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The Canucks have the wingers to run three scoring lines again, but not the centres (unless Aatu Räty steps up)

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Photo credit:© Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
7 months ago
The days of the top-six are over. Long live the top-nine!
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that the traditional model of building a hockey team’s forward lines — two scoring lines, a checking line, and an “energy” line — has become a thing of the past. Or, mostly a thing of the past.
The modern trend is for teams to carry at least three scoring lines on their roster, or four if they can swing it. That’s what virtually every single Stanley Cup finalist over the past decade has done, to the point that it’s starting to be considered the only way to win in the NHL.
It’s also something that the Vancouver Canucks were set up very well to do at the outset of the 2022/23 season. In fact, it was one of the main selling points when it came to pitching the Canucks as potential playoff contenders.
The math isn’t too difficult to figure out. To run three different lines with an offensive bent, teams need nine players of above-average offensive talent: six wingers and three centres.
Heading in 2022/23, the Canucks definitely had the wingers. The newfound Andrei Kuzmenko was joined by the likes of Brock Boeser, Ilya Mikheyev, Conor Garland, Tanner Pearson,  and youngsters Vasily Podkolzin and Nils Höglander.
But, more importantly, the Canucks had the centres. A one-two-three punch of Elias Pettersson, JT Miller, and Bo Horvat promised to be among the best pivot depth in the league, and for a time, it absolutely was. It was not, however, enough to get the Canucks into the postseason.
So, things changed. Horvat was traded, Anthony Beauvillier and Aatu Räty came back in the exchange, and the Canucks kept their production relatively even, but lost the ability to run three true scoring lines.
Sheldon Dries filled in admirably in the role for much of the rest of the year, winding up with 11 goals and six assists through 63 total games. Try as he might, however, Dries wasn’t able to carry whichever offensively-gifted wingers he was assigned, and the Canucks were left shallower — even if their generally-improved play under coach Rick Tocchet had them rising up the standings a considerable amount.
Heading into the 2023/24 season, the issue is much the same. The Canucks absolutely have the wingers available to run three scoring lines. In fact, they have an abundance. Kuzmenko, Boeser, Mikheyev, and Garland have been joined by Beauvillier. Both Podkolzin and Höglander are expected to see an uptick in production, and even Pearson is still around after recovering from multiple surgeries. That’s eight wingers already, and we haven’t even talked about top-nine underdogs like Dakota Joshua and Phil Di Giuseppe, or winger prospects that could make a push like Arshdeep Bains and Aidan McDonough.
The wingers are there. The centres, on the other hand…
Pettersson is in place, and has never been better. Miller is back in a centre spot and thriving in Horvat’s absence. But that absence is still an absence, and there’s nobody available to fill Horvat’s role as the third scoring centre in the rotation.
Ostensibly, UFA Teddy Blueger was signed to fill in as 3C for the season to come. But while Blueger probably represents a step up in offensive prowess from Dries, he’s anything but a top-nine scoring threat. He may be a gamer and far more defensively-apt than the average forward making $1.9 million, but the most goals he’s ever had in a season is nine and the most points is 28. Just as an indicator of how long it’s been since Blueger has been a real scoring threat, the last time he put up point-per-game numbers, he was playing for Shattuck St. Marys Midget Prep team in the year 2012.
To expect Blueger to centre a scoring line is almost certainly a bridge too far.
As is probably the case for Nils Åman, the next most likely candidate to slide into the 3C role. Last year, Åman surprised by making the Canucks and by sticking with them for much of the season. But his 16 points in 68 games weren’t just a result of his inexperience, they were pretty par for the course as far as the player Åman has been at every stage of his development. He’s simply never been a significant scorer, with his highest SHL point total being 14 in 51 games. Even in the Swedish junior circuit, Åman only ever achieved 14 goals and 33 assists in a single campaign.
For Åman to become a long-term option in the bottom-six is definitely possible. For him to ever be anything other than a passenger on an offensive line, however, is highly unlikely, at the very least.
So, the Canucks can definitely run two scoring lines in 2023/24. And they can definitely run a third line with offensively-talented wingers and a centre doing the best they can, whether it be Blueger, Åman, or Dries again.
But three true scoring lines. There’s only one way the Canucks can really pull that off, and it involves one of their top prospects.
Let’s go back to that Horvat trade. While Beauvillier was the more immediate replacement, Räty was the more important one. He instantly became the best centre prospect in the organization, and the only one with true top-six potential. Now, he didn’t exactly impress after coming over in the trade, either in Vancouver or in Abbotsford. But the upside is undeniable, and if we’re ranking the offensive talent of centres on the depth chart, Räty only trails Pettersson and Miller at this point.
And so, that’s the only way in which the Canucks can realistically run three real scoring lines. It will require Räty to step up in Training Camp, crack the roster unexpectedly out of the exhibition season, and then stick around long enough to build up some chemistry and start putting up some numbers.
Anything less simply won’t do. There aren’t any other centre prospects of note. Jack Studnicka seems destined to be a winger and a tweener. Linus Karlsson is now pretty much a full-time winger. Max Sasson is a rookie pro and more of a two-way player than a playmaker. Tristen Nielsen is going to be a fourth liner or bust. Every other centre prospect remains unsigned.
So, really, it’s down to Räty. We imagine that this is a role he will step into eventually, and when he does, the Canucks will be grateful for it. It just might not happen as soon as this year, and if that’s the case, the Canucks won’t have that same three-pronged attack they did in 2022/23, and that will be a challenge for them.
Räty aside, however, there is one more intriguing possibility, and it’s one that Canucks fans have been clamouring for for a while. The team could try Vasily Podkolzin in the 3C role. He’s got the size, strength, and skating ability for the job, and has played centre at the World Juniors before with some success.
Thus far, Podkolzin has struggled to produce consistently as a winger, which is probably why he hasn’t been tried at centre as of yet. But perhaps it could be the spark that his game needs. He’d certainly bring more offensive punch to the role than any of Blueger, Åman, or Dries, and probably more than Räty at this point in their careers.
As a big shooter and power-drive, Podkolzin might actually be the most natural Horvat replacement in the organization. Or, he might prove totally incapable of handling the centre role at the NHL level. It seems an experiment worth running, but one with uncertain results.
Either way, as far as we see it, there’s just two options here. Either Räty steps up in Training Camp, or Podkolzin makes the transition to centre, or the Canucks will have to stick to two dedicated scoring lines and hope that their checkers will chip in with production when they can.

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