions.

    Not that faceoffs are everything, but there is basically no way the Canucks are even an average faceoff team if too many of the draws go to Gaunce, Lain and/or Schroeder.

    Also, while Billy Sweatt will probably never be anything valuable on a contending NHL roster, Gillis does deserve credit for adding lottery tickets to the organization. All big market cap teams with owners who want to win should be doing the same.

    Tanev, Lack & Sweatt might just be pieces to round out the roster or field a competitive AHL team. But it’s good to see our big market team acting like one.

    • Hendricks is a legit middle-weight, averaging 10+ fights per 82 games played. He is also very strong on the faceoff dot, and could take the off-hand draws for Lappy. Having two guys on the fourth unit that can win over 53% of their draws would be a definite asset.

  • Mantastic

    All these problems with our depth on the fourth and third line can be traced back to all the picks that have been traded over the past years. Quality depth players are drafted and developed and play on Entry level deals. Other wise your over paying for depth (ie Malhotra, Ballard)or your signing other teams cast offs (ie. Oreskovich, Hordichuck).

      • Mantastic

        To be fair Malhotra was invaluable, and was really much more than a 4th line center prior to the injury. Losing Malhotra permanently did serious damage to the Canucks. I mean just look at the woeful faceoff numbers from this past season.

      • Mantastic

        Well the management is now in a position where they no longer have a choice but to start using some ELC’s. I wonder if Schroeder takes the 3rd line C position for good now?

        • Mantastic

          Manny was bad luck no doubt.

          At the same time, management has known about his eye injury for the last two years. Specifically heading into this year, it was quite obvious another centre was needed.

          But Gillis never acted on a goaltender trade and, thus, $4 million or more was on the bench the entire season.

          And with Kesler clearly a guy who needs to be counted on less, it would be nice if the system had something better than Schroeder.

          Schroeder would be fortunate to have a Kyle Wellwood-type career. And management probably doesn’t want to rely on a Wellwood-type player.

  • Mantastic

    They have to completely re-work their bottom 6. It should start with acquiring Boyd Gordon this summer.

    Also curious how Darren Archiblad would look in Van on the 4th line.

    • Mantastic

      A lot of teams are going to want a checking centre like Boyd Gordon. If he gets upwards of $2 million, it would be very difficult to fit him in. The Canucks probably can’t offer the best contract for Gordon like they did for Manny (if I’m not mistaken).

      And with Kesler’s injuries, what exactly is the offense going to be when he inevitably goes down?

      That’s why Gillis would probably prefer to also acquire someone like a Bozak or Cullen (not that these guys are studs or anything).

      But, again, the Canucks simply don’t have the cap space without getting rid of a Booth or Burrows on top of Luongo & Ballard.

    • Mantastic

      As good as Lappy is as a 4th liner, if the Canucks want to be proactive about rehabilitating their reputation with the refs, he’s one of the most obvious guys to sacrifice. Even though he did a good job of cutting down on the penalties this year.

  • JCDavies

    “fixing the 4th line is the least of the canucks problem right now. try focusing on fixing the top 6 first.”

    “They have to completely re-work their bottom 6. It should start with acquiring Boyd Gordon this summer. “

    It’s always a good thing when a team needs re-work their top 6 and their bottom 6 …

  • Lapierre is a good player. However, the team appears to be wanting a new look there. He hasn’t been offered a contract and there have been zero talks.

    I’d say you could find 25 or 26 NHL teams who would like to upgrade or improve their fourth line. The key is going about it properly.