Finding the Right Mix in the Canucks Middle Six

Most of us have already pencilled Loui Eriksson in on a line with Henrik and Daniel Sedin. After all, that was a part of the pitch the Canucks sold Eriksson on when they signed him to a six-year $36-million contract.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

I’m sure the Canucks have every intention of starting the season with the Swedish trio together, as they’ll all have missed training camp while representing Sweden at the World Cup of Hockey. Canucks Coach Willie Desjardins will need his top line to hit the ground running for the Canucks to keep pace in the playoff race early. The Canucks need for secondary scoring could test Desjardins patience with Eriksson as a fixture alongside the Sedins, though.

It’s no secret the Canucks need another impact forward in order to be a legitimate playoff contender. That’s why Canucks General Manager Jim Benning has inquired on every big name player available other than Kevin Durant. The hope is Anton Rodin and Jake Virtanen can have an impact along with Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi entrenching themselves as productive top nine players. 

But sometimes things don’t go as planned. A player takes a step back, injuries hit or something unforeseen comes about and derails a young player’s career for a while. That’s why the Canucks are still sniffing around the trade market, looking for that elusive scoring winger with some toughness. 

As it stands right now, it looks like the Canucks will start next season with these 13 forwards in some combination not too dissimilar to this:

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

D. Sedin – H. Sedin – Eriksson

Rodin – Sutter – Hansen

Baertschi – Horvat – Virtanen

Dorsett – Granlund – Burrows/Etem

Much of the Canucks ability to make the playoffs will hinge on Baertschi and Horvat’s ability to provide the bulk of their secondary scoring. Regardless of what else they get from the middle-six, the Canucks have little chance to go anywhere unless Sven and Bo build on their progression towards becoming top six forwards. Should they falter, though, can Desjardins afford to keep the top line intact?

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The answer is probably no. Brandon Sutter will be a critical forward for the Canucks but likely as their shutdown ace and anchor on the penalty kill. Sutter could be an indispensable player for the team but it’s unrealistic to expect him to produce accordingly while also doing the bulk of the defensive lifting. The scoring will have to come from Horvat and Baertschi’s line, despite Desjardins choosing Sutter as his second line centre heading into next season.

This is where Loui Eriksson and his versatility comes in. As J.D. Burke outlined in his assessment of the signing, Eriksson has been able to drive play regardless of the line he played on in Boston. What we do know is that Jannik Hansen is a good fit with the Sedin twins and putting him back there would open up Eriksson to play on a different line. 

If I were a betting man — which I am on occasion — Eriksson would most likely play with Sutter if Desjardins decides to reunite Hansen with the twins in order to balance the lines. It wouldn’t necessarily be the worst idea since it’s likely Eriksson would help add some more punch to a line that could also include Rodin:

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

D. Sedin – H. Sedin – Hansen

Rodin – Sutter – Eriksson

Baertschi – Horvat – Virtanen

Dorsett – Granlund – Burrows/Etem

Even though Eriksson is set on playing with Henrik and Daniel, it may be too tempting for Desjardins to keep Loui on that line when he knows there’s a good chance the team can have more balanced scoring if Eriksson plays with Sutter or Horvat. Hansen’s goal’s per 60 minutes 5 v 5 was 1.21, which ranked in top five of the entire league. As impressive as that is, some of it was driven by playing with the twins so it’s unrealistic to expect Hansen to score at the same rate with different line-mates. In 2014-2015, Hansen’s goal scoring per 60 minutes 5 v 5 was .57, a considerable difference between the 1.21 this past season. The Sedin effect is real.

We’re also just talking about even strength ice-time because there’s no doubt Eriksson will unite with the twins on the first power play unit. Last season the Canucks power play was tied for third worst in the league with Tampa Bay at 15.8%. Conversely, the Bruins power play ranked seventh and clicked at a rate of 20.5%. Eriksson wasn’t the only reason Boston’s man advantage was tough to stop but he did score 10 power play goals — two more than Daniel Sedin. It should be a treat to watch Eriksson dance with the Sedin twins on the power play and a large part of the team’s production should come from the top power play unit next season.

Eriksson has proven he will score 20-30 goals in any given season without being dependant on certain line-mates. We can fairly safely assume Eriksson would produce in the same range even if he doesn’t play with Henrik and Daniel but we can’t assume the same for Hansen if he’s not playing alongside the twins. Unless Benning can find another top-six forward via trade, Eriksson is the best bet for the Canucks to get a balanced mix in the middle six.

  • Almo89

    Your lines are a bit of a mess. Rodin and Dorsett are right wingers, Burrows and Etem are left wings, typically… although Burr can play the right side.

    Also, if Rodin makes the team, Virtanen won’t. He will start off in Utica.


    Etem/Burrows-Sutter-Hansen (2nd line due to taking bulk of D zone starts)



    Gaunce – spare.

    • Almo89

      I wouldn’t get too hung up on left/right wing. Wingers typically can change sides without too much difficulty. Both Rodin and Eriksson are left shots playing their off side; neither should find it difficult to switch to their “strong” side.

      If we stick with the existing left/right paradigm then the Canucks have a plethora of right side options; on the left, not so much. Either they need to ask someone to switch or they need to acquire a scoring winger for the left side.

    • JuiceBox

      No way Virtanen starts in AHL next year. After Daniel, he was the Canucks best winger last season (maybe tied with Hansen). He is closer to being a consistent 20-25 goal scorer than anybody else outside the top line. The Canucks would be insane to play him anywhere but the NHL.

      • Almo89

        They would also be insane to pay Sbisa $3.6mil/year.
        Or, to trade Shinkaruk for Granlund, so…

        With the depth on the right side, he would likely be stuck on the 4th line. I’d rather see him spend at least the first part of the year playing 1st line AHL minutes vs splitting time with Dorsett on the Canucks 4th. As soon as a forward goes down with injury, he should be the 1st call up, imo.

        • Almo89

          I should add, that is assuming Rodin makes the team.

          I think it is 1 or the other with those 2 players. The fact that Rodin has the option of going back to europe makes me think he has a slight edge of sticking to start the year. Nice to see competition for spots though, for the first time in a long time.

  • Steampuck

    I’m not sure it’s a lock that Eriksson plays with the twins. I mean, of course he will, but he’s on a long-term contract. Where Vrbata needed the Sedins to boost his numbers for the next contract (which didn’t work this past year), Eriksson is in Vancouver for the long haul. He’s a smart and versatile player who will be able to provide support throughout the lineup.

    With respect to the middle six, a lot of this hinges on Rodin playing well. Rodin and/or Virtanen could be revelations. Or they could be responsible for a lack of offence. I liked what little we saw of Baertschi-Horvat-Virtanen in last year’s pre-season. Hopefully we get to see a bit of that youthful irreverence again this year. Sending Virtanen to the AHL is no disaster, but he needs to be given every opportunity to thrive at the NHL level first.

    Re. the World Cup of Hockey: barring the potential for injury the Sedin participation on a somewhat diminished Swedish team could reap dividends in the autumn, but come back to haunt us as the season wears on. Too much hockey, even if they do hit the ground running.

  • Bud Poile

    Sutter played right wing with the twins and played well:

    What has not been said is that Sutter can play RW with Horvat in the middle and Baer on the left wing.

    That leaves the second line owning the faceoff circle at both ends of the ice with speed and talent to burn.

    Granlund,Gaunce and Megna are all potential centers for the third and fourth lines.

  • JuiceBox

    I know this is a team in transition and there are a lot of young guys on the roster who have some growing to do but the current group of wingers – Etem, Virtanen, Burrows, Baer, Hansen, Rodin, and Dorsset doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Barring a major jump in development from Virtanen, Etem, or Baer, or an unexpected addition of Rodin (lets see if he really has improved), the Canucks are going to have scoring issues beyond the top line and they should be seriously looking at acquiring a bonafide 2nd line winger. As they sit right now if any of Etem, Baer, Virtenen, or Rodin struggle there is no safety net – no viable replacements. Adding a skilled winger to the group would immediately take the pressure off of those guys to perform and give the Canucks some roster flexibility.

    Brandon Pirri is still available and is the type of risk that is likely to pay off and there are a couple of interesting RFA’s that might be worth signing to an offer sheet. I have been roasted for this before but the Canucks should be seriously considering an offer sheet to Jaden Schartz or Marcus Johanssen. Both players are young, fast, skilled and offer an immediate upgrade on the current group wingers.

    • Pirri would be the most economical at 1-1.5 million. Schwartz and Johansson would probably cost a first and third round draft pick, Judging by their current contracts, it will cost around 4-5 million a year with term anywhere in the 7 year range if you want success.. Is that affordable for a team wanting to build through the draft? How about cap space and re-signing upcoming contracts? Only work if you are willing to trade some current assets to regain some of those picks and cap.

  • Bud Poile

    Sutter is a good skater and good defensively. He can beat defenders one on one on occasion too. He’s not much of a playmaker though, and to have him with Eriksson would be a waste of Eriksson’s talents.

    Eriksson should play with the Sedins or Horvat. Sutter is best with skater grinder types like Hansen, Burrows, Etem, Dorsett. Playing Sutter with skill players is going to frustrate everyone involved.

  • Almo89

    I’d be skeptical of the presumption of a typical first/second/defensive/energy structure. As long as WD is coaching we’re going to see him roll four lines. Each line is going to be expected to be defensively competent as well as chipping in goals when they hit advantageous matchups. From that perspective I’d expect to see a lot of mixing and matching throughout the lines as they look for that elusive balance.

  • Almo89

    Hopefully the acquisition of Eriksson will lead to, on occasion, splitting up the Sedins.

    People ridiculed Willie for putting Dorsett with the Sedins, but Willie understands their need for a right shot grinder on the RW. That’s why Hansen had success there.

    The highest draft picks still around from the “dead puck” era (Sedins) need to play a puck possession game. They need someone to get the puck for them, they need to set up in the zone and keep possession. I don’t think Eriksson best fits that bill on the right side.

    2nd line LW, I’d be happy to see Eriksson or D.Sedin there on occasion.

  • In a perfect world we pick up a 2nd line left winger with size, grit and some skill.(Obvious I know) Barring this, much depends on Burrows and the play of Rodin. If Burrows recovers from injuries and regains his speed, he could play 2nd or 3rd line minutes on the left, his natural side. As for Rodin, he’s an unknown at this point. Try him on 3rd line right side and see what happens. If he can move up, great, and if not Virtanen gets his spot. I think Virtanen starts in Utica due to waivers.

    Sedin – Sedin – Eriksson

    Burrows – Sutter – Hansen

    Baertschi – Horvat – Rodin

    Etem – Granlund – Dorsett

    • Vanoxy

      That’s the lineup I see starting too.

      Burrows and Etem will probably trade spots based on who’s playing better, but you nailed the best possible lineup.

      However… knowing the way Willie loves to roll 4 balanced lines, we will probably see a different middle 6. Maybe Rodin plays on the left side with Sutter and Virtanen, and Hansen plays with Horvat to provide a safety net for the young guys.

      If Willie learns to play a situational match-up lineup, you’re right on though.

      The Burr/Etem-Sutter-Hansen line can play the tougher assignments and get the puck out of our end, while still chipping in 40-50 goals. Horvat and co., can play more sheltered minutes and gain some confidence as the 2nd offensive unit.

      Maybe this horse is dead, but Scott Hartnell would look awfully good on a line with Sutter and Hansen. If Etem or Sbisa could be sent the other way, even better.

      • “Scott Hartnell would look awfully good on a line with Sutter and Hansen.”

        I agree a Hartnell type player is the right fit. Hartnell is durable, missed few games to injury, and scores on a consistent basis. What scares me with Hartnell though is his age 34, and many hard miles on his body due to his style of play. Most guys his age have trouble keeping up, being a step slow. Also, I don’t like his NMC, and $4.75M cap hit for three more years. Three years is a serious commitment to a guy his age.

        • Vanoxy

          The term is a bit of a concern, for sure.

          I wouldn’t be too scared though. He’s the type of guy that could slow down and lose some offensive punch, but would still be a valuable bottom 6 guy in the 2nd + 3rd years of the deal & slide down the lineup as more of a mentor to guys like Virtanen and Horvat, who would benefit from emulating his playing style.

          With the cap going up annually, by year 3 of his deal his 4.75 will be a better bargain than the $4 mil Burrows will cost this year.

          Benning is big on character guys. Hartnell is the epitome of character.

  • Hockey Warrior

    A long stint in AHL developing his offense would be good for Jake V . Put me down as someone who wants a zone start approach ( extended even to 5 rather than just the forwards ) rather a rolling 4 line strategy . Play Eriksson with Sedins until proven otherwise .

  • I wouldn’t get too hung up on the left/right thing either, but it seems Rodin is a left shot who prefers Right Wing, and since he doesn’t have much NHL experience, I don’t see the Canucks playing him on his uncomfortable side regularly. Similarly, with Eriksson — Loui prefers left side, but can play on the right. If he’s with the Sedins, he’d have no problem there, but if he’s not with them, it makes most sense to have him on the LW.

    If the Canucks were actually planning the rebuild, I could see Virtanen in the minors: but they’re not. Virtanen will make the team, VAN needs his size, speed and zone-entry skills to be competitive. This is how I see the lines shaping up after approx. 6 games when Loui is pulled off the Sedin line:

    Sedin – Sedin – Hansen
    Eriksson – Sutter – Rodin
    Baertschi – Horvat – Virtanen
    Etem/Burrows – Granlund/Gaunce – Dorsett

    Gaunce can also play LW, Burr and Etem can play RW, so that 4th line could be a mashup of almost any of those guys.

  • Hockey Warrior

    I would call this article

    How to assemble a proper 2nd line that was so disastrously missing last year but we will need if we are to have any chances of playing in May

    Too long?

  • Vanoxy

    I believe the year will depend on the progression of the younger players. Last year they only had two players who had > 40 points: the Sedins.

    To be competitive they would need at least 6 players to be above that mark. Half of these players probably need to be above 50 points.

    Horvat was close at 40. Baer was only at 28 points. I think the Canucks really need this duo to improve on those numbers to compete for a spot in the playoffs.
    While some of this should come from the natural progression of young talented players, it may make some sense to put Erickson on this line. It would not be un reasonable to expect each of these guys to be above 40 points.

    This would keep Hansen with the Sedins. They should be about 60 points (if healthy) and Hansen would also be > 40 points.

  • JuiceBox

    I actually could see Willie pulling that junk and it would be infuriating!

    Hanson scored 22 with the twins and didn’t have PP time! That would pencil in Erik from 30-40 goals health permitting.

    WHY does it make sense to make your second line more effective you have to make your first line less effective… How about….

    Let’s try Sven and Jake with Sutter and drop Rodin and Hanson to Horvats line. If Bo has proven anything his first two years, it’s that he works well with different wingers. The Lativian Locomotive his First year, then Sven.

    I’m hoping Willie realizes Erik brings both driving offense and defense to the top line, which Vrbie didn’t.

    We have quite a few middle forwards that are young and might click with Bo. We have all been waiting for the Twins to have their AllStar forward rather than them having to make a 3rd liner a 30 goal scorer. It’s time they don’t do all the heavy lifting.

  • Hockey Warrior

    Pens proved you can add talent/driver/possession type of player on any line and it go.

    Why Eriksson with Sutter would be prudent.

    Baert-Horvat are proving to be a formidable combo moving forward.

    Sedins together.

    And that makes our top 3 lines with various pieces moving around them as WD see’s fit.

    Of course health will be paramount, as last season was disastrous for Hank and Sutter both down, which is why imo trading Hansen plus dman for a big younger chippy winger would be helpful for the team.