The Vancouver Canucks have a lot of depth in the bottom half of their lineup with an upwards of ten players they could slot in on the third and fourth lines. It’s a good problem to have, but when it comes time to finalize the opening line combinations for the play-in series against the Minnesota Wild, head coach Travis Green has to select the six players that will give his team the best chance to win Game 1. It can’t be about how they played in the 2019-20 season, because the upcoming play-in series is technically a new season following a lengthy offseason.
We already have a pretty clear indication about where Green will go with his bottom-six as we have seen some consistent line combinations during training camp so far. However, that could change, especially with his propensity to throw his lines in a blender during games, especially when the Canucks are trailing. So without further ado, let’s take a look at four line combinations he should debut against the Wild on Aug 2.
Option 1: Roussel, Gaudette, MacEwen
This line has been used frequently by Green during training camp and boy has it looked good. Zack MacEwen has of course been the standout showing off his size, speed, and blistering shot during the scrimmages while Adam Gaudette has looked stronger, faster, and more confident than he was in the regular season. Throw in the enthusiasm, grit, and healthy body of Antoine Roussel and the Wild could have a very tough line to play against when the series ultimately gets going.
If this line gets deployed by the Canucks in Game 1 and continues to turn heads as it has in training camp, it could be the difference between the actual first round and an early flight home. We all know what a dominant third line can do in the playoffs, and this trio has the right ingredients to give the Wild all they can handle.
Option 2: Sutter, Gaudette, Virtanen
If Brandon Sutter is healthy, he gives this line an extra defensive presence and a centerman that can win faceoffs when needed. Gaudette has all the tools of an effective third-line center, except he still struggles in the faceoff dot. Of the four regular pivots Green deployed this season, he had the worst faceoff efficiency of all of them at a measly 41.2 percent. With Sutter available as a stop-gap, he could step into the circle, win a draw then go back to his usual spot on the left-wing.
As for Jake Virtanen, when he is at his best, he’s fast, physical, and an offensive threat. During the regular season, he appeared to turn a corner in his development and was well on his way to a 20-goal season. Then COVID-19 happened and he was forced into an unplanned hiatus. Unfortunately, the break seemed to set him back a bit. Until Wednesday’s scrimmage, he was used more as an extra forward instead of his usual spot in the lineup. On the bright side, he did score his first goal, albeit playing on the fourth line with Beagle and Eriksson. We will see if that is a boon to his confidence for the final scrimmage on Friday.
The bottom line is, the Canucks need the regular-season version of Virtanen to show up in the playoffs. MacEwen may have the size and physicality, but Virtanen possesses a rare extra gear that many players simply do not have, and is, of course, a proven goal scorer in the NHL. Without him, the road through the postseason could be that much harder.
Option 1: Motte, Beagle, Ferland
It’s hard to imagine the fourth line without the presence of Tyler Motte. I was surprised to see many people list him as an extra forward when projecting the Canucks’ playoff line ups, but to me, he’s a fixture on this team. The speed and tenacity he brings to the roster are second to none and his work ethic is contagious. He plays the game the right way, hits everything that moves and kills penalties better than anyone on the team. In fact, when he was injured, the penalty-killing unit struggled mightily without him. Like it or not, you need players like him on the team if you want to win games and ultimately the Stanley Cup.
Alongside Motte is Jay Beagle, the Canucks’ high priced fourth-line center. Though in the playoffs, he is worth every penny and always seems to rise to the occasion when his team needs him the most. He wins the lion’s share of his faceoffs, blocks shots with aplomb, and above all, has the character to will his team to victory. Just ask Brayden Holtby how important he was to the Capitals’ success, as he saved his bacon while they were facing elimination by the Pittsburgh Penguins early in their championship run.
Finally, having a healthy Micheal Ferland on this line could be the biggest difference-maker of all. At his very best, he’s one of the NHL’s top agitators. If you don’t believe me, just look at what he did to the Canucks’ top players the last time they met him in the playoffs. If he can play that way against the Wild, the fourth line will be a tough matchup every time they jump onto the ice. He appears to be engaged in training camp, so if he can keep progressing, he could be a legitimate option for Green at some point during the series.
Option 2: Motte, Beagle, Eriksson
As much as we don’t want to include Loui Eriksson in any postseason lineup, you can’t deny the impact he’s made in training camp so far. He’s come to the festivities in shape and ready to contribute if needed, and that’s all you can ask from any player, no matter if they are getting paid league minimum or $6 million.
I’m a pretty good two-way player and can play up the lineup and the penalty killing has been good for me. I’ll do all I can to help the team as much as possible — if there’s a chance.Loui Eriksson on his place in the Canucks lineup (from ‘Ben Kuzma: Eriksson vows to play on, push hard for Canucks’ post-season spot’, The Province – 7/19/20)
The thing is if he was getting paid $2 million, everyone would love him as he brings an efficient two-way game to the rink and is a very good penalty killer. He also can score the odd goal as well, which is just a bonus for any fourth-liner. But as it is, he’s a $6 million man, and those things are just not good enough for the money he’s lining his pockets with. Though for the playoffs, you have to put that aside and look at what he can do for the success of the team in a short series, and if that’s the case, he’s done enough to earn a spot in the lineup.
Canucks Bottom Six Possibilities Are Endless
With all the depth players the Canucks have available for their bottom-six forward group, the possibilities could be endless. MacEwen has risen above the pack to make a strong case to be on the opening roster, and that makes the lineup decisions all the more difficult for Green. It’s a good problem to have, as he could change his lines from game-to-game to create a spark or give the Wild a different look in-game as well.
As for the combinations we will see on opening night, the scrimmages have shed a pretty clear light on what the final decisions could be. The third unit of Roussel, Gaudette, and MacEwen has stayed intact for almost three of them now, so we should expect to see that trio to be unveiled on opening night.
The fourth line is a little more up in the air as Ferland, Sutter, Eriksson, and Virtanen have all seen time with Motte and Beagle during training camp. Based on their play, I see Sutter (if healthy) or Eriksson winning that final spot. Sadly, that puts Virtanen on the sidelines for Game 1, but that doesn’t mean he won’t rejoin the fray at some point during the series. With how much Green likes his duos, we could see all of them taking turns on both lines at some point. One thing is clear though, he will have plenty of options for in-game and game-to-game adjustments depending on the situation and the performance of the players he selected in the first place. It should be an interesting journey when everything finally gets going in a little over a week.
Matthew Zator is the assistant managing editor at THW and a writer who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.