Photo Credit: Richard Lam/PNG Archive

The Canucks Need Three Scoring Lines

When a good team evolves into a great team there are a few things that they all have in common. The defence can move the puck, the team has sufficient goaltending; and most importantly, they have a top nine forward group that can control the goal share. The Canucks have been a top six/bottom six team for the past couple years, and throwing out Brandon Sutter as the third line centre and expecting a positive goal share is starting to become a cruel joke to Canucks fans.

Getting into tweets early in this one…

If the Canucks want to create a top nine there is one simple tip they should take from this article, they shouldn’t use Brandon Sutter as the third line centre anymore. There once was a time when teams were constructed to have two scoring lines, a checking line and a fourth line but with the game’s increased emphasis on speed and skill, the idea of a “checking line” has been all but extracted from the game. As a result, it’s time to stop for all of us to stop viewing roster construction through a traditional top six/bottom six lens.

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Teams need to be able to score goals throughout the lineup while also being defensively responsible. That is hockey in 2019, folks. An ideal fourth line acts as a place where you can bury your specialists and play them at 5-on-5 for 8-10 minutes per game. PK and PP specialists can get a bit of action in at 5-on-5, wait for their chance to shine on special teams, and possibly move up the lineup when the team needs a spark.

The Canucks have their top two centres set for the foreseeable future in Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat, but the third line is still very much in question with Adam Gaudette, Brandon Sutter and JT Miller being the top three candidates to play down the middle.

Adam Gaudette

If the Canucks want to take the step to becoming a good or even great team, Adam Gaudette needs to be an integral piece. If making the playoffs is the goal, they’ll need a third line centre who can be a contributor offensively. Adam Gaudette came into the league with a lot of hype after winning the Hobey Baker award as the best NCAA player in 2018, and some fans believed the team had found a diamond in the rough with their 2015 fifth round picks. Gaudette has had times where he has shown some flashes of being an offensive talent in the NHL, and anyone who’s gotten a chance to see him play in the AHL has seen the offensive force he can be at that level. The issue is that he will be 23 years old at the beginning of the season and after his few years in college he is now at a crossroads in his NHL career. Does he have the talent and hockey IQ to hold down a full-time NHL job in a team’s top nine?

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There’s evidence to suggest he can. In his first 40 games of the 2018-19 season he was only averaging 10:12 of ice time and had five goals and five assists in those games without any consistent time on special teams. Gaudette’s most consistent linemates were Jake Virtanen, Markus Granlund and Antoine Roussel. With the team’s additions of Micheal Ferland and JT Miller we could see some more time of Virtanen and Roussel with Gaudette and I’d expect to see Sven Baertschi and Tanner Pearson get some time with him as well.

Gaudette did finish the final 16 games of the season averaging 12:35 of ice time per game and was only able to contribute two assists over that period so he definitely has work to do this offseason to improve his chances of being a full-time third line centre in the NHL. He did, however, have a higher Corsi for and goals for per 60 minutes and lower Corsi and goals against per 60 minutes than Brandon Sutter, who could very likely be Travis Green’s choice for the third line centre spot.

Gaudette seems to spread out his offence at the NHL level, though when he was a Northeastern standout in the NCAA he loved to score from the left side of the ice and was very efficient on the powerplay. The Canucks have not used Gaudette consistently in that position but I would not be surprised to see him get some work on the second unit this season if he takes a step after his offseason training.

If he can take the next step, he looks to be one of the better options for the third line centre role. If he can be what a lot fans think he can be, that sets the team up down the middle for years to come.

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Adam Gaudette has a lot on his shoulders this season and he may not even know it. A big year for Gaudette would be a big upgrade for the Canucks down the middle and definitely give the team a top 9 forward group that can score goals and at least have the chance to compete to have a positive goal share.

Brandon Sutter 

There’s not much more you can say about the guy at this point. I’m over Brandon Sutter. Sure, there’s a chance he stays healthy and bounces back if everything goes right, but if that happens he’ll be worth more as a trade chip than the third line centre on a team that’s in desperate need of some playmaking in in the bottom-half of the lineup. The Canucks have a small army of wingers in the mix to round out the top nine and the team needs to have a guy in the 3C role that can include his wingers in the offence and Brandon Sutter doesn’t do that.

In a vacuum, Jay Beagle and Brandon Sutter are perfectly fine fourth-line centres but most smart fans understand that the team can’t afford a boutique defensive centre in a salary cap world and the fact that there are two of them just doubles the destruction of offence in the team’s bottom-six.

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When Brandon Sutter was on the ice at 5 on 5 the Canucks had a 6.11% shooting percentage and Jay Beagle wasn’t much better with his 6.85%. Sutter did start 44.7% of his shifts in the defensive zone and 35.5% in the neutral zone but was still at a worse percentage of goal share as he was on the ice for 21 goals against and was only on the ice for 8 goals for, a goal share percentage of 27.5%. Beagle started even more often away from offensive faceoffs with an combined percentage of 81.1% of his faceoffs coming in the defensive or neutral zone in which time Beagle had a 37.8% goal share, which is also not very good but the lack of offensive faceoffs might account for Beagle’s low percentages to some degree.

All in all it should be an easy decision to keep Sutter off of the third line. If he starts the season there like some believe coach Travis Green will do it means a bit more developmental time and confidence boost for Adam Gaudette in Utica but like I said earlier, I’m over Brandon Sutter.

Give me something new! Give me something fresh!

JT Miller

I initially wasn’t a big fan of the idea of JT Milller starting in the 3c role. I want JT Miller on the top line with Pettersson and Boeser, as I recently wrote. If this team does want to commit to having three lines that are a threat to score, this option does make some sense to me. It’s not the direction I’d go in, but I can see the appeal.

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The Canucks wanted to add wingers that would contribute to their top 6 this offseason and they did that with the additions of JT Miller and Micheal Ferland. Miller is probably the best option on the top scoring line but he’s also likely the best player to round out the top 9 group at centre, too. His playmaking ability around the net and ability to contribute with a very high goal share percentage in a third line role is good reason to believe that he would thrive as the third line centre, where he would have easier matchups against opposing teams and with wingers like Jake Virtanen, Micheal Ferland, Sven Baertschi or even Antoine Roussel (when he returns), he could finally provide the Canucks with the offensive top-nine stability they’ve needed.

I can see the case for Miller in the third-line centre role but I’m not crazy about the idea of taking Miller away from Horvat or Pettersson. There are a lot of wingers on the roster, but the Canucks still need to make sure their top two lines are solidified and that players like Horvat and Pettersson are put in a position to succeed.

Forget top six/bottom six

For years the Canucks have had a bottom six that plays scared and have neglected the need to get offense from their bottom two lines. The Canucks need to get on the path to championship contention and the first step  is to be a positive goal share team at 5-on-5.

That obviously starts with the Pettersson and Horvat lines, but there’s an obvious need in Vancouver for a feisty third line that can regularly contribute on the scoreboard. For my money, Adam Gaudette looks like the best centre to fill that role while still allowing the Canucks to roll out an offensively potent top-six, but if he can’t step up to the plate and become the player Canucks’ fans hope he can it will open the opportunity for JT Miller to try the 3C position.

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Just keep Sutter away from that spot. The market is tired of seeing so many players sink into his black hole of offence. Could Sutter bounce back and become that 15-20 goal scorer we have seen in the past? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it. He’s on the wrong side of 30 and has been trending down for the past five seasons.

Even at his best, Sutter has never been a playmaker, and over the past five seasons he’s had more secondary assists than first which is a crazy turnaround from the ratio of first assists to second assists that he saw at the beginning of his career.

Travis Green has a lot of decisions heading into training camp and one of the major decisions will be figuring out who slots in down the middle on the third line.

Obviously, every player wants a chance to play with Petey and Boeser but someone needs to back them up in the scoring department, and it’s time for the front office and the coaching staff to build three lines that are a threat to score instead of a top six that tries to score and a bottom six that tries to not get scored on. They have the pieces now to attempt to construct a legit top 9, the question is whether the Canucks will do it or fall back to their old ways of marching out Brandon Sutter as the third line centre.

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Who is your guy to play 3C?

Does Sutter have any value and will he if he performs well at the start of the season? Sound off in the comments.

  • Defenceman Factory

    I agree the Canucks have a group of wingers capable of forming a strong top 9. I also agree the best thing for the Canucks right now is for Gaudette to step up and be that quality 3rd line centre. He has looked deficient so far at being able to centre a productive line. He is currently listed at 170 lbs so some more weight would help.

    It seems logical that if Gaudette can’t get it done Miller should be used but is that really a good option? Miller is likely the best winger on the team at generating goals behind Boeser. You will sacrifice top 6 goals by moving Miller to the third line.

    One question the article doesn’t address is Miller’s performance at centre compared to wing. Just taking a quick look it does appear Miller is more productive on the wing than at centre. A more in depth look is needed to answer the question.

    The Canucks may be better off swinging a trade if Gaudette doesn’t develop into the 3rd line centre role this season.

    • Freud

      Look at Locust, the tough guy snowflake.

      He does indeed look like a douche and a dummy with this post.

      Too stupid to understanding the meaning of GF% mentioned throughout the article.

      Or the simply stated quote “Teams need to be able to score goals throughout the lineup while also being defensively responsible.”

      • Holly Wood

        Freud, how about stick to commenting about the article regarding the Canucks instead of engaging in an immature bout of name calling with someone who you wouldn’t know if you fell over him. Time to grow up or move on and maybe take your pal Realist with you. Didn’t really want to come down to your level but someone’s gotta do it.

    • CanuckRealist

      Hahaha – even in the off season Freud is slapping the girly-boy Locust around like Bob Probert in his prime. Priceless.

      “I play the game at a high level” —— “who for Locust?”——– tumbleweeds. pftttt Loze-rrrr :-p

  • Locust

    You realize there is more to hockey than just scoring goals, right?
    Like sometimes, you have to actually stop the other guys from scoring too.
    Glad to try and help you understand the game Chris.
    It is important to know a little bit about what you are writing about.

  • J-Canuck

    Since the Canucks are not a Stanley Cup contender, yet, I can see Sutter playing 3C while Gaudette continues to get major mins in Utica.
    If a playmaker like Sven is added to the third line, then Sutter has to only keep his stick on the ice and use his above average shot. If Sutter plays well, a team with injuries will call, if Sutter gets hurt, Gaudette will get a call.
    Gaudette has shown scoring ability in Utica which gives me hope for O to eventually come in the NHL. Many first year guys that want to make a good impression as a 3C don’t want to make mistakes, hopefully in year 2 all the “mistake” stuff will be second nature and Adam will be more confident on O.

  • Kanuckhotep

    Gaudette while young and possessing of some promise IMO is not ready to be the Canucks bonafide 3C. Too small of a sample size to give him proper analysis at this point. Certainly we’d all like to see AG88 take Sutter’s or even Beagle’s job but as a still waiver friendly player I can’t see it happening, at least not immediately. Maybe Miller May end up as the third line pivot after all given Green’s propensity to shuffle his lines.

  • argoleas

    Green will still want good defensive players and in terms of the 4th line specialists that you mention, the candidates for that will be Sutter, Beagle, and Motte. I do not put Eriksson there just yet because I believe that he can still play higher up the lineup (and his stint with Pearson and Horvat towards the end of last season went well).

    But in the end, I agree with the central premise of needing to build a 3rd scoring line, and at this point, the only two candidates for that role are Miller and Gaudette. With Miller, that can be done right away, but there will be strong preference to have him in the top 6 with either Petey or Horvat. That leaves Gaudette, who is still a question mark. If the team believes he can accomplish this, then their immediate task will be to help him get that experience while surrounded with skill, veteranosity, and defensive acumen. Maybe have Baer on one side, and one of Eriksson or Sutter on the other. It may take some time, but it could be worth the investment.

    Nevertheless, because of the pressure of needing to have a winning season, Green may default to having the “reliable” Sutter anchor the 3rd line, at least at the start, and leave Gaudette as a reserve option when the inevitable injuries hit, just like last year.

  • J-Canuck

    I believe the long term plan is to start Gaudette in Utica and bring him up at some point when a trade or injury happens. After the NCAA is done Tyler Madden will get a look then spend next year in Utica.
    AG88 will get a chance this year and next to show he is an NHLplayer and not an AHL all star.
    As the playoff/Stanley Cup window really opens It will be AG88 or Ty Madden. If neither steps up a trade for a vet center will happen.

  • El Kabong

    Gaudette is the man, given the chance and a decent winger or two he will be a great third line centre.
    Get rid of Sutter and I don’t care about the return, not necessary to try and pump up his numbers to up his trade value. Adam needs NHL minutes without Sutter being around.

  • Holly Wood

    For Canucks to move forward, Gaudette has to play 3C and has to have some success. Sutter at 3C is a step backwards IMO. Sutter can play on the 4RW with Beagle until traded or waived to Utica.

  • Burnabybob

    Tyler Madden might be a good third-line center as well. And hopefully Podkolzin and at least one other forward will graduate to the big club within the next year, giving the Canucks more offensive depth, and allowing them to move Miller down to the third line if necessary.

  • TheRealPB

    I think the structure of forward lines has changed but I don’t think it’s moved to 3 scoring and 1 specialist line. I think we’ve (thankfully) moved away from a fourth line that’s composed of goons, but I think on most successful deep teams in the league today the third line is a dedicated checking line that can chip in a few goals here or there and the fourth line is a sheltered group that has the specialists you mention or younger players learning their trade. I completely agree that having both Beagle and Sutter is redundant and I think that Beagle is the better defensive center of the two. I think the other thing that’s left out here is that having a dedicated defensive 3C allows you to remove much of the heavy lifting from your top two centers and in particular a good 2C like Horvat — the sheer number of face-offs he took last year when Sutter and Beagle and then EP were out was ridiculous. I mean it was more testament to injuries and lack of depth but there were games where it felt like they couldn’t trust anyone to take a draw other than Horvat. In the ideal situation we have something like the Sedin Glory years where you have Henrik almost exclusively on offensive starts, Kesler not far behind and Malhotra opening up more offensive opportunities for them. I think in this regard if we could have a fourth line with strong wingers that plays a decent (12 minutes) a game that would be the place to put Gaudette.

  • Chris the Curmudgeon

    To quibble a little, I don’t know that there are too many PP specialists buried on 4th lines. The PP unit tends to be made up of the team’s best scorers and they are usually playing a regular shift too.

    What has really happened is that teams don’t see any point in splitting up the roles of checking and energy lines. Good ones expect to be able to deploy their PK specialists and high energy forecheckers (the erstwhile “4th liners”) and have them also neutralize good opposition lines. With a current heavy focus on 2 way play, there is also an increasing trend to play the 1st lines head to head and expect your best players to be such at both ends.

    If the team can find roster space for Sutter to be the 4th line C, then he can still fit. However, we have a glut of guys for that line right now. Any opportunity to trade him should be embraced post haste.

    • TheRealPB

      Yes, you’re right it’s probably the exception rather than the rule. I’m probably thinking too much of Sam Gagner’s usage in Columbus or Kevin Labanc a couple of years ago in SJ.

  • JDMay101

    I still disagree with you about Miller. He might be the best player to play with Pettersson and Brock, but Ferland also excels in that situation, and the marginal cost of moving Ferland elsewhere suggests that you’re better off starting him with the top guys.

    Horvat has to at least start the season with Pearson, given how strongly they finished last year. So presuming you have a top line of Ferland – Pettersson – Boeser, and a second line of Pearson – Horvat – Someone (possibly Virtanen, then Roussel when Roussel returns), you wind up with a scoring-oriented third line featuring Baertschi, Miller and someone – my vote is Leivo. I suspect that line gets about as many minutes as the second line, and whoever is on line 4 is used very, very sparingly. There you go – three lines that can contribute goals.

    Of course, the beauty of the Canucks roster is that there are a ton of permutations that make sense, both up front or on the blue line. So if something isn’t working, it’s pretty easy to mix things up.

  • Fortitude00

    I like Pearson, Gaudette and Virtanen on the third line to start. That would give Gaudette two 15 goal scorers on his wings.
    Top 6 to start would be Miller, EP, Ferland, Sven B, Horvat and Boeser. Mix and match to find chemistry.
    4th line Sutter, Beagle,anyone until Roussel returns. Eriksson and Leivo as fill ins. Schaller, Motte and Goldobin are on the outside looking in. Needless to say Benning is moving some forward bodies in next couple of weeks. I really hope JV doesn’t get moved out to clear one of these vets off the books.

  • NastyNate

    Good article.

    Sutter has/had some really good tools but similar to other tools heavy players Benning has chased, hasn’t worked out because he hasn’t got a playmaking bone in his busy. Aside from that he lacks fire or any degree of intensity so isn’t always using his tools. He’s also lost a step or two, you don’t see him hitting top speeds anymore like he did in year 2 and part of 3.

    Give Gaudette a chance to see if he has that playmaking ability, keep Beagle or whoever else as a shutdown specialist and utilize the waiver wire accordingly to demote.

    • CanuckRealist

      Arty, can you tell us why you had no CLUE that Pat Burns was in the HHOF… seeing as he has been in since 2014!!!!!!!!!!!!! What a complete tool you are.

  • wojohowitz

    This is rather a one dimensional article. What`s more typical is during the month of October teams use their top two lines and give them a rest with the fourth (checking) line. There`s no talk of fatigue in October. The Canucks over the last few years have started strong but get into trouble in November with injuries and that is when all twelve forwards are needed. Depth helps but non-contributions from veterans in November might be the difference between success and a losing record for the month resulting in them digging a hole they spend the rest of the season trying to get out of.

  • DogBreath

    They will move to three more offensive lines when Gaudette is ready to step in to that role. He is not there yet, so hoping otherwise is just that, hope. Sutter will start the year as the 3LC with Gaudette in the minors. When Gaudette has proven he can fill an offensive 3LC role, he will be brought up and Sutter will either be traded or moved to 4th line winger.

    Sutter, when healthy, is still an effective 3LC shutdown player. His stats suck because he played on a terrible team and his role was to neutralize the oppositions best players. They need him to stay healthy, recover his form and then have Gaudette show that he is ready. All these things need to occur for the Canucks can transition to a 3 line more offensive team.

    • Canuck70

      It will be interesting to see if Sutter can produce points if he is moved away from a checking role and given quality wingers. I have always liked his game and I don’t understand the bad rap many on this site give him. He is extremely intelligent on the forecheck and works hard. His biggest problem since being here is the injury bug. Tanev is also oft injured but does not garner the same hate. I agree that Gaudette may not be ready but ice time is a great remedy for inexperience. I hope he can light it up early to get a chance to be the third line centre. Unfortunately, Gaudette may end up being one of those guys that looks like he has all the tools but can not put the puck in. Let’s hope not. In any case, the Canucks have way more depth up front now.

      • DogBreath

        Generally, people have a bias towards forwards who produce offence and undervalue those who defend well. We all do it. Provided Sutter is healthy, he is strong positionally, is an effective neutralizer, kills penalties, wins key faceoffs and (I’ll bet) can play effectively on the wing in a similar shutdown role. He’s also a leader. Every team needs players like this.

        All that said, hopefully (because we’re in hope season), Gaudette evolves to take on the 3LC and they can transition to a more offensive 3 line team with Beagle anchoring the shutdown role.