One thing that no one seems to be talking about in Vancouver — but some probably should be — is centre depth.
For the moment, the situation looks non-problematic. The Canucks have JT Miller, Elias Pettersson, and Bo Horvat down the middle, making for one of the strongest 1-2-3 pivot punches in the league. Even after the assumed trade of Miller later this off-season, that still leaves Pettersson and Horvat in the top-six as the designated 1C and 2C, both of whom are eminently qualified for the job.
It’s lower down the depth chart that problems may arise, as the Canucks really don’t have any good in-house candidates kicking around to slide into that 3C slot.
Brad Richardson is probably not going to be re-signed. Juho Lammikko is best served remaining down on the fourth line. No center prospects are anywhere close to making the jump in 2022/23.
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There’s always the possibility that the Canucks acquire some form of 3C in their summer wheelings and dealings, but don’t expect the position to be a major focus.
Another option, although it may appear to be among the least appealing at hand, is to give Jason Dickinson one last shot at playing the role he was brought to Vancouver to play in the first place.
Most have assumed that the Canucks would look to trade Dickinson this offseason and, indeed, they’ll probably consider it. His debut season with the Canucks was dreadful; a scant 11 points through 62 games, sub-.500 analytics across the board despite sheltered deployment, brutal numbers in the faceoff circle.
For a team looking to cut cap, Dickinson’s $2.65 million deal looks like an obvious contract to offload.
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And yet…
Someone is going to have to play at 3C, and that person is going to have to be able to handle some minutes against top-six opposition so that Horvat doesn’t have to take all of them. The Canucks should definitely keep their eyes peeled for an opportunity to pick up a new potential 3C on the cheap, but then they’ve got to worry about the acquisition cost and the charge against the cap.
If they can’t find someone cheaper than Dickinson already is, would it really be the worst idea in the world to give Dickinson another shot — given that he’s someone they don’t have to give up anything to acquire?
Dickinson did have success as the pivot on a checking line in Dallas prior to arriving in Vancouver — that’s largely why the Canucks traded for him in the first place. In each of the three seasons prior to 2021–22, Dickinson played against tougher-than-league-average competition while keeping his expected goals, actual goals, and scoring chances all well above water.
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From NaturalStatTrick
Then, he got to Vancouver, and couldn’t post the same sort of results in limited minutes against below-average competition. But there were some aggravating circumstances to consider.
Dickinson moved countries in the middle of a global pandemic. He joined a team in the midst of an identity crisis. His first month with the Canucks featured an injury and one of the worst team starts in history.
The rest of the team found its collective footing when Bruce Boudreau took over in early December, but Dickinson did not. He got COVID a month later, and then got hurt for more than a month in February.
Dickinson didn’t spend more than 11% of his ice-time with the same line in 2021–22, swapping out linemates and positions on a near-nightly basis. He never found consistency in Vancouver, but then again, consistency also never found him.
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From Dobber’s Frozen Tools
Dickinson saw his strongest run of play upon returning to the lineup in April, but by then it was too late to salvage his season.
There’s not much there to suggest excessive optimism for a Dickinson bounce-back. He did receive ample opportunity to succeed in Vancouver in 2021–22, he just didn’t do much with those opportunities. And he wasn’t particularly unlucky, either, with a higher PDO in Vancouver this season than he had in Dallas in years prior.
But there might be enough reason to be found for an attitude of “what do we have to lose” when it comes to Dickinson, and that’s the attitude that could earn him one last shot at 3C.
The Canucks aren’t shaping up to be incredibly successful in 2022–23. There’s been plenty of talk of the team taking a step back with the aim of building toward a stronger future. The team really shouldn’t be expending prospects or picks in exchange for a potential bottom-six centre, nor should they be spending exorbitant free agency cash — not when they’ve got someone worth trying again already on hand.
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With Dickinson at 3C, Pettersson and Horvat can center some combination of Brock Boeser, Conor Garland, Andrey Kuzmenko, Vasily Podkolzin, Tanner Pearson, and Nils Höglander on the wings. Dickinson then heads up a defensively-oriented third unit, flanked by the likes of whichever of Podkolzin, Pearson, or Höglander don’t make it into the top-six, or perhaps Will Lockwood or some newer depth additions.
Ideally, this line would play as many or more difficult minutes as the Horvat unit, freeing up the captain’s line for more offensive deployment. The checking line would also hopefully develop some penalty-killing chemistry, becoming increasingly responsible to benefit the Canucks’ overall defensive performance.
Again, there’s no guarantee that Dickinson is up to such a challenge. But there is hope. Hope that, after a full, healthy summer minus a move and dedicated entirely to training, Dickinson can finally get his feet under him in Vancouver. Hope that, with consistent linemates, he can once again be the sort of successful, scoring-chance-suppressing checking line center he was in Dallas. Hope that a revamped coaching staff with an entire training camp to work with can get through to him. Hope that the Canucks can plug an important hole in their lineup without having to dip into their limited collection of sellable assets.
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And if that hope doesn’t pan out, and Dickinson’s second season is as much of a flop as his first was? Oh well. The Canucks were going to have a tough time competing in 2022–23, anyway. They can then try to exchange Dickinson on the fly mid-season, or wait until the summer of 2023 to buy him out. His $2.65 million contract is less-than-ideal for a player who can’t find a consistent spot in the lineup, but it’s not that much of an impediment to getting rid of him. Keeping him around for another year is a relatively low-risk gamble.
The potential reward, of course, is a capable Canucks checking line, which in turn grants more freedom to the Canucks’ top-six, which could be struggling to make up for the production loss of Miller and thus greatly appreciate that extra freedom.
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That seems like a possibility that is at least worth exploring.