After a couple incredibly busy weeks, the Canucks appear to have finished making moves for now. While it’s certainly possible that we’ll see another trade during the summer and an unsigned free agent or two might merit an invite to training camp, it’s reasonable to think that the current Canucks roster is the same as the one we will see in September when camp starts.
If so, the Canucks are left with a significant hole on the second line, approximately the same size and shape as Ryan Kesler. For years, the Canucks have relied on Kesler to shutdown the opposition’s best forwards, while contributing secondary scoring and playing a key role on both the penalty kill and power play. Although he has slowed down of late and will likely never again be the 70+ point player he was in 2009-10 and 2010-11, he’ll still be difficult to replace.
It looks like Jim Benning didn’t even try to replace Kesler. Instead, he placed a premium on having a proven goaltender, devoting significant capspace to signing Ryan Miller rather than going after one of the top centres available in free agency. By doing so, Benning left the second-line centre role up for grabs, banking on quantity over quality.
While the Canucks don’t have any surefire bets to replace Kesler, they do have several potential second line centres who are as yet unproven. The Canucks’ best bet at this point is to rotate players in and out of the position throughout the season until one of them secures it with his play.
The most obvious option to replace Kesler is the player that came back from the Anaheim Ducks in the Kesler trade, Nick Bonino. The 26-year-old has a lot of things going for him: he outscored Kesler last season, both at even-strength and on the powerplay. He also has the vote of confidence from Benning, who has said he expects him to be the team’s second-line centre.
There are also a lot of things working against Bonino repeating or exceeding last year’s breakout season. At even-strength, Bonino benefitted from favourable percentages, with the Ducks scoring on 9.4% of their shots when Bonino was on the ice, higher than any Canucks’ forward last season. If that regresses towards the mean next season, Bonino’ even-strength points will take a tumble.
On the power play, Bonino had the luxury of playing with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on the Ducks’ first unit. With the addition of Radim Vrbata, it’s unlikely he’ll play the same role with the Sedins, particularly since Vrbata shoots right like Kesler. The only way Bonino will play on the first unit is if he plays on the point.
It’s more likely that he centres a second power play unit featuring far less potent forwards like Zack Kassian, Alex Burrows, and Chris Higgins. That will take a significant bite out of his power play points.
What it boils down to is that the Ducks had Nick Bonino last season and were still desperate to trade for a real second-line centre. Still, Bonino has played the role before and, given sheltered minutes, could be a stopgap solution.
The next option is Linden Vey, who recently accepted his qualifying offer.
Agent for new #Canucks centre Linden Vey says he will be accepting team’s qualifying offer of $735,000 at NHL level. $67,500 in minors.
— Brad Ziemer (@BradZiemer) July 14, 2014
The 22-year-old is even less proven than Bonino, having played a grand total of 18 NHL games in his career. By all accounts, Vey is NHL ready, however, and his 48 points in 43 AHL games last season would seem to agree. In the season prior that, Vey was fifth in the AHL in scoring with 67 points in 74 games.
Vey has the offensive instincts, vision, and skill to be a second-line, playmaking centre, but he was unable to break into the Kings’ stacked lineup. The issue is his inexperience. We have no idea if Vey can produce points against NHL competition, though he had two highlight reel assists against the Canucks last season. Whether that counts as being against “NHL competition” depends on your individual level of cynicism.
The big question for Vey is where he fits best into the lineup. Ideally, he’s not a bottom-six forward, as he doesn’t have the size, physicality, or outstanding defensive ability to fill a checking line role. While he could skate on the third line, it would preferably be a scoring line rather than a checking line and the Canucks simply don’t have the right mix of players to give the the third line a sheltered, scoring role, as that will need to be the role the second line plays.
Fortunately, Vey can also play right wing, which opens up some options. He and Zack Kassian may rotate in and out of the second-line right wing slot, with Vey potentially also rotating with Nick Bonino at centre, pushing Bonino down to the third line at times. Vey seems to have more offensive promise than Bonino and may be a better long-term solution on the second line.
The third option would be Bo Horvat. That may be a surprising suggestion: there is an argument to be made that Horvat should spend another year in Junior and throwing one of the Canucks’ top prospects into a pressure-filled second-line centre role at the age of 19 may seem a little crazy.
The issue is that I think Horvat is ready to make the jump to the NHL and, unlike Hunter Shinkaruk and Brendan Gaunce, Horvat isn’t eligible to play in the AHL this season. If he’s sent back down to Junior, he’s gone for the entire season, even if the Canucks have injury troubles and could use him in the lineup.
The idea is to have options: I’m not suggesting that Horvat immediately plays on the second line. Bonino or Vey should be able to take that spot to start the season and the Canucks can always use Shawn Matthias on the second line if all else fails. I’m suggesting that the Canucks improve their depth next season by keeping Horvat with the team, perhaps on a third line between the defensively responsible Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen.
With that set up, the Sedins and Vrbata can go power against power, taking on the opposition’s top lines, while Horvat’s third line plays a checking role against secondary opposition, allowing the Bonino or Vey line to have a more sheltered, scoring role. Matthias can push Brad Richardson to the wing on the fourth line, with Derek Dorsett on the other wing to form a very formidable fourth line that can soak up minutes against tough competition if necessary.
Then, in case of injuries or if Horvat outperforms expectations, he’s available to centre the second line.
Is any of this ideal? Of course not. It would be far better to enter the season with a solid second-line centre who can be relied upon to put up 20+ goals and 50+ points every season. But, without having that kind of certainty, it’s far better to hedge your bets. By having three centres who might be capable of being the Canucks’ new second-line centre on the roster, there’s a better chance that least one of them will actually be capable of filling the role.Tags: Bo Horvat, Linden Vey, Nick Bonino, Ryan Kesler