Canucks post-mortem week: The forwards
The Canucks need some changes up front. Nothing drastic, but it was clear watching them struggle for offense for much of this season, and more importantly during the playoffs, that they didn’t have quite the right mix. Changes need to start with the addition of a skilled forward to play with Ryan Kesler and David Booth.
I think there were four problems with the forwards this season. One, the second line was missing a playmaker; two, Kesler clearly struggled with his hip injury for most of the season; three, Manny Malhotra is not the same player he was before the devastating eye injury leaving a hole on the third line; and four, they were missing a sparkplug somewhere in the lineup – a guy like Raffi Torres who gets up and down the ice, bangs, crashes, changes momentum, and scores 15 to 20 (Mason Raymond is not that guy).
Some of these issues can be addressed from within the organization, but at least one will require GM Mike Gillis to bring in some fresh blood.
The second line failed to provide consistent secondary scoring most of the year, and while some of this can be chalked up to Kesler’s injury struggles, the other concern has to be chemistry and playmaking on that line.
I like the addition of Booth, but he plays a very similar offensive game to Kesler. They are high-speed, shoot-first forwards who are terrible passers. They will only be able to thrive together if Gillis can find a speedy winger with good hands and vision to play with them.
The ideal guy to add to the second line is Islanders’ pending UFA P.A. Parenteau. He had 49 assists to go with 18 goals last year from the wing. Can you imagine Kesler and Booth on a line with a guy capable of 50 assists?
Parenteau could also be the playmaker missing from the Canucks second power play unit. A group that was lost and incapable of scoring after Cody Hodgson was traded.
It’s never good to just have one guy on your list, and I’m sure the Canucks don’t, but there aren’t many pending free agents that fit the Canucks’ need and salary structure. If Parenteau isn’t the addition, and it’s possible the Islanders re-sign him before July 1, then Gillis is going to have a tough time finding the right fit through free agency.
Zach Parise would obviously be an amazing guy to sign, but he’ll demand more than the Canucks are going to want to pay to get him. He probably belongs in the ‘long shot’ or ‘wishful thinking’ categories.
Gillis may also consider adding a second line playmaker via trade. The Luongo deal could bring someone back that fits with Kesler and Booth. I hate speculating on trades so I won’t even start. But really it doesn’t matter how Gillis adds the piece it is just imperative that he find someone who can pass the puck to play on the second line.
Jordan Schroeder could get a shot, or even youngster Nicklas Jensen, but a team this close to a Cup should be looking for someone proven to play with Kesler and Booth, it isn’t the time to be experimenting with prospects.
The Canucks also need to do a better job of managing Kesler. If he requires surgery again this offseason he shouldn’t be back in the line up until he is 100 percent. We all know Kesler is a competitive guy and wants to play every game, but the team needs him as rested and healthy as possible come playoff time. We saw this year what happens to this team when he isn’t at his best.
If the top six are set with the Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Alex Burrows, Kesler, Booth, and a yet to be determined playmaking winger, then the bottom-six is full of options and possibilities from within the organization.
Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen looked to be locked into the third line. That leaves Gillis needing to just figure out the third line centre spot to complete a pretty solid top-nine.
The third line centre, a position vacated when Malhotra suffered that devastating eye injury at the end of last season, has never been properly been filled. Hodgson wasn’t a great fit on the third line, so even if he hadn’t been moved to Buffalo at the trade deadline we’d still be talking about upgrading that position.
At his end of the year press conference Gillis said he would like to get bigger and faster on the third line. There was no suggestion that Sammy Pahlsson would be back to fill that role. And rightly so, he did not play nearly well enough in the playoffs to warrant a new contract and a return to the Canucks.
I’m not sure Gillis is going to be able to add a third line centre with size, especially if they do what is a much bigger priority and spend a little to add a skilled winger for the second line. I don’t think there is an obvious cheap free agent centre for the Canucks to add. Filling the role likely needs to come internally. That leaves the Canucks two options: bumping Maxim Lapierre up to the third line, or resigning Steven Reinprecht and promoting him from the Chicago Wolves. Reinprecht put up 43 points in 57 games for the Wolves this season, I think he should get a chance at training camp to win that job.
And now the fourth line where the Canucks need to find some grit, speed and a bit of nastiness. When Vancouver let Raffi Torres go last offseason they lost a little bit of the edge needed to win in the playoffs.
Everyone in Vancouver hates the Bruins’ Shawn Thornton, but he’s the type of guy a team has to have in their bottom-six. Chris Neal in Ottawa is another good example. Winning in the NHL requires at least one guy who flies around the ice banging, crashing and changing momentum. You’d prefer that player did it without breaking too many rules or taking too many dumb penalties, and you’d love him to throw in the odd goal at a key time. There is something about an important goal scored by a hardnosed guy that is especially heartbreaking to the other team.
The Canucks missed that this season and they have to find it next year. I suspect that they hope it comes from Zach Kassian. He doesn’t have to fight to be effective on that line, he just has to play solid defensively and bang some bodies on the forecheck.
If Malhotra and Lapierre are the other mainstays on the fourth line that doesn’t leave room for Mason Raymond or Dale Wiese, both are RFAs and should be qualified but only so they can be traded for draft picks.
The Canucks don’t need a ton of changes to the forward group, but they do need very specific improvements. Kassian has to be better to make the bottom-six tougher to play against, and they need to add a skilled winger to the second line to complete the Kesler/Booth unit. If they can get those things, plus a healthy Kesler and decent play out of Reinprecht on the third line, they should be in good shape next season.