Catching Up With Old Friends: Former Canucks Forwards

The one that got away!
Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

At the very outset of every calender year the ubiquitous New Years anthem "Auld Lang Syne" beckons us, rhetorically, to remember old friendships: "May old acquaintance be forgot and never come to mind?"  

With the New Year now upon us and with Sami Salo having been fondly welcomed back to Rogers Arena on Wednesday night, we figured we’d heed that age old call from Robbie Burns and take a brief look at how ex-Canucks skaters are performing around the league this season.

We’ll do it as a series, actually, with a post today on ex-Canucks forward and then another post on ex-Canucks defensemen and goaltenders tomorrow. Read on past the jump.

Former Canucks Forwards

In addition to a small handful of forwards who played games for the Canucks between 2008-09 and 2012-13 and are now either deceased (R.I.P. Pavol Demitra and Rick Rypien), inactive (Victor Oreskovich, Byron Bitz, Kyle Wellwood), playing in Europe (Bill Sweatt, Jeff Tambellini, Samme Pahlsson), playing in the minors (Mike Duco) or retired (Ryan Johnson); there are 15 former Canucks forwards who remain NHL regulars in some capacity.

There’s an additional forward who I’ve included for the sake of discussion. While he was never on an NHL contract with the organization this particular forward has proven enormously useful for another Western Conference club, but sort of broke into the league in the Canucks minor league system…

 Anyway here’s our list of active ex-Canucks forwards, and their counting stats and ice-time this season:

Former Canucks forwards Current Team GP G A Pts TOI/G 5on5 On-Ice GD
Derek Roy St. Louis Blues 38 8 19 27 13: 45 +3
Mason Raymond Toronto Maple Leafs 42 11 15 26 17: 54 +1
Cody Hodgson Buffalo Sabres 33 8 11 19 18: 27 -3
Antoine Roussel Dallas Stars 39 8 7 15 12: 39 Even
Michael Grabner New York Islanders 37 5 7 12 14: 36 -7
Steve Bernier New Jersey Devils 41 3 5 8 13: 56 -15
Maxim Lapierre St. Louis Blues 34 4 3 7 10: 45 +1
Tanner Glass Pittsburgh Penguins 27 2 4 6 11: 10  -3
Manny Malhotra Carolina Hurricanes 28 2 3 5 13: 02 Even
Mike Brown San Jose Sharks 28 2 2 4 7: 54 -3
Mikael Samuelsson Detroit Red Wings 21 1 2 3 10: 27 -4
Aaron Volpatti Washington Capitals 32 2 0 2 7: 23 -2
Taylor Pyatt New York Rangers 22 0 1 1 12: 39 -8
Andrew Ebbett Pittsburgh Penguins 5 0 1 1 11: 39 Even
Raffi Torres San Jose Sharks

And because all of you probably know how I feel about counting stats, here’s a Player Usage Chart (courtesy Hockey Abstract) that plots the performance, deployment and circumstances of all the ex-Canucks forwards this season.

(Just a quick note on how to read this chart: the further a player appears to the left on the horizontal axis, the more defense oriented their deployment is in terms of zone-starts. Where a player’s bubble appears on the vertical axis represents the difficulty of the matchups faced by a certain player (in terms of Corsi-Rel QoC). The size of the bubble itself represents average ice-time, and the shading is tuned to display relative-corsi. A blue-r bubble indicates that a player’s on-ice shot attempt differential (relative to their teams) is in the black, a red-er bubble represents a player getting buried by the flow of play relative to their teammates.)

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Looking over this list of players, their usage, and production; what should be instantly striking is how little of significant value has flowed out of Vancouver’s system over the past few years.

We’re talking about maybe six pieces above replacement level in total, and no top-line pieces. There are only three ex-Canucks forwards currently playing top-six minutes for their respective teams this season (Michael Grabner, Mason Raymond and Cody Hodgson), and only three forward are currently in the black in terms of even-strength goal differential with their new clubs.

Derek Roy:

Acquired at the 2013 trade deadline from the Dallas Stars in exchange for a second round pick (which the Stars hilariously used to draft a goaltender from the QMJHL named Philippe Desrosiers) and defenseman Kevin Connauton, Derek Roy got off to a good start in Vancouver but was a complete non-entity for the Canucks during their first round sweep at the hands of the San Jose Sharks.

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In St. Louis this season, Roy has been very productive while taking on tertiary competition in a depth role. Roy isn’t a critical piece for St. Louis: he’s ninth among Blues forwards in even-strength ice-time per game, and is playing only a few more seconds per contest than veteran winger Brenden Morrow.

But Roy has been useful in that he’s outscored the bottom-end of opposition rosters, and he may be counted on to do more over the next few weeks as his teammates have rather suddenly been plagued by injury locusts. Crushing it in a relatively sheltered role behind the likes of David Backes and Patrik Berglund is probably what Roy’s best suited to doing at this point in his career, at least in the Western Conference (he’s probably top-six calibre out East).

Ultimately the Roy rental won’t be going on a list of Mike Gillis’ best moves in Vancouver (to say the least), and the fact remains that Roy would be helpful if he were still in Vancouver even if $4 million is a lot to pay for a third-line centreman.

Mason Raymond

Mason Raymond is a former twenty-goal scorer who used to be a borderline dominant possession player (before he fractured vertebrae in his back during the 2011 Stanley Cup Final). But he almost found himself out of the league this past summer. That the gravity challenged Toronto Maple Leafs speedster had to attend training camp on a professional tryout deal before netting himself a cheap standard player contract for only one season is pretty remarkable, and looks silly in retrospect when one considers how well he’s performed this year in Toronto.

Among Toronto Maple Leafs forwards only James van Riemsdyk, Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul have seen the ice more often than Mason Raymond this season. He’s been productive offensively, while doing better than his teammates possession wise against very difficult competition. Raymond’s speed suits Toronto’s misguided counter-attacking system perfectly, and his rush ability is very probably much better suited to the Eastern Conference.

Raymond’s time in Vancouver had clearly come to an end: the relationship between him and the fanbase was toxic towards the end, and he was clearly a guy that needed a change of scenery. In Toronto Raymond has taken full advantage of his new circumstances, he’s providing the Leafs with excellent value at only $1 million this season, and certainly won’t have to wait until training camp to get an NHL deal this summer.

Cody Hodgson

Cody Hodgson has been injured of late, but when healthy he hasn’t had a particularly good season this year for the Buffalo Sabres (not that anyone has, really, except for Christian Ehrhoff, Matt Moulson and Ryan Miller). Hodgson is playing second line minutes for the Sabres this year, and as has occurred pretty much since he arrived in upstate New York: the talented, plodding centreman has kind of been exposed as a defensive liability in big minutes.

Consider that no non-Toronto Maple Leafs player (and the Leafs are a special case, because there’s pretty obviously something systemic going on there) in the NHL this season has allowed shots against at a higher rate than Cody Hodgson has in Buffalo. For all of Hodgson’s considerable offensive talent, that’s a pretty big issue especially for a player making $4.25 million this season (and for the next five afterwards).

Hodgson doesn’t turn 24 for another few weeks and there is still time for him to improve his two-way game. In a prescribed second-line roll flanked by a really good play-driving winger, could Hodgson log big minutes on a good team? I think so. But the Sabres aren’t there yet and for now Hodgson is unable to do the heavy-lifting required of a top-six centreman good enough to help a winning team rack up points.

The problem for the Canucks: neither is Zack Kassian.

Antoine Roussel

One might reasonably take exception with Roussel’s inclusion on this list. Fact is the Dallas Stars super pest never suited up for the Vancouver Canucks, but he played for the club at the Penticton Young Stars Tournament back in the fall of 2011, impressed, earned an invite to training camp, and a minor league deal with the Chicago Wolves. Roussel didn’t manage too much offensively for the Wolves that season but showed well enough to earn himself a professional contract from the Dallas Stars. He’s taken major steps forward since, and at this point might be one of the league’s single best fourth-line forwards.

Roussel kind of does it all: he fights, drives play, he has that physical upside that is fetishized in front offices around the league, he draws penalties, and he scores goals at a very high rate for a fourth-liner. The fact is: Roussel’s success has come out of nowhere. While I was always impressed by Rousel in limited viewings, I never thought he’d make the sort of impact at the NHL level that he has. In short: I think it’s a bit much to criticize the Canucks for allowing Roussel to slip through their fingers. After all, he was also in Boston’s minor league system for a spell, and that organization whiffed too despite being way better (historically) at evaluating fourth-line talent than the Canucks are.

But when the Canucks are trotting out Tom Sestito game in and game out – and yes, Sestito’s play has been much improved over the past month – it’s worth mentioning that the Canucks could’ve had an elite fourth-line piece if they’d recognized what Roussel was or could become. Not that anyone did, really.

Michael Grabner

Michael Grabner was traded by the Vancouver Canucks during the summer of 2010, as part of the package that netted the Canucks Keith Ballard. It was, in retrospect, a loser trade for Vancouver even if it made sense to make a deal like that at the time. Grabner was cut by the Florida Panthers in his first training camp with the team, and ultimately landed on Long Island where he’s been inconsistent but mostly very impressive over the past four years.

Grabner has had an off-year in terms of goal scoring, but over the past six seasons Grabner has scored at a legitimate top-line rate. That’s impressive but also a bit deceiving: Grabner’s high goal scoring rate is inflated somewhat by the fact that he’s always struggled to play major minutes at the NHL level for some reason.

Anyway the Austrian forward drives play, fills the net and has developed into a very useful penalty-killer. I tend to think that of all of the ex-Canucks forwards profiled in this post, Grabner is the one player who would be helpful for this current iteration of the Vancouver Canucks.

Steve Bernier

Steve Bernier was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres and seen as a young power-forward with enough offensive upside to play with the twins. He disappointed, however (sound familiar?), and was ultimately jettisoned in the Keith Ballard trade.

But Bernier’s development path is probably instructive for those Canucks fans waiting for Zack Kassian to find his inner Todd Bertuzzi. Bernier has been the tantalizing, young player and he’s also been at the league’s fringes. Since then he’s carved out a niche for himself with the Devils and is now a top-nine player who has done very well to drive play this season (though there are probably some systems effects at play here). Bernier’s production isn’t attractive and neither is his on-ice goal differential, but that’s mostly the bounces. Fact is Bernier has developed into a useful contributor.

Maxim Lapierre

Playing a fourth-line roll in St. Louis this season, Maxim Lapierre has been pretty useful. The Blues have outscored their opponents with Lapierre on the ice, he’s factored into their penalty-kill, and he’s managed to contribute a small handful of points.

Worth noting, however, is that Lapierre is playing three minutes fewer per game than the guy brought in to replace him in Vancouver (Brad Richardson). Lapierre’s underlying numbers are modestly better than Richardson’s are, but I’d wager that it’s mostly a function of the fact that the Canucks have leaned much more heavily on Richardson than the Blues have leaned on Lapierre this year. Meanwhile Richardson has managed more than double the points while proving a more credible top-nine contributor. Gillis and company got this one right.

Manny Malhotra

Malhotra is back in the league, wearing an "A" for the Carolina Hurricanes, and is playing a pretty sizable role as a penalty-killer and faceoff specialist for the Hurricanes. Good to see. We sincerely hope that Mike Gillis was wrong and that Malhotra can safely and successfully play out his NHL career on his own terms.

Tanner Glass, Mike Brown

Tanner Glass and Mike Brown are replacement level fourth-liners (or maybe below). Are they better than Tom Sestito? If they are it’s not by much.

Aaron Volpatti

The Canucks got unlucky when they waived Aaron Volpatti to create a roster spot last season, only to have Ryan Kesler diagnosed with a foot fracture later in the day. Volpatti was claimed by the Washington Capitals and in fact multiple teams made a claim on him. That means that Volpatti had at least some positive trade value and Vancouver really should’ve at least netted a lottery ticket (a late round pick) when they jettisoned the fourth-liner. Like Chris HIggins’ feeble clearing attempt that led to Nikita Kucherov’s game-winning goal on Wednesday night: this was an uncharacteristic unforced asset management error by the organization.

Though the Canucks were roundly criticized for replacing Aaron Volpatti with Tom Sestito, the fact is they’re comparable pieces. Below replacement level players on two-year one-way deals because of their abilities with their fists.

Andrew Ebbett

Andrew Ebbett has only appeared in five NHL games this season because of injury.

With the PIttsburgh lineup levelled by injuries, Ebbett could’ve had considerable opportunity with the Penguins at the NHL level this season if he’d stayed healthy. Tough break for a quality American Hockey League player who was in over his head in a top-nine role for the Canucks much of last season.

Mikael Samuelsson

Samuelsson’s aging body keeps giving out on him, though he remains a relatively good possession player when he’s in the lineup. Even when Samuelsson’s playing for the Red Wings, he’s playing fourth-line minutes, however.

The outspoken Swedish forward has been extremely snakebit by the percentages this year, but I suspect he could still be somewhat useful if he could stay healthy for a prolonged stretch. He’s a bit of a superfluous piece on a Red Wings team loaded with young, NHL-ready talent.

Taylor Pyatt

Still dreamy, no longer productive.

Raffi Torres

The Canucks reportedly had a deal in place to acquire Raffi Torres at the trade deadline last year (with one of the second round picks they were due to receive from Toronto in the axed Roberto Luongo trade), but it fell through. Torres had an impressive playoff run for the San Jose Sharks, scored a back breaking overtime winner during San Jose’s first round sweep of Vancouver, and was signed to a contract extension in San Jose thereafter.

Torres leaves his feet on hits too often and is a poor selector of tasteful Halloween costumes, but who cares? He’s a quality third-liner who drives play reasonably well and produces goals at a good second-line rate. He’s precisely the type of depth piece smart teams target and keep around on a reasonable deal, something the Canucks failed to do following the 2011 postseason. Torres hasn’t played a single game this season yet as he continues to recover from knee surgery.

Tune back in tomorrow for a look at some former Canucks defenseman!

  • cunning_linguist

    It still completely blows my mind that the Panthers waived Grabner. I understand why Vancouver traded him – with Mason Raymond and Jeff Tambellini, Grabner was a bit superfluous, and I think at the time everyone was pretty bullish on that trade (hindsight is 20/20 and all). But GOD WHY would the Panthers waive him? That has to go down as one of the stupidest moves by a GM in recent years.

    I’d love to have Grabner around still, and I have mixed feelings about Torres – when he’s on his game he’s fantastic and I’d have loved to have him stick around, but when he’s off his game and making stupid plays that injure players, I’m thankful he’s not with the organization anymore. Otherwise there aren’t any players on this list who I’d want back on the team in place of players who are already here.

    Will there be a follow-up piece on defencemen? I cry a little every time I think about Willie Mitchell and Christian Ehrhoff.

    • cunning_linguist

      You can blame the Panthers in hindsight but there were serious questions about whether Grabner was ever going to make it. He looked good in very limited minutes with the Canucks but was kind of inconsistent in the AHL and I seem to recall really underwhelmed at the Panthers training camp. I suppose since it was basically a salary dump of Ballard they didn’t really care that much but at the time it wasn’t so crazy for them to cut him. I would say that it probably was a kick in the ass that Grabner needed to up his game. He remains a somewhat one-dimensional player; great wheels, decent shot, fairly perimeter. I don’t think he’d be an upgrade in our top-six and not sure how much he’d add to our bottom six; I’d take Hansen over him in that role and Higgins or Kassian on the top end.

      Grabner does seem like a pretty decent guy and amusing enough that he’d probably make our all-Twitter team if we ever put that together.

      • cunning_linguist

        I’m not sure it’s fair to classify the trade as a “salary dump” for the Panthers – The Canucks gave up a third line roster player (Bernier), their #2 offensive prospect (Grabner) and their #1 draft pick to bring Ballard in – that was a hockey trade intended to strengthen both teams. The Canucks knew Grabner was talented, but he plays a similar game to Raymond and Raymond was the safer bet at the time (I’m willing to bet that if he hadn’t been injured, Raymond would probably still be with the Canucks, too). Grabner may have been a bubble NHL player at the time of the trade, but Florida wasn’t exactly swimming in offensive talent – to not hang on to Grabner at least for a little while to fully evaluate what they had was an absolutely bone-headed move by Florida management.

        Regarding whether Vancouver would be better off with Grabner today, the team as constructed has a surplus of excellent two-way players who can be counted on to put up 10-20 goals and 30-40 points – Higgins, Hansen, Booth, Burrows, Sanotrelli, Kassian, – basically all the top 9 forwards on the team not named “Sedin” and “Kesler”. While I don’t think that’s bad per se, Grabner would add some variety to the line-up – a fast sniper in the prime of his career who can put pucks in the net – that’s the one thing the Canucks are really lacking in their top six right now.

        • cunning_linguist

          Perhaps salary dump is too harsh but I have a hard time thinking much of what Florida does is not motivated at least in part by the bottom line. Whatever the outcome, sending Booth over for two injury-riddled (and in the case of Sturm) clearly broken down players was about shedding salary in my view and if Booth hadn’t been so hard-luck here I think we’d be saying something very different about the trade. At the time of the Ballard trade I thought it was an overpay but mostly for the first rounder — but a late first rounder is no sure thing and I think Howden is still middling at best. Bernier hadn’t worked out — more of a fourth liner than a third as he’s shown since and Grabner (as the article points out) seemed like a duplication of Raymond. On balance I’d rather have a player like Higgins or even Santorelli over either of them — a 2nd/3rd liner that can provide a lot of hustle, some speed and push play. For a sniper Grabner has 5 goals in half a season this year, playing his way onto the third line.

  • cunning_linguist

    I don’t think you can consider Grabner as one of the better snipers in the league. It would have been nice to take him back but I don’t think we lost something we don’t have.

  • cunning_linguist

    “the Canucks could’ve had an elite fourth-line piece if they’d recognized what Roussel was or could become”

    ‘elite’ and ‘fourth line’ is two words I never thought I’d hear in one sentence.

  • cunning_linguist

    Nice article sir. I appreciate the effort that you no doubt put into it.
    One thing, I don’t see why you refered to Mason Raymond’s relationship with the team as “toxic”. Sure, I can see that the Canuck’s wanted to go a different direction, and I also see that by his difficulty in signing thru the summer, the league as a whole didn’t value him highly (to put it nicely). I’m going to sound like an English teacher: wasn’t there any other, more appropriate adjectives you could’ve used there?