Photo credit:© Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
The Lotto Line is fun, but the Canucks can’t afford to put all their eggs in one basket for long
1 month ago
The Lotto Line has been reunited…but for how long?
Saturday’s matchup against the New Jersey Devils saw the former first line of Elias Pettersson, JT Miller, and Brock Boeser put back together for the first time in quite a while.
The Lotto Line had occasionally come together again late in games with the Canucks down a goal, but this was different. This was from the start of the game, and for the whole game, and that’s not something that has been seen since the days of Travis Green (who just so happened to be behind the Devils’ bench for the occasion.)
And what a game it was.
With four goals and eight points between them, the Lotto Line was the engine that powered the Canucks to a 6-4 victory. Through 13:19 of even-strength play, the trio were not scored against. They produced an expected goals rate of 78.65% and a high-danger chance control of 83.33%, which is just bonkers.
And the Lotto Line may have actually looked better than even these lofty numbers suggest. More than that, they looked fun.
So why not keep it that way?
There’s little doubt that the unit of Pettersson, Miller, and Boeser is the best possible unit that the Canucks can throw together with the personnel they’ve got on hand. If making one’s first line as strong as possible were the goal, the Lotto Line would be a slam-dunk decision every time. But balance is also an important consideration, and the Lotto Line setup is about as unbalanced as it gets.
Pettersson, Miller, and Boeser aren’t just the Canucks best top-six forwards…they might be the team’s only top-six forwards. That sounds like an exaggeration, but is it really? All three have a spot amongst the league’s top-21 scoring forwards. But then there’s a 20-point gap between Boeser and the next guy.
If one goes by the adage that there are 96 top-line forwards in the NHL (three per team) and then 192 top-six forwards, the Canucks do technically have plenty that qualify. As of this Monday morning writing, Ilya Mikheyev sits at 137th overall, Dakota Joshua and Andrei Kuzmenko are tied for 156th, Conor Garland shows up at 172nd, and Sam Lafferty sneaks in at a tie for 188th.
So, it could be said that the Canucks have three clear-cut top-line players, and a collection of others that could be called low-end top-six talent.
That said, what the Canucks really have is an exceptionally strong and productive third line (Joshua-Blueger-Garland) and a few players that have shown they can produce when put alongside the likes of Pettersson and Miller.
What they don’t have is an obvious second line solution if the Lotto Line is going to stay together for an extended period.
For Saturday’s game against the Devils, the temporary answer was Pius Suter as 2C. And it went well enough! Suter has been great post-injury return, with seven points in 10 games since mid-December.
Suter was joined by Mikheyev and Kuzmenko, who had his best game in a good long while with despite being kept off the scoresheet.
The trio averaged a Corsi of about 75% through about 14 minutes of 5v5 play, and that was with the majority of their minutes coming against the Devils’ own ostensible second line, as centred by Michael McLeod.
But is this really a solution that the Canucks believe will work out in the long-term?
It’s easy enough to imagine the Lotto Line having a lengthy and successful run together. It’s quite possible that Joshua-Blueger-Garland is a permanent installation on the third line. And there’s definitely a capable fourth line to be cobbled together from the likes of Nils Höglander, Sam Lafferty, Nils Åman, and Phil di Giuseppe.
But there’s just no way to look at a second line of Kuzmenko-Suter-Mikheyev as anything less than a weak link, especially when one imagines heading into the playoffs with that setup.
Mikheyev has the most top-six experience of the bunch, but he’s always been more of a complementary top-six scorer than anything, and one whose scoring efforts are all-to-often individually-focused.
Kuzmenko’s struggles have been prominent this season, and it’s difficult to imagine him having any sort of sustained success away from Pettersson, though stranger things have happened.
The key to any of this working out would have to be Suter. He has played a season-long role in a top-six before, albeit as a rookie for the 2020/21 Chicago Blackhawks, who finished with a 24-25-7 record. Playing in the top-six on a playoff contender is a different matter altogether, and looks like it should be a bridge too far.
The Canucks do have some players producing well enough in the bottom-six to earn some top-six consideration, but nothing that really changes the game. Nobody wants to break up the third line. And while Höglander and Lafferty have each played well in various scenarios, swapping either onto the 2C doesn’t really do anything to make it appear more like a genuine second line.
The prospect of entering a playoff series with Suter as 2C is a daunting one. Especially when the Canucks’ likely opponents can offer up 1-2 centre punches of Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl and Anze Kopitar/Phillip Danault. The “all eggs in one basket” approach is a well-known cautionary tale for a reason.
So what is the solution?
As much as we hate to get in the way of a good time, the answer is definitely to break the Lotto Line back up…eventually. There’s nothing wrong with letting the lads go on a little bit of a run here to start the new year off with some confidence. And it’s nice to keep the Lotto Line on-tap as a go-to option in the line-blender.
But for the Canucks to continue to achieve the sort of success they have been in the 2023/24 season, they’re going to need a Pettersson line and a Miller line on the ice as often as possible, and they’re going to need those lines to not be the same line.
The impetus is obvious. Pettersson in particular hasn’t been as supported as he could be by frequent linemates Kuzmenko or Mikheyev or Lafferty, and Miller and Boeser have struggled to find a third wheel that works. They are all each of each others’ best possible linemates.
But if more top-six support is what is required, that’s going to have to come via addition, not rearrangement.
The Canucks simply don’t have enough Grade-A Eggs on hand.
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