Five options for Vancouver’s third-line centre vacancy

For a brief, fleeting moment, centre was a position of strength for the Canucks. With the acquisition of Maxim Lapierre at the 2011 trade deadline, the Canucks were perfectly structured down the middle of the ice: Henrik Sedin, the super-skilled all-star Art Ross winner, on the top line; Ryan Kesler, the two-way power forward coming into his own as a sniper, on the second line; Manny Malhotra, the defence-first enabler, on the third line; Lapierre, the defensively-responsible agitator, on the fourth.

The Canucks even had Cody Hodgson, full of promise, waiting in the wings. Life was good in Centresville.

That’s when a malfeasant puck made a beeline for Malhotra’s eye, ruined everything, then went on to a starring role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When Malhotra returned in the playoffs, he wasn’t the same player and that continued in the 2011-12 season. While he still played a vital defensive role, Malhotra’s ice time was much-diminished and it was apparent that he simply wasn’t as effective as he had been prior to the injury.

Hodgson, for his part, made good on several elements of his promise, but left Alain Vigneault and Mike Gillis wanting on the defensive side of the puck (and the patriarchal side of Hodgson’s family), leading to a trade out of town. In his place came Samme Pahlsson, who came with defensive acclaim, but didn’t live up it. Now he’s gone back to Sweden, leaving the position unoccupied.

When you add the fact that Ryan Kesler is definitely, totally injured and absolutely still recovering, no question about it, to the mix, the middle of the ice looks positively capacious for the Canucks. Utility forward Andrew Ebbett might be a stopgap, but what are the Canucks’ options for a season-long solution? Here are 5 of them:

1. Manny Malhotra

Does that sound crazy? I just explained how Malhotra was no longer effective as a third line centre, didn’t I? Here’s the thing, though: Malhotra struggled last season after losing the bulk of the previous off-season to additional surgeries. After Malhotra recovered enough from his initial two surgeries to play in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, he still had two more procedures to go.

Those two off-season procedures wiped out his training for July and August. Last November, Mike Gillis admitted, “We knew it would be impossible for Manny to be perfectly prepared for the season. There was absolutely no way he could be.”

Is it possible that Malhotra could return to a semblance of his former self, despite his sight loss in his left eye? Certainly. Is it probable and is it something the Canucks should bank on? No, it’s not. But Malhotra is an option.

2. Jason Arnott

The rumour last month was that if the Canucks didn’t sign Shane Doan, they would sign Jason Arnott. They’re probably not going to sign Doan. Therefore, by modus ponens, they will sign Arnott.

Arnott is 6’5″ and 220 lbs, but is also 37-years-old. He still has some scoring pop left in him, however, and his underlying numbers are still strong. The added benefit to Arnott is that he would be capable of temporarily filling in for Kesler on the second line if Jordan Schroeder isn’t up for the job.

While he is not the typical defensive forward that Vigneault likes for his third line, Arnott is far from a liability defensively and add he also adds some power play presence. Arnott scored 6 powerplay goals last season and 14 of his 34 points came on the powerplay.

3. Jordan Schroeder

Schroeder is the odds-on favourite to fill-in on the second line until Kesler returns. Once that happens, however, it’s either back down to the Chicago Wolves or it’s down to the third line. Schroeder will need to prove himself to Vigneault to stick around, and the best way to do that is be defensively responsible.

Fortunately, Schroeder has spent the last two seasons working on the defensive side of his game in the AHL and has been praised for his two-way play. He played big minutes in all situations for the Wolves last season and is looking like a far more complete player. While his size is still an issue, his core strength and powerful skating should help him compensate.

Over at Canucks Army, Jeff Angus declared him NHL-ready back in February. Now is the time for Schroeder to prove it to everyone else.

4. Maxim Lapierre

When Malhotra went down with his eye injury, Lapierre stepped in admirably in the playoffs, picking up the defensive zone starts and tough match-ups. He has continued to play in some of the most difficult situations in hockey, but had done so alongside Malhotra instead of in his place.

Overall, Lapierre does a very respectable job in a checking role, but is questionable as a long-term answer on the third line. He just doesn’t have the offensive skillset to provide the type of tertiary scoring that is needed there.

With that said, if Vigneault wanted to put together a third line based entirely around a strong forecheck, agitation, and physicality, a third line of Lapierre, Higgins, and Hansen would do the trick.

5. Brendan Gaunce

And now we come to the  long shot. The Canucks’ 2012 first-round pick is very unlikely to make the team out of training camp, particularly since it looks unlikely that there will even be a training camp.

Gaunce is, however, 6’2″ and 215 lbs, so he already has NHL size. He has been lauded for his attention to the defensive side of the ice, so he has that in his favour as well. Scouts suggest he has upside as a second-line power forward, but others suggest he’ll be a two-way third-line centre. The Canucks could use one of those right now.

It’s unlikely that Gaunce is ready to take on heavy defensive responsibilities at 18-years-old and it’s particularly unlikely that Vigneault will put him on the opening day roster, but it’s still a possibility worth considering. Gaunce has all the qualities that Vigneault likes in that role, just without the experience necessary to put it all together on a nightly basis.

In order for him to make the team, he’ll need to hope for a very strong training camp. So, let’s all hope for a training camp for him to be strong at.

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  1. Kenji
    September 11, 2012

    I have hopes for Friesen, I love what his coaches have had to say about this guy, how he is their best worker, intelligent, can make plays while also being a defensive shadow. He is a relatively puny hockey player (i.e. only slightly above average in height, not towering) but he is said to be fond of making the devastating hit, like US Weekly on Kristen Stewart. Shades of Mike Peca.

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    • Mack
      September 11, 2012

      Yeah, I definitely think Alex Friesen is a darkhorse candidate. Probably more ready than Gaunce at least. I’ve got high hopes for him and could see him challenging for a spot as early as next season.

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  2. SteveB
    September 11, 2012

    modus ponens: “In propositional logic, modus ponendo ponens (Latin for “the way that affirms by affirming”; often abbreviated to MP or modus ponens[1][2][3][4]) or implication elimination is a valid, simple argument form and rule of inference.[5] It can be summarized as “P implies Q; P is asserted to be true, so therefore Q must be true.”

    I learned something today and that’s why I keep coming back to PITB.

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