Yesterday's Raffi Torres signing, (which, for the record, I quite liked, while Skeeter was a little more sobering) seemed like as good a place as any to pronounce the Canucks offseason acquisitions complete. Most of the questions surrounding this hockey team have been answered (defensive depth, grit and size, special teams coaching, etc., etc.) save two: the first is the issue of the captaincy, and the second is the fourth-line center. There are a number of players who could do the job, each one with specific attributes that might help them succeed, and specific deficiencies. This isn't a bad thing: most fourth-line players have glaring weaknesses, and that's why they play where they play. But the right fit can still contribute in a big way, his weaknesses covered by the other three centers ahead of him on the depth chart. Unless a trade is made that answers the question for us, we can assume Mike Gillis is willing to let these guys battle it out to impress Coach AV and win the job for opening night. Let's take a look at who will be fighting for this role at training camp:
Rick Rypien is probably the odds-on favourite to do the job. We already know that the coach likes him, and his ability to throw a lot of punches really fast makes him, apparently, a valuable hockey player. Rypien is more of a rock 'em sock 'em robot than a scorer, but he has shown, on occasion, remarkable speed, tenacity on the forecheck, and surprisingly good hands. It's rare, but he tends to surprise with his skill. Those are the positives. The negatives are that, for a natural centerman, Ryp is a pretty underwhelming faceoff guy, and his defensive zone coverage is suspect. This means that if he loses a draw in his own end, the fans have cause for concern, because he might not get it out until the back of the net stops it from moving. He's also not the best passer in the world, probably because his knuckles are always bleeding, which makes the rush a bit of a headache. At 5'11", he's also a bit undersized. Still, he's an NHL veteran now, he's got experience, he's already a coach and fan favourite (unless his uselessness last offseason changed something) and if he's been working on his draws in the offseason he might be a nice surprise. Chances he makes the team? As a returning Canuck, fairly high. I don't think he'll be the center, though.
Alexandre Bolduc was an option last season, and he's likely ready to challenge for the fourth-line center job. At 6'1", he has the height advantage over Rypien, even if the Rypper outweights him by a good fifteen pounds. It's safe to say that he's not a bruiser, if not from his measurements than from this fiasco. Needless to say, Bolduc separated his shoulder in that scrum, and wound up missing a good chunk of the season. What's he good at? Well, he's apparently fairly defensively responsible, perhaps moreso than Rypien. He's been good for about thirty points a season with the Moose, so his hands aren't completely made of stone. The Canucks seem to like his reliability, and forechecking skill. However, he's not the best as physical play, although he tries hard (we call this the Tanner Glass conundrum), and this doesn't seem in keeping with Alain Vigneault's vision for the fourth line. Still, he's been the first call-up these past few seasons, so you have to think he's got a chance to start the season with the team. They're comfortable with him. Chances he makes the team: he's got an outside shot.
Mario Bliznak has been the shutdown center for the Moose for two seasons prior to performing the same job for the Vancouver Giants for three. He's never been much of a scorer, but he has an uncanny defensive ability, and a remarkable knack for increasing his offensive totals every season that he's with an organization. It's a great way to go about things, as Bliznak makes teams as a fourth-line guy, becomes the best guy on that line, and then graduates to the next level of competition. Against all odds, he's now on the bubble to make the NHL. If he were taller than 6'0", he'd probably be there already, but he makes the most of his size, checks hard, forechecks harder, and can be counted on for faceoffs and tough defensive assignments. He skates well, and has good speed. Isn't that what you want out of a fourth-line center? Unless Rypien makes the team on the wing, he and Bolduc are likely fighting for first call-up. Then, the question is what you want. Bolduc might be able to contribute more on the scoresheet, but Bliznak will likely be better at defending. Considering what a liability last season's fourth-line was, I think the coaching staff wants a fourth-line they can trust with some minutes. Still, it's hard to get noticed in training camp when you don't show anything offensively, so we'll have to see what happens. Chances he makes the team: the same as Bolduc.
Joel Perrault has all the qualities necessary to make this team. He's got size, at 6'2" and 212 lbs. In fact, he's been pencil-thin for most of his past few stints in the NHL, but word is he's filled out. He's got offensive ability as a point-a-game player for the AHL's San Antonio Rampage the past two seasons, and he's got NHL experience, having played 69 games for the Phoenix Coyotes. The problem? It took him five seasons to reach those numbers. He's really more of a scorer, and he simply hasn't been a consistent enough offensive threat at this level to stay in the NHL. His new plan? Remake himself as a defensive forward with some upside. If it works, it will really benefit the Canucks. Perrault's got an uphill battle to convince the coaches he can be as defensively responsible or as tough as shutdown guys like Bolduc, Bliznak, Schneider, but if he can show he's developed that side of his game (he's got the size!), he's got better hands than those guys and that's working in his favor. I think he'll do it. Chances he makes the team: fairly high.
Stefan Schneider could be a surprise. People seem to have forgotten we signed him last March, or perhaps they've confused him with the other Schneiders that have worn the Orca over the past few seasons. He's different. Also, his positives are plain to see: he's 6'4", 200 lbs, and still filling out. While he isn't known for his scoring ability, he is known for his defense. He was the top defensive forward on last year's Portland Winterhawks team after they converted him from defense and used him as a shutdown center. He has nice skating ability, good strength, and is a versatile player that can be slotted in anywhere. At 20, he's still growing physically, but his maturity is through the roof. He's won the Bill Anderson award two years in a row for his character and leadership. He's young, and he's coming right out of junior, though. Chances he makes the team: it's possible, though I doubt it.
Cody Hodgson might not be your prototypical fourth-line center, but let's immediately skip past this stupidity that putting him on the fourth-line will ruin him. He's known as a defensively responsible centerman, so what's the harm in putting him in a position that requires that? We already know he has great hands, we know he's got great defensive awareness and vision. All he wants is to make the Canucks, and he could very well do it as the fourth-line center. If he excels, bump him up the depth chart. Considering that nobody else is a lock to get this spot, Hodgson has just as good a shot as any. Naysayers will tell you that this would ruin his development. I'm sorry, but that's just foolish. Playing every night in the NHL, even on the fourth-line, can't hurt you. Expected to be a star player when you're not ready can, and expectations won't be too high if Hodgson's getting seven or eight minutes a night to start. Alex Burrows went from the fourth to the first line. In a better comparable, Ryan Kesler went from the fourth to the first. If Hodgson can contribute here, he'll be placed here, and I think he can. If he shows he's better than fourth-line center, bump him up a line and move Malhotra over. Isn't that what everybody wants? Chances he makes the team: if his skating has improved, fairly high. Chances he starts on the fourth-line? Higher than you think.