I’ve been arguing for some time now that the Vancouver Canucks are one of the powerhouse teams in the Western Conference. Certainly their goal differential shows that; only three teams in the West have a better goal differential than plus-15 at this point, and the Canucks are one of them:
- San Jose Sharks: +53
- Chicago Blackhawks: +51
- Vancouver Canucks: +46
However, while I have a tremendous amount of respect for the team’s on-ice abilities, there are some problems with the group’s forward corps. Let’s start by considering the top line:
The numbers in the chart above are even-strength ratios (all from here). The first number is how many goals the Canucks score while that trio is on the ice for every ten opposition goals, and it’s a highly impressive number, as those three players score more than twice as many goals as their opponents. The second number is how many shots the Canucks manage for every 100 shots by the opposition with those players on the ice; again, they’re dominant players and outshoot their opponents by a wide margin. The final number is the Corsi ratio; Corsi includes shots, blocked shots and missed shots and is a good approximation for territorial domination, and once again shows those three as dominant players. In short, there’s nothing wrong with the top line.
The middle of the roster isn’t a problem, either. Ryan Kesler’s numbers need to be viewed in context; while they’re less impressive than his line-mates, he routinely gets checking assignments and defensive zone work and that drags down his ability to dominate. Even breaking even would be an accomplishment, although as we can see he does far more than that. Samuelsson and Raymond have also been very good this season.
The third set of players we look at has been less impressive. Despite the fact that these guys are generally kept away from the best opponents, and despite the fact that they don’t get a ton of defensive zone work, they’re all around the break-even mark on the shot clock. Hansen’s keeping his head above water, but the only reason that Wellwood and Bernier aren’t dragging down the team’s goal differential is because Roberto Luongo is in net behind them; both have incredibly high on-ice save percentage numbers (.961 and .941, respectively). Still, they aren’t getting crushed either, so while it might be better to replace a guy like Bernier or Wellwood with a more useful piece, it probably isn’t a necessity.
The four players filling out the bottom of the roster have been incredibly bad. The one caveat they get is that for some reason Canucks coach Alain Vigneault likes running them out in the defensive zone; presumably because he knows their ability to contribute offensively is all but nonexistent.
Even allowing for that, these players have been dominated. Only Tanner Glass escapes with a positive goal differential, and that once again is thanks to an incredible .960 on-ice save percentage: a number not even Luongo can maintain (Glass, Bernier and Wellwood and Johnson lead the team in this department by a long ways). Glass and Rypien are constantly outshot, but as ugly as their numbers are, they pale in comparison to those posted by Hordichuk and Johnson, who see nearly two shots against for every shot their line manages.
Fortunately, that sort of weakness is an easy one to address. The Canucks are splendid at the top end of the roster, and the addition of Pavol Demitra only helps matters (he’s played too few games as of yet to be considered here). Ideally, the Canucks will add some depth players to their third line, pushing Wellwood and Bernier down the roster and guys like Hordichuk out of the picture completely.
The Canucks aren’t exactly blessed with a ton of cap space, so those players would need to come cheaply. Additionally, the players at the bottom of the roster bring a physical element that would ideally be duplicated in their replacements. With most of the league still in playoff contention, those players would ideally come from one of four teams out of the running – Toronto, Carolina, Edmonton, or Columbus. Finally, the player needs to be relatively affordable asset-wise; i.e. while Gilbert Brule would be a nice fit in a lot of ways, it needs to be a guy the other team might be willing to let go cheaply.
As one might imagine, that limits the possibilities somewhat. Barring another deal to free up cap space, there really isn’t an affordable centre on those four teams who a) represents a significant upgrade on Wellwood/Johnson while b) still being able to win faceoffs.
However, there are a lot of wingers available who might fit the bill. If Toronto or Columbus were interested in taking Steve Bernier back as part of a package, then the Canucks could seriously consider acquiring either Alexei Ponikarovsky or Raffi Torres. Ponikarovsky’s an excellent (and often underrated) player who would bring size and scoring to the lineup; he’d also be very capable of moving up the depth chart in the event of injures – and there are always injuries during long playoff runs. Meanwhile, Raffi Torres is a better two-way player than Bernier, his contract expires at the end of the year and he’s a significant upgrade in the grit/nastiness department.
As for the fourth-line brigade, there are a few wingers on other teams who are better at playing hockey while still bringing a physical game. Either Derek Dorsett or Jared Boll of Columbus would represent an upgrade on what the Canucks already have without sacrificing grit, while in Edmonton Ryan Stone is paid peanuts but plays a physical game and is reliable in both ends of the rink. At the cost of some grit, a player like Ryan Potulny could be a nice fit as well.
The biggest reason to make these trades would be in anticipation of the war of attrition inherent in a long playoff run. While the fourth line only plays five minutes or so a night, when players start falling to injury it’s important to have replacements already in the system – and players like Glass, Rypien, Hordichuk and Johnson simply don’t have the skill-set to move up the lineup. Even better players like Wellwood and Bernier would look highly suspect if they were asked to play above the third line. Meanwhile, Ponikarovsky is a top-six forward and Torres has had some success in that role in the past, while Stone, Dorsett and Potulny would all be capable of playing in the top-nine if need be.
It’s a detail, but it’s the kind of detail I’d be looking to improve if I had Gillis’ job.