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Photo Credit: © Marc DesRosiers

Analyzing what type of player the Canucks need to fill their hole at 3C

A few weeks ago, my buddy Stephan Roget wrote a great article listing 19 players who could be the Canucks’ third-line centre next year. Unfortunately, most of the names he mentioned were either poor fits or too pricey for the team.

As a result, it seems like Vancouver will continue to patch that hole with underqualified skaters like the flex tape meme.

Brandon Sutter was supposed to be that guy when the Canucks traded for him but the results just haven’t been there, no matter how good his foundations are. Meanwhile, many fans expected Adam Gaudette to step into that role, but his defensive limitations have prevented him from becoming a full-time centre in the league.

More importantly, neither of their skillsets suits what the Canucks need in order to become a contender, which is an important concept to remember since there is no specific prototype that a player has to match for them to be considered as an ideal 3C. Ultimately, it depends on how each roster is constructed, and this becomes apparent when we compare some of the third-line centres from recent elite teams.

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We’ll begin by listing the 3Cs who were a part of the eight conference finals teams over the past two seasons, and each skater was chosen by looking at their average five-on-five ice time during the regular season. In other words, the centres that had the third-highest time on ice averages were picked. There were a few players who were acquired mid-season which skewed their usual playing time, so I used their playoff numbers instead to figure out who was most frequently deployed as the third-line centre.

To gauge each skater’s impact, I used their regular-season five on five corsi, goal differential, and expected goals data from Evolving-Hockey as well as their deployment (quality of competition) tracked by Patrick Bacon. Here are the results:

Season, team Player Corsi % Goal differential % Expected goals % QoC percentile (500 minutes minimum)
2018-19, Blues Tyler Bozak 50.66 50.21 52.31 37%
2018-19, Sharks Joe Thornton 57.13 55.94 54.74 53%
2018-19, Wild/Bruins Charlie Coyle 51.76 47.62 54.13 62%
2018-19, Hurricanes Lucas Wallmark 55.18 43.23 59.79 46%
2019-20, Capitals/Golden Knights Chandler Stephenson 54.76 64.00 57.17 33%
2019-20, Stars Jason Dickinson 46.90 54.39 50.10 58%
2019-20, Lightning Yanni Gourde 55.03 44.98 55.26 20%
2019-20, Senators/Islanders Jean-Gabriel Pageau 46.34 48.00 49.38 88%

As you can see, almost every player drove play in a positive manner and most didn’t need to be sheltered either. The only skater who was consistently out-chanced and outscored on was Pageau, but he also played the toughest minutes by far and had to learn a new system on the Islanders before breaking out in the playoffs. Six out of the eight players were also on pace to score over 30 points over an 82 game schedule, and three even eclipsed the half a point per game mark.

To contrast, here are Sutter’s and Gaudette’s totals from this season:

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Player Corsi % Goal differential % Expected goals % QoC percentile (300 minutes minimum)
Brandon Sutter 45.13 42.01 43.96 6% (!)
Adam Gaudette 46.45 26.14 41.47 2% (!!!)

That’s not ideal, to say the least.

Not only do the Canucks get shelled when either player is on the ice, but it’s happening even with them playing some of the softest minutes in the entire league, and they’re both on pace for less than 20 points over 82 games too. By now, it should be fairly obvious that neither Sutter nor Gaudette is cut out to be Vancouver’s long-term solution at 3C. With that said, the team can’t blindly look for an upgrade to fill that hole; as I mentioned before, each roster is constructed differently, so the Canucks need to find a player with a skill set that suits their needs.

What type of 3C do the Canucks need?

Going back to the first table, we can see that there are two distinct categories of 3Cs when it comes to their deployment: those that play against softer competition (Gourde, Bozak, and Stephenson); and the rest, who are capable of matching up with mid to top tier opponents. Pageau stands out as a player who’s deployed in a shutdown role, but his QoC percentile is skewed since he was with the Senators for most of last year. He played softer minutes after being traded to New York, and both Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson have matched up against tougher competition this season.

The reason why Gourde, Bozak, and Stephenson can play against weaker opponents is because they each have an elite two-way centre in front of them who shoulders the heavy workload:

Season, team Player Corsi % Goal differential % Expected goals % QoC percentile (500 minutes minimum)
2018-19, Blues Ryan O’Reilly 54.05 63.48 56.25 100% (ranked 1st)
2019-20, Lightning Anthony Cirelli 53.33 68.36 56.25 86%
2019-20, Golden Knights William Karlsson 54.93 53.45 57.96 95%

Of course, Coyle also had some guy named Patrice Bergeron on his team, but I didn’t include him because Coyle was never “sheltered,” per se.

The remaining players also had adequate two-way skaters in front of them, just not to the same extent. Instead, their teams opted to go against having a specific shutdown line and decided to have a more even distribution when it comes to the tough matchups, although the top lines still faced stiffer competition on a more regular basis.

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In my opinion, the best strategy for the Canucks would be to go the latter route. Elias Pettersson has shown flashes of defensive dominance in his career but Travis Green has mostly kept him away from the McDavid’s of the world, and he was also outplayed by O’Reilly during last year’s playoffs. Now, I’d be remiss not to mention that O’Reilly is arguably the best defensive centre on the planet and Pettersson is still only 22, but so far in his career, he’s been largely unproven against the best in the world.

On the other hand, Bo Horvat has played some of the toughest minutes in the league over the past few seasons, but his track record hasn’t been great. Horvat’s numbers this year aren’t impressive either, further proving that he’s been miscast as a shutdown centre:

Player Corsi % Goal differential % Expected goals % QoC percentile (300 minutes minimum)
Bo Horvat 47.69 46.95 45.46 93%

On the bright side, Horvat showed some good two-way chops earlier in his career, so there’s reason to believe that he could return to that level if other players were able to alleviate some of the heavy burden placed on him. As mentioned before, Pettersson has also been a steadying defensive player even though he hasn’t spent prolonged periods of time matched up against the very best. This means that the Canucks should be able to thrive by imitating the second model, which is to have a more even distribution of tough matchups between the three centres instead of having one specific shutdown line. In order to preserve Horvat and Pettersson’s energy, Vancouver’s ideal 3C should also be able to kill penalties. The question then becomes, how could the team acquire the third centre that could fit such a role?

How could the Canucks acquire their ideal 3C?

Of the eight players included in the first table, four of them were acquired through trades (Thornton, Coyle, Stephenson, and Pageau), two through the draft (Wallmark and Dickinson), and two through signings (Bozak and Gourde). However, Thornton and Gourde represent special cases, as the former had already been a Shark for more than a decade while the latter was signed as an undrafted player and not through unrestricted free agency.

Out of these three methods, drafting would give the Canucks their best chance at finding a 3C. The team can’t rely on trades because most targets are either too expensive to acquire or not proven enough. A signing seems unlikely as well, given the team’s precarious cap situation. Moreover, most of the players who were acquired through trades and signings joined their new team either in the previous offseason or during the season in which they made the conference finals, which means that the teams were already on the cusp of breaking through and the players helped them get over the hump. As it currently stands, the Canucks are nowhere near that level, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll get there either.

Now, this isn’t to say that Vancouver shouldn’t explore the idea of making trades or signing free agents, but they need to prioritize drafting since they have a promising history in that regard. Gaudette’s disappointing season shouldn’t cloud the fact that he was a fifth-round pick, and former Canuck prospect Tyler Madden has also shown flashes of NHL upside after being selected in the third round. Those are two potential bottom-six centres picked in the middle of the draft within four years of each other, and the team was missing a few of their selections for most of those drafts too.

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If the Canucks can accumulate more picks, there’s a solid chance that they’ll be able to hit on a player who could fill that 3C hole, and the cost would also be much cheaper and less risky than it would be through a signing or trade. This is another reason why the team needs to sell at the upcoming trade deadline, and they have a plethora of players who could net some picks in return such as Tanner Pearson, Jordie Benn, and Brandon Sutter with retained salary.

Conclusion

After analyzing the types of third-line centres that recent contenders have used, the ideal 3C for the Canucks would be a player who could produce over 30 points during a full season while not being sheltered and also kill penalties to preserve Horvat and Pettersson’s energy. This is a very generic player archetype, but the more important thing is how the three centres are utilized. Without one shutdown line, the Canucks need to have a more even distribution of tough matchups to keep each player fresh when they’re playing against the elite lines.

The safest way of finding such a player would be through the draft since trades and signings are more costly. Vancouver’s recent draft history has been encouraging too, so the team should accumulate more picks by selling at this year’s trade deadline. Of course, this strategy likely postpones the team’s window to contend, but it seems like the Canucks won’t be ready to make that leap for a couple years anyway.