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.
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.
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.
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.
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.