The Vancouver Canucks had a very successful 2019-20 campaign, beginning with making the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, then advancing to the second round for the first time since 2011. However, it was not all positive, as they got eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights after getting dominated in almost all of the games against them.
The Golden Knights’ third line of Alex Tuch, Nicolas Roy, and Nick Cousins ran circles around them at times, mostly because they did not have an answer to their speed and skill. The advanced stats back that up too, as they had a 62.1 Corsi-for percentage (CF%) in the seven games they played against them. The Canucks’ third line of Antoine Roussel, Adam Gaudette, and Brandon Sutter, on the other hand, had a 46.6 CF% and gave up numerous scoring chances while not generating any of their own. Basically, they were a black hole on offence and a wide-open field on defence.
When the 2020-21 season begins, if it does at all, the Canucks will need their third line to generate, at the very least, some positive momentum when they are on the ice. For that to happen, they need more speed and skill injected onto that unit. Fortunately for them, they have some players currently on their roster that could do just that.
Constants – Hoglander & Gaudette
If the Canucks want the perfect third line, they must have Gaudette and Nils Hoglander joined at the hip. When Gaudette played for Northeastern in the NCAA, he spent the majority of his time with right-winger Dylan Sikura and left-winger Nolan Stevens (from ‘Northeastern, With a Productive Offense and an Ace in the Net, Sets Lofty Goals’, The New York Times, 3/15/18).
Sikura, a sixth-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2014, is a smart, prolific playmaker with soft hands, a great shot, and a nose for the net. Now don’t tell me that doesn’t sound like someone the Canucks have playing overseas with Rogle BK right now.
Almost all the things you can say about Sikura, you can say about Hoglander. Except for one very important thing: Hoglander is always willing to battle along the boards despite his 5-foot-9 stature, while Sikura usually avoids it even though he is a bigger forward.
At Northeastern, Gaudette and Sikura had tremendous chemistry together reading off one another en route to a Bean Pot Championship. Gaudette scored a hat trick and Sikura had two assists in the championship-clinching game. So it stands to reason that he could have a similar connection with Hoglander since he plays almost the exact same style as Sikura, just with a little more grit and tenacity to his game.
The Third Musketeer
Now that we have our dynamic duo, who should play the role of the third musketeer? The Canucks have a number of options to complete the trio on the third line, some more intriguing than others. Gaudette had success at Northeastern with a gritty, 6-foot-2, 191-pound beast in Nolan Stevens, could they find someone like that to re-create the iconic top-line from 2017-18?
Jayce Hawryluk is a newcomer to the Canucks roster after signing as a free agent from the Ottawa Senators. He is a quick, industrious forward with a strong work ethic and a never-ending motor on the forecheck, not to mention he has hands as well. He also posted 119 goals in the Western Hockey League with the Brandon Wheat Kings, so he clearly knows where the net is.
Like Stevens, Hawryluk is aggressive around the net and creates scoring chances by getting in people’s faces on the forecheck. It’s clear from Gaudette’s past that he works well with aggressive players, so Hawryluk could turn out to be the perfect winger for his line.
With a line of Hoglander, Gaudette, and Hawryluk, the Canucks would have a trio that is fast, defensively sound, and relentless on the forecheck. Not to mention they all have skill and scoring potential as well, which would make for one hell of a matchup for opposing teams. In essence, they would almost be the same type of line as the Golden Knights’ triumvirate of Tuch, Roy, and Cousins.
If the Canucks want to re-create the magic that was Stevens, Gaudette and Sikura, look no further than Hoglander and Zack MacEwen as the wingers to replace them.
Stevens is 6-foot-2, 192 pounds, MacEwen is 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, you can’t get any more similar than that, at least when it comes to their size. They both also play a gritty, energetic style of game and definitely know how to use their size, whether it be in front of the net or on the boards. It’s almost like Gaudette has his version of Stevens on the roster already.
MacEwen showed last season that he could play a regular role in the NHL, now he has to show that he can be more than a fourth-line forward. Judging by the size and skill he displayed at various times throughout the 2019-20 campaign, I have no doubt that he will succeed at some point. If he’s aligned with Hoglander and Gaudette, that success could come as soon as next season.
Tyler Motte has primarily been a fourth-line fixture on the Canucks ever since he beat the odds and forced general manager Jim Benning to keep him after training camp in 2018. Since then, he’s steadily improved his game to become one of head coach Travis Green’s most trusted penalty killers and character players in his bottom-six. Now I believe he is ready for a bigger role on the third line.
Like Hawryluk and MacEwen before him, Motte is a tireless worker with a very underrated skillset. He’s also fast, has great hands, and more importantly, is a strong presence in the dressing room. If he’s given more offensive opportunities in a top-nine role with more skilled players, he could find himself with more goals at the end of the season.
Motte was a Hobey Baker finalist with the Michigan Wolverines in 2016 when he scored 32 goals and 56 points in 38 games, so it’s not like he doesn’t know where the net is. That season he played on the top-line with fellow Hobey Baker finalists JT Compher and Kyle Conner, who have 148 NHL goals between them, so it’s no wonder he got more opportunities to score and put up points. If he gets that type of skill on his line again, we could end up seeing a different Tyler Motte in 2020-21.
Finally, we have a blast from the past with Sven Baertschi. Don’t forget, he looked very impressive on a line with Gaudette and MacEwen last preseason. He was ultimately cut and sent down to the Utica Comets, but that was then and this is now. With a new season starting, everything old is new again, and he is still a member of the Canucks, deserving of all the opportunities his teammates are given.
If you take what Benning said recently as truth, Baertschi will be given every opportunity to make the opening night roster this season. Despite the concussion issues he had during the 2017-18 campaign, he did end up playing 43 games in the American Hockey League with the Comets and by his own admission felt healthy throughout. He also scored 13 goals and 46 points and looked too skilled for that league at times.
…I can do it. I can just focus on myself and making sure I’m ready for another year. I think I’ve proved to everybody that was worried before. I’m 100 per cent healthy, my game is going well and I’m preparing for whatever is next.Sven Baertschi speaking about next season
Baertschi has the skill and proven scoring ability to play on a line with Hoglander and Gaudette. He would have to play his off-wing, but I don’t think that will be an issue for a veteran player like himself. He’s also had success in the past with skilled players in Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat, so it shouldn’t be much of an adjustment to repeat those same results with Hoglander and Gaudette.
Hoglander Is the X-Factor
Of all the potential additions to the Canucks’ third line, Hoglander will have the biggest impact on the success of the unit. If he adjusts quickly to the NHL, that line will thrive. If he doesn’t, Green will be scrambling to find another fit. However, I don’t think it will come to that, as he’s just too good not to succeed at the NHL level. Like all young players, he will go through his own share of growing pains, but he has the work ethic and hockey IQ to power through it and emerge a stronger player for it.
Gaudette will also benefit from Hoglander’s skill and moxie since he has not had a winger like him since his days with Sikura and Stevens. Up until now, the most skill he’s seen on his left-wing has been that of Antoine Roussel. No offence to him, but he’s no Hoglander. He will soon see the benefits of having someone like him on his line. The scoring opportunities will definitely open up, and since he’s also good defensively, they will not be a liability for Green, so the minutes are sure to be of the high variety.
Basically, if Hoglander realizes his potential this season, Gaudette should see an uptick in his production. He’s a smart and crafty offensive player, so the extra skill on his line should give him a real opportunity for a breakout season in 2020-21.
Canucks’ Third Line Needs a Transformation
If Green wants to get the most offence and buzz-saw qualities out of his third line, Hawryluk should be his first choice to make the dynamic duo into a triple threat. He has all the skills of a perfect third-line forward, speed, grit, and a motor that never stops. He also has the offensive skillset to pot a few goals too, which is just what the Canucks need out of their third line to succeed not only in the regular season but in the playoffs as well.
With how badly the Canucks’ bottom-six played against the Golden Knights, change has to come to at least the third-line. If they go into another series with Roussel, Gaudette, and Brandon Sutter as their only option, history will definitely repeat itself. Skill and speed have to be the mantra, there can be no ifs, ands, or buts about it.