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Can the Joshua-Blueger-Garland unit be the third line the Canucks have been looking for?

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Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
2 months ago
As the Vancouver Canucks held on to a 4-3 lead against the Chicago Blackhawks through the dying seconds of Sunday afternoon’s matchup, five skaters stood guard in front of Thatcher Demko.
On defense, it was Ian Cole and Filip Hronek, which makes plenty of sense. They’re probably the team’s best defensive defenders on either side.
Up front, you had Elias Pettersson, a former Selke vote receiver who was capping off a strong defensive effort. He was joined by JT Miller, in the midst of a Selke-worthy campaign of his own. No surprises there.
And by Dakota Joshua.
Which, really, makes plenty of sense, too, and shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise. Not only has Joshua transformed into quite the two-way force under the tutelage of Rick Tocchet, he’s also become part of a new-look Canucks’ third line with Teddy Blueger and Conor Garland that just might be worth a long look as the solution to a longstanding organizational problem.
The Canucks have had their top-six close to figured out for a while now, with Pettersson and Miller anchoring two potent units with any number of talented wingers.
GM Patrik Allvin has also proven rather adept at bringing in efficient and effective bottom-line energy contributors, like Sam Lafferty and Nils Åman and Pius Suter and more.
It’s that third unit that has proven the trickiest to nail down. Especially since Bo Horvat left town, but before that, too, if we’re being honest.
Until, perhaps, now.
The Joshua-Blueger-Garland unit has been little short of a revelation since coming together. This past week saw the trio combine for ten points through four games, which is obvious ample production from a third line.
But there’s more to it than just the counting stats.
Let’s take Sunday’s game against Chicago as a microcosm. The as-of-yet-unnicknamed third line averaged out to about 15 minutes of ice-time, with 16:18 for Blueger, 15:09 for Joshua, and 13:55 for Garland.
The three of them came together on Joshua’s game-tying second period goal. They also managed to go the whole game without being scored on, save for one power play goal against a PKing Blueger.
As far as matchups go, the Blueger unit split their 5v5 ice-time between Tyler Johnson’s line and the top line featuring Connor Bedard.
Which is not to say that the third line matched up with Bedard. The rookie phenom skated 6:18 of 5v5 ice against Miller, 5:49 against Pettersson, and 5:19 against Suter.
But in that 3:45 played against Blueger and the boys, Bedard did not generate a single shot or attempted shot on net. That’s right, Blueger held Bedard to a 0.00% Corsi through all their shifts against one another, and was the only Canucks’ center to do so.
On both an individual basis and as a unit, the third line’s defensive responsibilities are slowly but surely being ratcheted up by coach Tocchet. They start the majority of their shifts in the defensive end, and that ratio is trending upward. The season-long quality-of-competition charts show the three skating a limited amount against opposing top lines, but more than average against opposing second lines…
From HockeyViz.com
…and, really, that’s probably exactly what the Canucks need from their third line.
Long gone are the days of the traditional “checking line.” And even if those days were still here, they wouldn’t be in Vancouver.
The Canucks are blessed in that both of their top-six centers, through Pettersson’s continued evolution and Miller’s two-way renaissance, are capable of taking on a hefty defensive assignment.
The general rule seems to be that one of the Pettersson or Miller lines will wind up playing against the opponent’s best scoring line, and that the other will wind up playing against the opponent’s best defensive line.
That leaves a bit of a mushy middle left to tackle in the form of the opponent’s second-best scoring line, or perhaps a third scoring unit depending on how they are structured, in need of matching up against.
Suter, on an individual basis, has proven capable of taking such a deployment on and coming out as at least breaking even. He will no doubt continue to be used in shutdown spot duty as the season progresses.
But, for the time being anyway, the Joshua-Blueger-Garland unit seems to be capable of something a little bit better than just surviving their deployment. They’re taking what the opposition has to offer and turning the flow of play back in the other direction, consistently.
For a statistical demonstration of that, let’s turn to our friends at NaturalStatTrick and their handy-dandy line tool.
Joshua, Blueger, and Garland have now played 138 minutes (exactly!) of ice-time together, which is more than any of them has played without the others.
Take a gander at this comparison between the Joshua-Blueger-Garland line’s mutual minutes, and the Canucks’ average without any of those players on the ice:
 5v5 MinutesGoals ForGoals AgainstCorsiShot ControlExpected GoalsScoring Chance ControlHigh-Danger Chance Control
Joshua- Blueger- Garland138:006458.53%57.94%62.06%65.14%64.71%
Canucks Without Those Three981:26553347.43%47.95%47.11%48.59%46.54%
From NaturalStatTrick.com
There it is, right there in black-and-white. What the eye-test has been saying pretty much since this line got put together. The extra control they seem to take as a unit. The way they consistently push back against the opposition. Their habit of maintaining possession in the offensive zone.
All of these things get taken up a notch when the new third line hits the ice, and that’s remained true as Tocchet has placed more and more trust in them.
Using that same NST line tool, another interesting tidbit emerges, and it’s another that jives well with the eye-test.
This is a line that really makes one another better.
 5v5 MinutesGoals ForGoals AgainstCorsiShot ControlExpected GoalsScoring Chance ControlHigh-Danger Chance Control
Joshua- Blueger- Garland138:006458.53%57.94%62.06%65.14%64.71%
Joshua Without Either94:152337.09%32.10%32.13%35.82%32.14%
Blueger Without Either36:420141.67%34.38%40.30%43.24%33.33%
Garland Without Either121:337652.94%45.45%48.71%51.79%50.00%
From NaturalStatTrick.com
Blueger’s sample size without his linemates is almost too small to draw any conclusions from. But the impact that Blueger and Garland have had on Joshua is too enormous to not consider meaningful. His individual advanced statline nearly doubles when he’s out there with those two.
Garland, meanwhile, has been effective almost everywhere he’s been placed in 2023/24, aside from actually finishing on goals. But even his fancy stats have seen a noticeable and notable uptick alongside Blueger and Joshua.
This appears to be the classic case of a line being greater than the sum of its parts. And this equation, as we said at the outset, might just lead to exactly the solution the Canucks have been looking for.
The Canucks never needed a traditional, hard-checking third line. They needed a third line that can gobble up the leftover matchups from Pettersson and Miller, and especially one that can do that all the while maintaining the momentum and game-flow instigated by the aforementioned top-sixers. A third line that can, ideally, help stem the tide of chances and possession that the Canucks have all-too-frequently let surge against them this season.
It’s only been a handful of games, but the early returns are positive, and it sure looks as though this is a job that the trio of Joshua-Blueger-Garland can not just handle, but can perhaps excel at.
Coming up with a good nickname for them is now all the more important.

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