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Where the heck is Vancouver's third line?

Do you even check, bro?
Confused Brandon Sutter

The 2010-11 Vancouver Canucks were a sight to see. They dominated opponents in every aspect of the game, leading the League in goal scoring and also boasting its stingiest defence. Often overlooked in the hazy hoopla of that magical season are some key acquisitions.

The Canucks astutely signed a few highly effective players in free agency who would turn out to be key to their Stanley Cup Finals run that year.

No, I’m not talking about former Canucks winger and Scrabble aficionado, Tanner Glass. Too obvious. Besides, he wasn’t a free agent.

Manny Malhotra was a known role-player when Vancouver gave him a three-year contract. He was big, fast, clever, a wizard in the faceoff circle, and a decent supplementary scorer.

Raffi Torres was an initially maligned, last-minute signing who played a fast, gritty, abrasive game. Oh, and he hit like a wrecking ball.

These two players formed two-thirds of one of the best slapped together third lines I’ve seen play. With a fast, tight-checking game, they frustrated top scoring lines and freed up the Sedin twins and Ryan Kesler to dominate offensively.

That third line was a massive part of Vancouver’s success. So much so that I wonder if a healthy Malhotra might have tipped the scales in their favour.

And yet, when I look at the current edition of the Canucks, I have to ask: do they even have a third line?

What They’ve Got

OK, so the first line is a no-brainer. Even with the emergence of Bo Horvat as a primary scorer, it’s still the Sedin show in Vancouver. Daniel and Henrik are looked to for offense, puck control and big minutes.

The second line was murky at first, but Horvat arrived on the scene like a giant alien saucer emerging from the clouds. He, Alex Burrows and Sven Baertschi have been scoring at a first-line clip for a month now. Boom. Fantastic, moving on.

As for the third line, well, it’s weird. It’s like that footage of Shia Labeouf watching all his own movies. It exists, and I have to think there was some serious thought put into it, but I don’t really understand it.

That’s largely because the third line changes all the freaking time. Right now Markus Granlund is centring Loui Eriksson and Jayson Megna.

Yes, you read that correctly. $6M free agent treasure Eriksson is playing third-line minutes next to a Finn who may be expansion draft bait, and a recent callup who was clearly named by Pokémon fans.

There have been some injuries and the lines must be juggled, I understand that. But that doesn’t explain this nonsense. Pardon my fine French when I ask, “Le what the heck?”

Willie doesn’t do checking lines

Head coach Willie Desjardins doesn’t seem to give much credence to having a traditional checking trio. He’s a line-roller.

He’s not the only coach to ascribe to this. Still, rolling four lines usually assumes that all four will have some offensive prowess. That’s a stretch on most NHL lineups, but it’s a full Reed Richards for the Canucks. Scoring depth is not exactly a strength here.

It also places a lesser importance on matching lines, and resists deploying particular players in purely defensive situations.

And yet the Canucks have already lost line-matching battles this season, sometimes painfully. It was no better on display than against Randy Carlyle and the Anaheim Ducks, where Daniel and Henrik just couldn’t seem to get away from Ryan Kesler, Andrew Cogliano and Jakob Silfverberg.

Hey, remember how good a checker Kesler is? Yeah.

Despite the fact that the Canucks have (nearly) two fully functioning scoring lines, they haven’t tried to cobble together a shutdown trio. I find that odd.

Do they have the parts?

I believe Vancouver possesses the components to construct a passable checking line. Above average, even.

First, you yank Brandon Sutter off that top line. Like yesterday. Sutter is a good role player and he’ll thrive in the right setting. Heck, we saw it happen earlier this season. (Remember when GranBranSen (Granlund, Sutter and Jannik Hansen) was often Vancouver’s best unit?)

Now, he’s playing “Marco!” to the Sedin’s “Why the heck is Sutter in the pool?” These guys just don’t click. Or rather cycle. The slow, puck possession game that the twins rely upon is actually hindered by Sutter. I could get into the precise hows and whys, but Jackson McDonald did a great job of that already. So, what he said.

My alternative proposal is a bit crazy and unexpected, but set aside your skeptic hat for a second. Suppose Desjardins put the $6 million dollar man with the Sedins. Crazy? Or crazy completely obvious?

Sutter is no Malhotra, but there are similarities. He’s big, fast, scores goals, and is above average in the faceoff circle. Not to mention, he plays best at centre. And with Malhotra hired on as an assistant coach, I believe Sutter can get better at that shutdown role.

As for Granlund, well he’s looked so much more dangerous playing on the wing this season.

There’s most of your third line. You’re welcome.

The only tricky part occurs when Jannik Hansen returns. And that’s really only “tricky” in the same way that struggling to carry home an unexpectedly large box of free donuts is tricky. Hansen could recombine with Granlund and Sutter to form a highly effective checking line, or slot back into riding shotgun with the Sedins.

It has been argued that Vancouver simply doesn’t possess enough sandpaper, and grit is an essential part of a checking line. Fair. There’s no Torres equivalent the team at the moment. But they aren’t empty-handed. Even with all the injuries they face, the Canucks have the ability to cycle two effective scoring lines and hand tough assignments to a decent shutdown group.

And I have no idea why they aren’t doing that.