Canucks Team Needs: Third Line Centre

In looking for a depth centre this summer, Mike Gillis has to do better than Samme Pahlsson.

That the Canucks have struggled mightily to replace Manny Malhotra over the past couple of seasons is, or at least should be, obvious to anyone who has followed the Canucks closely the past few years. General Manager Mike Gillis even admitted as much in a Team1040 appearance earlier this month, describing the loss of Manny Malhotra as "devastating" and adding that "I know some people think you just go out and replace those kind of guys but you don’t."

Whether replacing your ideal third-line centreman Manny Malhotra is easy or not, it’s something this Canucks club requires this summer. Malhotra’s eye-injury left a lacuna in the middle of the club’s third-line, a breach that the club has sought to address at consecutive trade deadlines with the acquisitions of Samme Pahlsson and Derek Roy respectively. Needless to say, neither Pahlsson nor Roy proved up to the task.

With Henrik Sedin turning thirty-three this offseason and Ryan Kesler beginning to earn a reputation as "injury prone" the club’s lack of top-nine centre depth has taken on an increased degree of urgency this summer. It is, without doubt, the team’s greatest area of need, which is why the third-line centre position will kick off our "Canucks Team Needs" series this week. Read past the jump.

The Diagnosis

Remember that show Blind Date, that captioned people on first dates with pop-up video style word bubbles, some of which had their own characters? Well one of those characters was Obvious Guy, and he’d like to chime in and say  that "The Canucks had significant issues at centre last season."

Vancouver’s issues at centre were compounded this past season by Ryan Kesler’s unlucky re-injury – he broke his foot blocking a shot in his very first game back after recovering from offseason labrum surgery. They were further exacerbated by Mike Gillis’ decision shut down Manny Malhotra, who Vancouver’s General Manager felt lacked the vision to appropriately defend himself in an NHL game.

The losses of Malhotra and Kesler left the club with only two tried and tested NHL pivots in Henrik Sedin and fourth liner Maxim Lapierre. Beyond that the club relied on out of position wingers like Alex Burrows, Mason Raymond and Chris Higgins, minor league caliber journeymen like Andrew Ebbett, and a raw, undersized rookie in Jordan Schroeder. The 2013 season may have only lasted 48 games, but with Andrew Ebbett taking a regular shift in the top-nine, those forty-eight games felt pretty damn long to Canucks fans.

This trial and error approach to the third-line centre position worked sufficiently well for the Canucks to win the Northwest Division, but let’s be serious, that’s not really worth celebrating. With Kesler and Malhotra out of the lineup, Vancouver’s face-off winning percentage dove to the bottom of the league. Meanwhile, because the club lacked a dependable "tough minutes" centre option in the bottom-six, Henrik Sedin was occassionally deployed on a specialized defensive zone start unit (with Higgins and Burrows). Henrik crushed it in that role, but it wasn’t an optimal allocation of resources.

Ultimately in score close situations, Vancouver’s opponents outscored and out-possessed every Canucks centreman a season ago, except for Henrik Sedin (who is pretty good at hockey), and Jordan Schroeder (who played three-ply soft minutes). Luckily for the Canucks, Henrik Sedin’s line outscored opponents nearly three-to-one in score close situations – a dominant showing that helped paper over the team’s myriad flaws…

At the 2013 trade deadline, Mike Gillis exchanged Kevin Connauton (who promptly lit up the AHL in Texas, and signed a three year deal with the Stars this summer) and a second round pick at the 2013 NHL draft for Derek Roy. It was a move borne out of necessity and one that we applauded at the time. The addition to Roy paid some dividends down the stretch in the regular season. In the postseason, however, the Canucks only managed to control 40% of the even-strength scoring chances with Derek Roy on the ice. Roy only contributed a single assist, and it occurred during garbage time of the third game of the Sharks series.

At the 2011/12 trade deadline, the Canucks brought in a player in Samme Pahlsson with too little offensive pop to try and patch up their third line. In 2012/13, the Canucks brought in a hollow man who promptly disappeared in the postseason, and didn’t even bother to face the media at locker room clean up day. This is the way a window closes, not with a bang but a whimper.

After hitting a homerun with Manny Malhotra in free-agency in the summer of 2010, Mike Gillis has swung and missed on Pahlsson and Roy in consecutive seasons. Facing a two strike count, and a greater need than ever down the middle, Gillis and the Canucks simply have to do better this offseason.

Possible In-House Solutions

Lots of uncertainty surrounds Jordan Schroeder this summer.

Jordan Schroeder

As a general statement the possible "in-house solutions" to Vancouvers need at centre are underwhelming. Jordan Schroeder is probably the most credible option, but he’s undersized, struggled in the face-off dot in his rookie season, and will spend his summer recovering from shoulder labrum surgery. Schroeder and the team are hopeful that he’ll be ready for the opening of training camp this fall, but there’s a good deal of uncertainty there.

Schroeder was deployed favourably a season ago, starting mostly in the offensive end against tertiary competition, and though he narrowly outperformed his circumstances he didn’t pitch in as much offense as I’m sure the club would’ve liked. The injury to Shroeder’s shoulder was unfortunate for a variety of reasons, firstly because Schroeder was clearly one of the team’s twelve best forwards last season (and could’ve been useful in the playoffs), and secondly because the injury will impinge on the young pivot’s ability to bulk up this summer and improve in the faceoff dot.

Based on Schroeder’s underlying numbers as a twenty-two year old centre, I think we can pretty confidently assert that he’s an NHL caliber player. Despite his size or lack thereof, Schroeder is a pretty capable two-way centreman and I’m not someone who believes that he’s totally unsuited for a bottom-six role going forward.

However at this point in Schroeder’s young career he’s not a guy who, in my opinion, can be effective dueling opposition’s top-lines every night and playing them to a draw (resulting in more optimal circumstances for an aging Henrik Sedin, and a brittle Ryan Kesler). He might get there eventually, but as a twenty-three year old coming off of surgery? I don’t realliy see it, and I doubt the Canucks do either.

Brendan Gaunce

With the Canucks pressed right up against the cap this offseason, it’s possible that Belleville Bulls captain Brendan Gaunce will be given every opportunity to win the third-line centre job out of training camp this fall. That’s what Tony Gallagher is suggesting will occur, and whatever your opinion of him, he’s closer to Canucks management than any sports media personality in Vancouver.

But here’s the thing about Brendan Gaunce, he’s nineteen years old and he won’t turn twenty until this coming March. Yes, Gaunce is very talented and also physically and interpersonally mature (he’s come across as exceedingly intelligent, introspective and polished in my dealings with him). That said he’s still a nineteen year old forward who spent the majority of this past season playing left-wing in Belleville. Asking him to step into a top-nine role on a good team next season is very probably too much, too soon.

I watched Brendan Gaunce play a solid handful of games this past season (roughly twenty), including a couple of times in person. Here’s what I can tell you about his skill set: he’s already an NHL caliber playmaker with excellent puck possession skills. He uses his size very well down low and when forechecking. He’s a smart defensive player, he has some snarl to his game, and he plays with some emotion (emotion that can get the better of him, since he’s young and very clearly despises losing). I didn’t really see him take too many face-offs this past season because, again, he played mostly on the wing in Belleville.

If Brendan Gaunce comes into training camp this fall, dominates the Young Stars tournament in Penticton and shows well in the preseason, then it could make sense to see what he can do in nine games to begin the 2013/14 campaign. It’s probably not worth burning a year of Gaunce’s entry-level contract if he can’t be a positive difference maker in a top-nine role, which, is a proposition that I’d define as a somewhat unlikely one.

I’d be mildly surprised if Gaunce was ready to handle the responsibility of being an everyday top-nine player in the National Hockey League next season next season. There’s also a good argument to be made that Gaunce’s development would be better served if he were playing 25 minutes a game in Belleville and getting some "big game" experience at the U-20 World Championship Tournament next season, as opposed to him playing 13 or so minutes in Vancouver’s bottom-six.

Kellan Lain

The Canucks inked gigantic college centreman Kellan Lain to an entry-level contract this past spring. Because Lain was twenty-four when he signed his deal with the Canucks (he was actually twenty-three, but he’s legally twenty-four in hockey years), it was a one-year entry-level contract that has already expired. So Lain is a restricted free-agent, who will very probably sign a two-way deal at some point later on this summer.

Kellan Lain is 6,6 and over two-hundred and twenty pounds. He can hit and fight, and he can win faceoffs (at least he did at the NCAA and AHL levels). What Lain hasn’t done, is contribute offense at any level beyond the OJAHL, and he went thirteen games without a point with the Chicago Wolves last season.

Lain was likely signed to be the "fourth line centre of the future" for Vancouver, and not the third-line centre of the present. I highly doubt that he’s a serious contender to fill this particular role next year.

The Open Market

Hey at least he wins face-offs!

Unless the Canucks can clear a good deal of cap-space by a) trading Roberto Luongo’s mammoth deal without taking on any significant salary-cap commitments in return, or b) by buying out Keith Ballard or dealing him in a retained salary transaction, the club just won’t be players in free-agency this summer. If those two conditions are met, however, or if the team surprises us by dealing a core piece like Alex Edler, then the team may have some wiggle room to add an affordable centreman in free-agency.

The free-agent crop is thin this summer, but there are some players who might fit the bill. Among them are Dainus Zubrus, Valtteri Flippula Tyler Bozak, Nik Antropov, Stephen Weiss, Boyd Gordon, Scott Gomez, Peter Regin and Keith Aucoin. Of course, all of those players come with some red flags.

Dainius Zubrus, for example, wasn’t used as an everyday centreman last season (he played the wing). He’s played a good deal of centre over the past few years, but he’s not a particularly reliable face-off winner. He’s got size, he’s performed outstandingly in the postseason in the past, and is a quality puck possession player, but he’s also going to be 35 by July fifth and could demand four million or so on the open market. So any deal the Canucks signed Zubrus to would be expensive and risky.

Valtteri Filppula is a versatile player, a plus-possession guy, and a reliable face-off winner. He had a down year during the regular season, but came alive in the postseason as the Detroit Red Wings won a playoff round and pushed the Blackhawks to the brink. Filppula is capable of playing in the middle or on the wing, he’s got the skill to play in the top-six and he’s a capable tough-minutes option as well. He’d be a great fit, but he’ll have suitors in free-agency and won’t come cheap.

Tyler Bozak has benefitted enormously from playing with two stellar offensive players in Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, and he’s been a bit of a passenger in that role. Bozak is fast and he wins face-offs and he’s played a top-six role over the past three season. On the other hand, he strikes me as a player who will be overvalued on the open market this summer and carries a good deal of Anson Carter potential.

Nik Antropov has been a really good player for the past five years, but his underlying numbers are beginning to crater as his skills and physical abilities succumb to advancing age. At the right price he may be worth gambling on, however.

Stephen Weiss would be an ideal fit as a third-line centre who can also serve as "Ryan Kesler insurance," but despite his nightmarish, injury plagued 2013 season he’ll likely have a barrel full of suitors in free-agency. He’s very unlikely to be a player the Canucks can afford, that is if he even hits free-agency.

Boyd Gordon is the most intriguing option for the Canucks, in my view. He’s 29 and was a journeyman for most of his career before finding a home in Phoenix and playing out of his mind this past season. Boyd Gordon is probably the best face-off specialist and penalty-killer on the market, and he just put in a positive Corsi-Rel season for Dave Tippett’s Coyotes despite battling the opposition’s top-lines and being on pace for well north of 400 defensive zone starts (over an 82 game season). That’s some Manny Malhotra schtick. The issue with Gordon, I suppose, is that he’s not a particularly good bet to credibly spell Ryan Kesler in a top-six role should Kesler succumb to injury woes at some point during the 2013/14 campaign. Also his sample of dynamite defensive play is pretty small and may not reflect his "true talent."

Scott Gomez is old, under-sized and probably better suited to playing a fourth line role next season.

Claimed on waivers in January, Keith Aucoin had a really solid season with the New York Islanders this past year, and he draws penalties at an elevated clip. But he’s 34, undersized, and is more of an "Andrew Ebbett upgrade" than a "Manny Malhotra replacement."

Finally, Peter Regin is a really interesting option as a reclamation project. Regin has been as brittle as peanut embedded sugar candy over the past four or five seasons, but his underlying numbers suggest that he’s a two-way force when healthy. A variety of shoulder issues have caused his effectiveness in the face-off circle to atrophy, and he fell out of favour in Ottawa this past season. To the eyes he lacks finishing ability, a perception supported by the data – Regin looks like a shooting percentage outlier to me – but he’ll be affordable this offseason and if he can stay healthy (a major league "if") would bring an awful lot of upside in a bottom-six role. He’d also give the Canucks the ability to ice an all Danish line including Regin, Jensen and Hansen. Who doesn’t want to see that?

The Trade Market

Sean "the pipedream" Couturier.

I’m of the opinion that trading Alex Edler, as many fans in Vancouver are eager to do, would be a big mistake. Dealing talented defenceman with size in their mid-to-late twenties is generally a loser proposition as the Calgary Flames (Dion Phaneuf) and Minnesota Wild (Brent Burns) can attest. Here’s the name of another defenceman who was thought to be "error prone" when he was twenty-seven: Zdeno Chara. I’m sure the Senators don’t regret letting him walk at all.

Not that Alex Edler will ever morph into a player like Chara, but he’s a top-pairing defenceman on basically every club in the league (except for maybe Chicago and New York). His issues appear to be mostly mental, and it’s worth seeing if a new coaching staff can reach him, I figure.

All of which is to say that if the Canucks are entertaining the notion of trading a piece like Edler, and all indications are that they’re not, then you better be addressing your clubs single biggest need with an NHL-ready player on an entry-level contract. Kind of like Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier, who wouldn’t you know it, is reportedly available in a trade that includes a potential cornerstone defenceman. I’m not even sure that I’d do an Edler for Couturier swap if I were Mike Gillis, but I’d definitely think long and hard on it.

Alternatively there are three quality bottom-six centreman on deals that expire after this season in Florida’s Marcel Goc, Buffalo’s Steve Ott and Dallas’s Vernon Fiddler. All of those clubs are in rebuilding mode, and all three of those players would make a lot of sense for the Canucks as a cortizone shot to the club’s bottom six. Moreover Fiddler and Goc are relatively affordable against the salary cap.

Another tack that the Canucks could take this summer is to target younger players who have fallen out of favour in their current organizations for whatever reason. Players like Alex Burmistrov or perhaps Ryan Johansen.


I don’t think I’m being too dramatic when I describe Vancouver’s need for a reliable third-line centre and additional Ryan Kesler insurance as an existential crisis. Fans don’t want to pay to watch a team where Chris Higgins or Andrew Ebbett plays major minutes as top-nine centreman, and the club itself won’t go far in a very tough conference next year unless they can fill this slot with a positive difference maker.

Going with a young player like Jordan Schroeder and Brendan Gaunce is a risky proposition, but it’s something the team might be forced to do depending on how the Keith Ballard and Roberto Luongo situations play out over the next three weeks. Hopefully Mike Gillis and company can create the cap space required to target the likes of Bozak, Filppula, Gordon or Zubrus in free-agency, or alternatively can swing a deal for a young centreman or a quality, affordable vet.

Boyd Gordon and Marcel Goc strike me as the best bets to act as "Manny Malhotra" replacements, though arguably the team requires more than just a player who can do a reasonable 2010-11 Malhotra impression. As I’ve argued before and at multiple times in this post, the Canucks require serious Ryan Kesler insurance for this upcoming season. That’s a commodity that could be much more costly – in terms of either assets or cap-space – to procure this summer.

Stats in this piece sourced from, and All photos taken from Wikimedia Commons.

  • Thank you for a very thorough article.

    There are many interesting storylines for the Canucks this offseason.

    Aside for Luongo, the 3rd and 4th line centre issues are particularly noteworthy.

    The Canucks need Kesler insurance/Manny replacement and a Lapierre replacement.

    And there is basically zero money to spend even if Lou and Ballard are off the books without cap implications. It’s 2 of Gaunce/Schroeder/Lain or similarly cheap free agents.

    And, of course, a top 6 winger would be ideal as well. But it will have to be one of Kassian/Jensen or similarly cheap free agents.

    With a tougher division, limited upside in the core (aside from Edler & Schneider), virtually zero cap dollars and an underwhelming farm system, there isn’t any reason to think the Canucks will be better next season after losing Roy, Ballard & Lou.

    Seemingly the only way to potentially get better is to move out an expensive player such as Edler, Burrows or Booth and redistribute the dollars.

    Of course, this could very well make the Canucks worse…

  • antro

    Not that this thorough article (agree with you @NM00!) needs more proof of Gillis’ frustration at not finding a replacement for Malhotra, but Eliotte Friedman attributes the following saying to MG: “You better draft centres because it’s impossible to get them.”

    This makes it sound like Gillis has really tried to pry a centre from somewhere. In your twitter feed, you had link to a Jason Gregor article about Corban Knight as another FA centre. Probably comes with the same caveats as Lain (and why have two of them), but Knight sounds a bit more talented. Any thoughts?

    Off topic, somewhat: in the same column, Friedman mentions that Stevens is believed to be coming in for a second interview for the coaching job. And that apparently Vancouver worries about Tortorella’s ability to handle the media here. The comment on Chara (and earlier on Doughty) actually makes me hope they hire someone who’ll know how to work with Edler, and other young players. Put me up for Team Stevens.

  • antro

    I wholeheartedly believe when the Canucks get rid of the Sedin twin sisters’ then and only then will they begin to prepare a team for a possible Stanley Cup journey like in 2011. In the last two years they’ve choked and who wants to wait for year number 3? I sure don’t!

    Get rid of the Sedin Sisters’ and watch the other guys start playing to their potential if not more!

  • @Jaime the twins are tough as nails and excellent two-way players. Get a grip.

    @Antro fascinating quote. Too simplistic though. Lots of good Cs have been traded over the past three or four years (Stoll, Carter, Richards, Vermette, Dubinsky, Anisimov, Fisher etc.).

    @NM00 while I mostly agree with your comment, I’d add one ray of sunshine. The hope for the Canucks to improve next season rests with Ryan Kesler. This is the first offseason in what, three years, where he’ll have been healthy. Considering he played 21 games for the club this past year, the team could improve significantly simply by his return to health/effectiveness.

    • Fred-65

      I think relying on an injury prone player such as Ryan Kesler or Sami Salo in a prominent role is a fool’s game.

      “This is the first offseason in what, three years, where he’ll have been healthy.”

      He may be healthy now. It does not mean he will be healthy for the duration of the offseason, training camp, preseason games, regular season games and the playoffs.

      To paraphrase something Keith Law said about baseball free agents, players with track records of getting injured aren’t likely to improve as they get older.

      And based on the age of their core players, should we be expecting the Canucks to have LESS injuries next season?

      Schneider has yet to prove he can handle a 60+ game workload followed by a playoff run. Lack is coming of a major injury.

      For the last 3 years, 100% of the Canucks’ goaltending minutes have been eaten up by Lou & Schneider.

      The more games Schneider plays, the more he is susceptible to injury. Lack, assuming he is the backup, is coming off a major injury.

      If Corrado is the #6 defenseman, what are the depth options when a top 6 defenseman inevitably gets injured?

      Heck, the Canucks might not be able to afford an equivalent to Alberts and he is a useful #7 defenseman.

      The Sedins have been extremely durable. At some point that may change. Could this be the year?

      On a sidenote, durability and the abuse the Sedins take on a nightly basis in pursuit of the puck are two of the examples I typically give to misogynistic trolls…

      The Canucks theoretically may get more from Kesler. But that may very well be offset by injuries to other key players. In other words, I don’t think the Canucks have had poor injury “luck” this past season…

  • Fred-65

    If I was abetting man I might well bet that MG will do nothing. He didn’t give it priority last season or the summer before. It was needed then as now so why would you bet against another summer of no solution. Has he been shaking out of his lethargy…doesn’t lool like it.

  • Fred-65

    It’s easy to forget how dominant Malhotra was in that role prior to his injury. This organization has been pretty unlucky with tragic occurrences in the past while (Bourdon, Rypien, Malhotra) and it’s tough to think about what kind of player Bourdon might’ve become or how different the team’s postseasons might have been if Malhotra had just donned a visor.

    As for the riddle in the middle, I expect Jordan Schroeder is the most likely bet. I would love a Boyd Gordon type, but it’ll be tough to afford any free agents unless they manage to free up a huge amount of cap space. I really hope they “Hodgson” him this year, considering there’s no way he’ll leapfrog Henrik or Kesler in the next few seasons and he doesn’t fit Gillis’ new bigger and younger ideals as well as guys like Gaunce and Lain (who’re probably better suited for bottom-six roles anyways).

    Here’s a thought I had: what about offering JS up in an attempt to pry Burmistrov out of the ‘Peg? He’s played for True North before, knows the city and is still young and cheap. He could be a good fit there, since they could definitely use some skill up front and it’s clear Burmistrov isn’t working out. Something like Schroeder, a 1st round pick and one other piece could well do it. It’s less than what has been rumoured (Okposo, Stafford or Silfverberg) but there’s still some value there. Jets won’t have a lot of leverage anyways, with the threat of the KHL and of an offersheet looming.

  • Mantastic

    Canucks depth will be destroyed next season. with the addition with a new coaching staff/system and a much tougher division, i can’t imagine the Canucks doin better than this past season.

  • JCDavies

    Like Thomas wrote on May 30, I still believe that the new CBA will have a role to play at the draft and in free agency. There might be players available that wouldn’t be expected.

  • elvis15

    The one player I keep wondering about is Brian Boyle. He was sat two separate times in New York last season but has had productive seasons as well as being a reasonable faceoff guy. Hard not to like him for his size and style of play too, but I wonder if any fallout over his play last year went out the door with Tortorella.

  • Mantastic

    If he is actually the real deal, I think I’d give Boyd Gordon a Malhotra equiv deal, 3 years at a decent salary, and put him as our 3rd line center. Offense doesn’t matter nearly as much if the Sedins/Kesler can get back to scoring in bunches.

    Schroeder can be our Kesler replacement if needed. Until then he can play wing or in the AHL. Or alternate with Kesler as 2nd line C, supplemented with PP#2 time.

    I think this puts him in a place to excel, rather than a checking role which isn’t really his game.

    I don’t know much about Lain but it would be great to have a 4th line that isn’t a total liability. Not asking for Boston’s 4th line, but ours has been pretty underwhelming for as long as I can remember.

    I really agree how big an impact losing Malhotra was to the makeup of the team.

    • Mantastic

      betting the sedins and kesler returning to their scoring form of 2 years ago is a suckers bet. a good GM should always perpare for the worst case scenerio (regression in all 3 of those players).

  • khlhfs

    I’ve done the math and done a bit of arm chair GMing and this IMO is the position where the canucks are really going to feel the squeeze of their cap restraints and that’s even assuming they gain relief from the Ballard and Luongo contracts. I think they may be alright provided Henrik and Kesler can stay healthy but should one go down this will be a real area of concern.

  • Mantastic

    In the back of my head I can’t shake the thought that if Kesler comes out strong and really raises his trading stock again, he gets dealt. I just don’t trust him to stay healthy anymore.

    I know, when he’s healthy, he’s one of the best two-way centers in the game, but that’s getting to be a bigger and bigger if. And if Kesler’s stock is nice and high, he could net some pretty beautiful assets.

  • khlhfs

    Great writeup as usual.

    I think Boyd Gordon is the ideal guy here. And I do view him as the insurance when Kesler gets injured again – via enabler role. He will allow Schroeder to step into Keslers spot while him and H. Sedin can still at softer mins. Something they didn’t have the luxury with this yr. When Kes is healthy, he can play 3rd or 4th line C. Canucks PK was the craps this yr, he’d be a significant boost to that as well. I think he could be had for a similar deal to Malhotras, maybe $2M x 3 yrs ($6M total).

    If he goes elsehwere, maybe they take a bad contract for Goc. Maybe Upshalls contract for buyout in trade for Goc and a pick?

    But there’s also Corban Knight. He’s older, a great defensive player who could win faceoffs in college. I’d love to see Knight AND Gordon signed. Knight on an ELC and Gordon on a $2M could work under the $64M cap.

    Also, Chipchura would work too. I’d love to see them sign him as a winger for 4th line. Eats tough mins, good underlying #’s, hits fights. Sign him up too 🙂