Fans of the Vancouver Canucks, get ready to see more of the likes of Aaron Volpatti, Manny Malhotra and Dale Weise.
It does perhaps sound somewhat ridiculous but the idea is an important part of coach Alain Vigneault’s plans for the truncated regular season, a strategy that is informed by the important of the months of May and June, the games that really count. Vigneault, a man who starts his seventh years as Canucks coach, has studied volumes of information available, such as last year’s shortened basketball season – as one would expected in an organization helmed by chief nerd (president/general manager) Mike Gillis. The conclusion of the Canucks’s brain trust: play the third and, yes, fourth lines a lot more than in the past.
It’s what Vigneault on Monday after midday practice called “quantity over quality.” He’s never been one to put the first-line Sedin twins on the ice for 22 minutes a night – 18/19 minutes has always been more typical of Vigneault’s deployment. That won’t change this year, and Vigneault said the shortened season, to his mind, demands even more shared ice time than in the past.
The former St. Louis Blues defenceman (42 games in two seasons in the early 1980s) spoke about the third line getting upwards of 15 minutes a night on the ice, and the fourth line eating up something like 8 or 9 minutes, compared with 5 or 7 in a typical season.
The goal is “quality,” which of course is measured by only one metric: wins.
“I’m going to spread the minutes around,” Vigneault told the usual horde of reporters on Monday at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. “I really believe to have success in this type of format that you’ve got to play four lines, you’ve got to play six Ds.”
So what will these lines look like? As The Globe and others have reported, Vigneault will go – at first – with what has worked in the past. That means the twins and Alex Burrows on the first line.
The much-obsessed-over second line is more of a mystery stew, compounded by a new injury to winger and marksman David Booth. He “tweaked” his groin and has not skated in official practices, even though he was listed on Sunday afternoon (in a Canucks press release) in his usual spot on the second line. Centre Ryan Kesler, of course, remains in convalescence, though on Monday looked fairly strong in a one-on-one session with Canucks skills coach Glenn Carnegie, skating well, and shooting with some power – though when he can withstand the rigours of a game is unclear. Recall last season, when Kesler played through injury and scored zero goals in his last 17 games.
The only part of the second line in functioning order is Mason Raymond, who hasn’t been a force for a long time. Whoever centres this line – journeyman Andrew Ebbett or rookie Jordan Schroader – might not exactly have a powerful supporting cast. On Monday it was young Zack Kassian working some time on the second line.
All in, Vancouver’s second line might have fans begging for the third and fourth lines. While nothing is set in stone, the third line likely is winger Chris Higgins, centre Max Lapierre, and winger Jannik Hansen – basically something like the island of misfit toys and/or a bouillabaisse of killer whale and ocean eats. Intriguing, and – to our eyes – possibly quite productive.
The fourth line, like all fourth lines, is scrappy, but again could be stronger than critics might think: winger Aaron Volpatti, centre Manny Malhotra, and winger Dale Weise. Malhotra, whose eye injury changed his game, ate up a lot of a very tough minutes last year. As Vigneault deploys the twins in the offensive zone, Malhotra takes a huge amount of D-zone faceoffs. Weise has been buoyed by his star-turn in the Netherlands and Ivy League grad Volpatti – he played four years at Brown – is primed after an injury-ended season last year.
So maybe Vancouver’s fortunes are indeed underpinned by more Volpatti-Malhotra-Weise than an observer/obsessive may have previously imagined. It sounds weird enough to work – and the days are somewhat surreal already on the downtown Vancouver peninsula, with the affable Roberto Luongo still plying his trade in these parts. As he (er, @strombone1) tweeted the other day while watching quarterback Colin Kaepernick play ridiculously great football – with presumably zero San Francisco 49ers fans pining for Alex Smith, “Kaepernick looking fantastic proving you could never go wrong in going with the youngster over the old vet..........”