You’ll hear a lot about Ryan Kesler today, namely because he may have played his finest game as a Canuck last night. He was remarkable, scoring twice and setting up another by shoveling a puck to Chris Higgins after kickpunching Pekka Rinne out of the net.
Kesler deserves praise. But, if you’re in a praising mood, make sure to set some aside for Maxim Lapierre, who, last night, gave Kesler and the Canucks something they haven’t had since Manny Malhotra’s March 16 eye injury: an enabler.
When Lapierre joined the Canucks at the trading deadline, it couldn’t have been a better situation for him. He’d fallen out of favour in Montreal for his lack of discipline, then saw his stock drop further still in Anaheim for his inability to meet their third-line centre needs. The Canucks were a better fit. Here, he would be met by the leadership group that had given Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler the Stepford treatment, and, with Vancouver’s depth in the middle, Lapierre would only be required to fill the hole at fourth-line centre. All he had to do was outplay Alex Bolduc, whose shoulder dislocated on faceoffs, when opening filing cabinets, and when dunking his French dip sandwich in the au jus.
With such low expectations, Lapierre had seemingly little margin for error. Yet somehow, as the Canucks entered the postseason, people were callling him a disappointment. What happened?
Manny Malhotra got injured.
Suddenly, Lapierre’s cushy gig as an above average fourth-line pivot dissolved, as he was expected to fill Malhotra’s crucial role alleviating Ryan Kesler’s defensive responsibilities.
He wasn’t up to it. In 19 games with the team, Lapierre posted one point, 23 shots (just over one per game), proving he couldn’t be counted on to replace Malhotra’s modest but timely offensive contributions. Worse, Lapierre wasn’t much to sneeze at on the defensive end, posting a 46.5 faceoff percentage and a measly 31 hits — less than two a game, pathetic for a guy who took over the team lead in hits the moment he was acquired. Perhaps when contrasted with Alex Bolduc, these numbers would have sufficed, but when juxtaposed with Manny Malhotra, they were unacceptable.
Exposed, Lapierre lost the faith of his coach almost instantly, demoted to the fourth line in place of winger Mason Raymond. This move that gave the third line a little more offensive thrust, but caused Ryan Kesler’s offensive zone start percentage to plummet, as neither Raymond nor Lapierre’s fourth line could be counted on for important defensive zone starts.
Production-wise, Kesler suffered immediately. Thrust back into his old role as a defensive specialist, he scored only once in the next nine games before a hat trick versus Minnesota briefly mitigated concern. Then, in the postseason, he went another nine games without scoring. Concern mounted.
While Kesler was causing some to flip pools, a switch was flipping in Maxim Lapierre’s game. Turns out he’s a postseason dynamo. Through 10 games, he’s tallied 41 hits, tops in the postseason. He’s 55% on faceoffs, good for 10th in the playoffs and tops on the Canucks. He’s still not scoring, but he’s become a presence on the ice, reliable at earning puck possession on draws and punishing the opposition with hard hits when they have it.
Most impressive, however, is that his strong play has re-earned Alain Vigneault’s trust (ask Keith Ballard how difficult that is). Last night, AV reunited a third line of Hansen, Lapierre and Torres that was seemingly no longer an option, and he utilized Lapierre at a rate that was positively Malhotran. Lapierre played more than any other bottom six forward, with 17:09 through 31 shifts. He was deployed for 12 of Vancouver’s 20 defensive zone faceoffs on the night, winning 7. In fact, he spent most of the night in the defensive zone, which, while typically a bad thing, likely made the Canucks’ coaching staff giddy, because it meant Ryan Kesler was elsewhere.
Alain Vigneault’s newfound trust in Lapierre allowed the Canucks’ bench boss to shelter Ryan Kesler’s minutes for the first time in these playoffs. Kesler took only four defensive zone draws last night; by way of contrast, he’s averaged 11.2 per game through the postseason and totalled 27 in the two games prior.
People criticized Ryan Kesler for his inability to score, but it’s important to note that it’s a lot harder to put the puck in the net when start 200 feet away. However, Maxim Lapierre’s emergence as a bona fide defensive zone option has allowed the Canucks’ coaching staff to start Kesler a little closer to the target.
The results speak for themselves.Tags: Canucks, enablers, Faceoffs, Kesler, lapierre, Nashville Predators