The struggle for consistent scoring outside of the first line has long-plagued the Vancouver Canucks.
Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and J.T. Miller have been consistently excellent. Captain Bo Horvat is another solid contributor, but he’s been a streaky 5-on-5 scorer. Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson have finally provided some much-needed stability to the top-six forward group, giving Horvat some much-needed consistency on his wings (should Boeser return from injury before the end of the regular season).
It’s the bottom six that has really struggled. Granted, Jake Virtanen and Adam Gaudette are having career seasons, which has kept the bottom two lines afloat. The injuries to Josh Levio and Micheal Ferland have stretched the Canucks’ forward depth to their limit and beyond, thrusting Loui Eriksson into a role he probably shouldn’t be in.
What the Canucks might not have expected was for Antoine Roussel to be having the abysmal season he’s had thus far. He has really struggled this season and his play has created major issues on the third line. His usual strong play has not carried over into this season, which could be a result of a late start to the season as he recovered from off-season knee surgery.
Roussel was very effective in his first season with the Canucks, providing strong even-strength defence while contributing offensively. This season, his numbers have nearly reversed. He’s provided far less offence while having a negative defensive impact.
Surely when he was signed to a lucrative four-year contract, the Canucks expected some stability to the third line. With Roussel contributing more on par with replacement-level players like Jay Beagle, Brandon Sutter, and Tyler Motte, there is a massive void on the wing next to Gaudette and Virtanen. With the trade deadline passed and Leivo and Ferland not expected back this season, the Canucks may have to look to the Utica Comets for potential replacements.
If the Canucks are looking for an upgrade within, it would make sense to give Sven Baertschi the first opportunity. He’s familiar with the players and how head coach Travis Green wants his team to play, so he would, theoretically, be a seamless fit into a top-nine scoring role.
Related: Canucks’ Virtanen Turning a Corner
That said, I’m not convinced Baertschi would be a wise choice. His play has left much to be desired despite putting up decent boxcar numbers that might be what you’d expect a third-line scoring winger would produce.
In reality, Baertschi doesn’t do much more than Roussel. The A3Z tool shows he is a slightly below average puck carrier but doesn’t contribute much in the way of offence. Same goes for Roussel, but Roussel is better at bringing the puck into the offensive zone and brings a different, sorely lacked skill set to the Canucks’ lineup.
The 27-year-old Baertschi is arguably already passed his peak performance, too. He has seen a significant drop in his ability to generate offence over the last two seasons, falling below replacement-level.
Baertschi had three strong seasons in Vancouver, and although it could be injury-related, there is no question his play has significantly declined. He likely is no longer worth a roster spot, hence why he has spent the season in Utica while the Canucks try to find him a new home.
Another option would be to give the much-maligned Nikolai Goldobin one more chance. While his defensive game often leaves something to be desired, there’s no questioning his ability to generate offence.
Baertschi and Goldobin look relatively equal here, but Goldobin has actually been the better 5-on-5 play-driver, generating more expected goals and shots. The A3Z tool paints an even stronger picture of Goldobin’s impact.
In the same sample period, Goldobin has been strong to elite at generating offence. He does an excellent job at generating scoring chances and while he doesn’t carry the puck often enough, he is elite at getting it into the offensive zone.
What makes Goldobin an interesting fit on the third line with Gaudette and Virtanen, though, is fit. Both Canucks’ third liners are generally shoot-first players. They need someone to help drive play, someone who can get them the puck. In his career so far, Goldobin has proven to be that type of player.
Goldobin and Virtanen, in particular, would appear to complement each other perfectly. Virtanen generates shots at an elite rate, and lately, that’s led to goals. Goldobin is a playmaker, generating shot assists at a top-six rate. He is the type of player that shooters like Virtanen and Gaudette need.
With his big two-goal performance still fresh in Canucks’ fans minds, rookie Zack MacEwen seems to have found a home on the starting roster. The Big Fella had his best NHL game against the Colorado Avalanche, scoring twice and driving play on a night where Colorado appeared to carry the play.
Now, I think MacEwen could have a future as a Canuck. He’s big, strong, plays hard and has the potential to be a fan-favourite. That said, I’m not fully convinced he’s ready for the NHL. He has shown little more than Roussel has this season, for example.
Looking closer, Roussel has actually been the better player, and in the larger sample. The difference is likely a little bit of luck.
MacEwen has generally gotten shelled while on the ice at even-strength, getting outshot and outchanced. The major difference is the goals for and goals against. He has generated nearly four goals more than what would be expected so far while being scored on half as much. This is likely due to his astronomically high on-ice percentages; his on-ice shooting percentage is currently 13.79% while the save percentage is 96.51%. This is unsustainable and we should expect these numbers to regress.
Just to be clear: I am not advocating for Roussel to be removed from the lineup. However, with his play this season, it’s not a stretch to suggest he isn’t himself and may benefit in a more limited role until next season.
In the meantime, the Canucks desperately need an upgrade to their forward group if they plan on making the playoffs in a tight Western Conference race.
After his big game against the Avalanche, MacEwen is going to have support in the fan base to solidify his spot next to Gaudette and Virtanen. I’m suggesting to pump the breaks a bit here. MacEwen may have that role in the future, no doubt, but it appears as though he may not be ready for it.
Goldobin fits the bill perfectly. He looks like a natural fit as a player who could get the puck to shooters like Gaudette and Virtanen. He’s done it in the past while playing with Pettersson and Boeser.
His game isn’t without its warts. This new-look third line would need to be sheltered, but it has the potential to provide a much-needed scoring punch to a Canucks lineup that desperately needs it right now. As they battle for their playoff lives, Goldobin could be the key to push them over the finish line.