Friday, November 19, 2010

Canucks vs. the 4th line Center, Level 6: Joel Perrault

Get well soon, Bolduc.

Word broke yesterday that the Canucks had called up Joel Perrault from the Manitoba Moose and sent Mario "The Shiznit" Bliznak down the minors. It's a minor move (get it?), but it speaks to a larger issue: the Canucks' fourth-line center position is becoming a major problem. Worse, even a good showing from Joel Perrault won't completely resolve it; the problem isn't completely with personnel. The Canucks don't know what they want.

The issues with the Canucks' fourth-line boils down to the ongoing need for a consistent fourth-line center. A line without a center is not a line, and the Canucks haven't had a fourth-line since Ryan Johnson wasn't the answer.

In the offseason, with limited knowledge of the players coming to training camp, I outlined six potential pivots for Vancouver's much-maligned fourth unit. Each had their strengths, and each had their weaknesses (such as Schneider, whose weakness seemed to be a lack of strengths... save perhaps, at his size, strength), but there was, at that time, a case to be made for any one of those guys. Alex Bolduc won the job out of training camp in what seemed a fait accompli. Granted, what originally started out as a six-horse race turned into a zero-horse race (otherwise known as not a race) when none of the fourth-line centers stood out, but it appeared the coaching staff went in with an eye on Bolduc, and nobody changed their mind. It's possible Rick Rypien might have, but he got hurt.

Despite winning the job, however, the coaching staff's faith in Bolduc wasn't clearly not that high. He was given 13 shifts in the opener for just over six minutes of total icetime. He took 1 faceoff. He won it, if you care, but it hardly matters? It's a sample size of 1. For context, consider that Mason Raymond won a faceoff that night. Not only is Raymond a winger, he's the winger who typically doesn't take the faceoff when his centerman gets waved out.

Alex Bolduc was the 4th-line center. Faceoffs are one of his primary duties. How do you end up taking as many draws as Mason Raymond? Lack of trust, that's how. And to make matters worse, Bolduc finished the game with a lack of healthy ankles. An MRI after the game revealed he had suffered a high ankle sprain and would be out 6-8 weeks.

The Canucks turned to a now-healthy Rick Rypien. "Rypien has played most of his career at the centre position and I have a lot of confidence that he can do a real good job for us," Alain Vigneault said in a vote of confidence. But Rypien failed to hold on to the job either, and when he grabbed that fan in Minnesota and got suspended, the Canucks found themselves again without a fourth-line center.

In truth, the Canucks knew Rypien was only a short-term solution. While he might be a natural center, it's hard to win a faceoff with bloody knuckles, and it's hard to center a line from the penalty box. We've seen in the last few games that the Canucks feel much more comfortable with Rypien on the wing, where his prerequisite major penalty doesn't leave two low-minute wingers without a center.

Rypien's suspension led to some questionable decisions by Canucks' management. Even though Rypien was a short-term fix, the Canucks apparently cared so little about this position that they went through a handful of even more ill-fitting options. Jeff Tambellini saw some spot duty. He performed serviceably, but not well enough to keep the job. It's not surprising. Tamby was a winger playing out of position. Failing to learn a lesson from that, the Canucks shrugged and tossed Peter Schaefer in the middle. He, too, wasn't a long-term answer. Finally, after a couple weeks of ignoring the personnel gap, and realizing Rypien was no mustard-cutter, the Canucks called Mario Bliznak--the first natural center in four attempts--from Manitoba.

The Canucks trusted him to take a few draws, but he didn't get it done. In four games, Bliznak went 7-for-21 in the faceoff circle, including an 0-for-4 showing in Toronto. It wasn't impressive, but it was also a small sample size on a road trip where nobody played particularly well. His defensive game remained on track, however, and he finished his short stint a plus-1, the plus coming from a goal scored in garbage time in Ottawa.

Bliznak's demotion makes some sense: the fourth line was not good on the road trip, and the center usually takes the hit. They hurt the team by getting hemmed in their own zone, dulling Canuck momentum, and leaving the top-three lines with defensive zone starts. Effectively, they gave opponents a break from the Canucks' attacking system. But that's been going on for years.

And Bliznak isn't a scorer, not even close. He's been a third-line center at best since his WHL days. He might not have been at his utmost, but the Canucks had to know what they were getting. Instead, they went in a different direction.

Perrault is the polar opposite of Bliznak--a top-six pivot in Manitoba known for his scoring and not his defense. It's such a drastic change that it leads one to wonder if the Canucks know what they even want from their fourth-line center. Bliznak wasn't blowing minds, but he also wasn't blowing leads. Perrault, as a more talented offensive player, might help to open things up a little more, maybe sustain the offensive flow, but it could backfire in a hurry. Are the Canucks cognizant they're trading defensive awareness for a sustained attack? You'd assume so (they know more than I do), but that's not what they wanted coming into the season, when they called simply for a fourth unit they could trust defensively.

It's stopped making sense. Two weeks ago, they couldn't care less who was centering the fourth-line. Now they care enough to blame a guy who played four games for a problem that's been around for over two years. Joel Perrault seems doomed to fail as well, as he's not a defensive center. If his line gives up a goal or two, Vigneault will be chewing gum much harder than is safe.

Or maybe he won't care. I don't know. I fear that nobody knows. The reality is, until they can be clear about what they want out of their fourth-line pivot, they'll never be able to measure whether or not the one they've got is doing his job.


  1. I remember being really excited when the Canucks signed Ryan Johnson, because they were getting a clear-cut fourth-line center who had a skillset appropriate to a grinding fourth-line center: a faceoff-winning, shot-blocking, penalty-killing, defensively-responsible center. I became disillusioned with him after a plethora of injuries and an inability to move the puck in the right direction left him without much of a role on the team.

    But, at the very least, you knew what the Canucks were trying to do with their fourth-line: a defensively-responsible line that could be put out in tough situations to win a faceoff and get the puck out of the zone without allowing a scoring chance. A line with players that could step into penalty-killing situations and play specialized minutes.

    This season, it's been a bit of a grab bag. I mean, that early injury to Bolduc doesn't help matters at all, but it seems that the Canucks have been content to just throw players into that role without consideration and it's led to the fourth-line barely playing at all. That's not a good sign, as the Canucks cannot afford to be a three-line team, especially come playoff time.

  2. First off, I want to say that in my NHL 2K11 game for the iPod Touch, my fourth line of Tambellini-Rypien-Desbiens has been kicking some serious [buttocks], so I don't see what the problem is. (Alex Bolduc got plucked from waivers by the CBJ when the game automatically sent him down because a player came back from injury. Those [born to unwed parents]s! The same fate befell Aaron Rome (PHX) and Tanner Glass (COL), and I am not amused).

    But in slightly more seriousness, I don't think Bliznak has been penalized for poor play, based on a cumulative three minutes or whatever of ice time. The Canucks seem to be getting a look at all their potential fourth-line options, particularly as they acquired 4,081 players this summer to "maybe play on the fourth line". I don't even think Bolduc was necessarily the default choice, just the first one.

    That said, this is the fourth line we're talking about. No matter who is on it, they're going to play 4-6 minutes a game on a good day. Yes, they generally get outplayed by the other team -- but that is by definition if they didn't, they wouldn't really be the fourth line!

    For sure the fourth line has hurt the Canucks, but doesn't every fourth line in the league hurt their team? Everything is relative -- what defines a fourth line is that it's your weakest -- and no team goes all 4,920 minutes of the regular season carrying the play. Any given fourth line is bound to be the weaker of the two lines on the ice the vast majority of the time -- all you can strive for is to hurt the team as little as possible.

    But we have to be realistic about how good they can be when matched against non-fourth lines -- a fourth line with an even +/- (one which did not "hurt its team"), for instance, would probably be the best fourth line in history. Fan expectations of a fourth line that "doesn't hurt the team" don't really make any sense conceptually unless it's a better line than most team's first and second lines. It's like the Official NHL Yearbook™ that somehow predicts every single team to improve every year -- this isn't structurally possible in a zero-sum game.

    There may have been slightly more parity among lines in the past, but with the salary cap you can kiss that goodbye -- every team has to cheap out on role-players if it wants talent. And for very much the same reason, I think the Canucks' coaching staff is right to be worrying more about its first three lines in much greater proportions.

  3. J21, you said: "But we have to be realistic about how good they can be when matched against non-fourth lines -- a fourth line with an even +/- (one which did not "hurt its team"), for instance, would probably be the best fourth line in history."

    Exactly. Bliznak was a plus-1, so he wasn't terrible. But he still got demoted because the Canucks weren't happy with his play. They want more from their fourth-line than that.

    Why do they care so much all of a sudden when they hardly cared at all two weeks ago? They're all over the place with this.

  4. There are still teams that are able to roll all 4 lines with confidence and the Canucks clearly want to be that kind of team. I'd like to see more than 5 minutes of ice time for the 4th line.

    And the 4th line can contribute to the team without scoring, by getting the puck in deep and taking the body on the forecheck to wear out the opposition and keep them hemmed in. That's what I want to see out of the 4th line: a simple game that gets the puck out of the defensive zone, deep into the offensive zone where they can throw some hits, and wear down the opposition.

  5. My read of the situation is that Gillis probably made the fourth-line center role a priority for minor trade before the deadline. In the meantime, he's looking for a center that'll cramp the Canucks' style the least. Bliznak was awful on faceoffs, maybe Perrault was better in the AHL. I don't know, cause they don't track faceoff stats.

    Man, our fourth line just hasn't been the same since Alex Burrows left it. Where'd that dude go, anyway?

  6. Probably quite true, Qris. Of all potential the holes to fill, 4th-line center is probably one of the smarter ones to leave until the deadline.

    But I still think they can't be so flippant until then. They don't know what they want out of the guys they've got, and that's a problem.


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