Judging by their lines at practice on Thursday, the Canucks will be loading up their second line, bumping Ryan Kesler to the wing and moving Derek Roy up to second line centre, with Chris Higgins rounding out the trio.
It’s easy to understand why: the Canucks struggled to create any sustained offensive pressure in the first game of the series. Creating a stacked top-six is a simple solution, though it remains to be seen how effective it will be. Kesler, Roy, and Higgins certainly had their moments when they were matched up during the regular season and it creates some difficult decisions for the Sharks defensively.
The only problem is what it does to the bottom half of the Canucks’ lineup. Without Roy centring the third line, that duty falls to Maxim Lapierre, who will be joined by Jannik Hansen and Mason Raymond. In theory, that should be a speedy, defensively responsible line that can create problems on the forecheck, but Lapierre is coming off a fairly mediocre season.
The Canucks need more from Lapierre if they’re going to succeed in the playoffs. They need him to be an enabler. They need him to be Manny Malhotra.
A few seasons ago, Alain Vigneault made a change to the Canucks’ tactics, switching from line-matching to zone-matching. He stopped caring as much about what line or defensive pairing his players were facing and put far more emphasis on where they started on the ice.
The numbers are striking: the Sedins’ offensive zone starts went from under 60% in 2009-10 to over 70% in 2010-11 and 2011-12, coinciding with their back-to-back Art Ross victories. Instead of trying to get the Sedins out against weaker competition constantly, Vigneault focussed on getting the Sedins out in the offensive zone as much as possible.
Key to that strategy was Manny Malhotra, who acted as an enabler for the Sedins. Like some sort of faceoff-specialist Christ-figure, Malhotra sacrificed his own offensive zone starts to the Sedins and took on their defensive zone starts, allowing them to rack up points with their superior offensive skill.
Malhotra’s offensive zone starts went from 45.3% in 2009-10 with the San Jose Sharks, to 25.0% in 2010-11 with the Canucks and all the way down to 13.2% in 2011-12. That’s just at even-strength, not including all the defensive zone faceoffs he took on the penalty kill.
This extreme usage was unprecedented and had a major impact on Ryan Kesler’s offensive game as well, relieving him of many of his defensive responsibilities and allowing him to focus on scoring goals. He scored a career-high 41 goals in 2010-11, partly thanks to getting moved to the first unit on the powerplay and partly because he wasn’t the Canucks’ top defensive centre any more. Ironically, he won the Selke.
Unfortunately for both Malhotra and the Canucks, a brutal eye injury ended his 2010-11 season early, sending the Canucks into the playoffs without their enabler.
That’s when Maxim Lapierre stepped into the breach. Acquired at the trade deadline in 2011, Lapierre briefly centred the third line during the regular season in Malhotra’s absence, but soon lost the trust of Vigneault and was demoted to the fourth line.
In the playoffs, however, Lapierre stepped up his game. It was particularly noticeable in the second round against the Nashville Predators, when Lapierre soaked up the bulk of the defensive zone starts, freeing up Kesler to unleash his inner beast and dominate the Predators to the tune of 5 goals and 11 points in 6 games.
In the first round against Chicago in 2011, Kesler was constantly matched up against Jonathan Toews, battling him to a standstill as Toews was held to just one goal in the series. While the Predators’ paucity of offensive firepower certainly helped, it was Lapierre that stepped in to take the bulk of the defensive zone faceoffs and zone starts so that Kesler didn’t have to do it.
Malhotra returned in 2011-12, albeit in a more limited role. Still, he soaked up defensive zone starts while taking the shortest shifts in the NHL and the Sedins continued to benefit. Kesler, however, had to take up more of the defensive burden again, partially explaining his drop in goals and points that season.
With Kesler moved to the wing and Roy in the middle of the second line for game two against the Sharks, it looks like the defensive burden will be lifted from Kesler once again, which means that the third line will have to play a distinct checking role.
Now, however, the Canucks are without Malhotra, who was permanently pulled from the lineup because of concerns about his vision endangering him on the ice. This means that the Canucks are missing a reliable, defensive centre who can win faceoffs and move the puck out of the defensive zone. That is, unless Lapierre can do the job.
Kesler took 13 defensive zone faceoffs in game one, more than the rest of the Canucks combined. Henrik took the second most with 5. Lapierre took just one defensive zone faceoff and went 1-for-6 in total. He needs to be significantly better in game two.
The Canucks need Lapierre to fill the same role he did in 2011, the thankless job of grinding out shift-after-shift in the defensive zone, in hopes that the top two lines can reap the rewards in the offensive zone.Tags: enablers, Manny Malhotra, Maxim Lapierre, playoffs