Alain Vigneault (Canucks Hockey Blog/Wikimedia Commons/CC by 2.0)
Vancouver Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault has for a few years now been employing his fourth line in an unconventional manner: he uses them as defensive zone specialists. That should be of interest to the Oilers because at first glance it appears they have the necessary personnel to imitate that strategy.
1. Make Paajarvi a bigger part of the 4line
2. Use Hartikainen as part of the energy/size line
3. Run Belanger, Eager, Hordichuk and Petrell out there again in the hopes that dropping Lander from the mix is the solution?
4. Does Ralph Krueger–as referenced by Mr. Strudwick today–change the equation and ask the same men to provide energy, forechecking and grit without spending hours in the sin bin?
I’d suggest a fifth item, one that draws a little bit on points three and four: the Vigneault solution.
Vigneault’s Fourth Line
Manny Malhotra (Loxy/Wikimedia Commons/CC by 2.0)
One of the newer statistics that we now have the ability to track is something called zone-starts. At Behind the Net, Gabriel Desjardins’ super computer scans NHL game-sheets and identifies which players start their shifts in which zones. It’s a technique that NHL coaches obviously use, and one that’s been identified more frequently both online and in the mainstream media as Desjardins (and Vic Ferrari before him) have made the data accessible.
On his site, Desjardins has a column marked “OPCT” which stands for percentage of offensive zone starts. In 5-on-5 situations, every faceoff a player is on the ice for is recorded; then, the offensive zone and defensive zone draws are added together. The final number is simply the percentage of those non-neutral zone faceoffs that the player was on the ice for.
The three players with the highest number all played for Vancouver: Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, and Alex Burrows. Vigneault used them as offensive zone specialists to a degree no other coach in the league attempted. We don’t have the numbers, but it’s conceivable no trio in league history was used as severely as this group (though Jacques Lemaire and probably others have used similar techniques, so that’s not certain).
To compensate, Vigneault’s fourth line was relied on almost solely in the defensive zone. The four players with the nastiest zone starts in the entire league were all Canucks: wingers Aaron Volpatti and Dale Weise, as well as centers Maxim Lapierre and Manny Malhotra. Malhotra was the go-to choice, on the ice for 88 shifts in the offensive zone and 579 in the defensive zone at even-strength.
Why It Might Work In Edmonton
Eric Belanger (Resolute/Wikimedia Commons/CC by 2.0)
The appeal in Edmonton is obvious: there are a lot of young, offensively gifted forwards that could make hay with that sort of ice-time. Whether or not giving Hall/Eberle cherry minutes in a contract year is a good or bad thing is another question entirely, but there’s no question that between that duo and Nugent-Hopkins, Hemsky, Gagner and Yakupov the Oilers have plenty of candidates for that sort of work.
Do they have the personnel on the fourth line to handle it? Possibly.
Eric Belanger, for all that he’s coming off a bad season, is a logical choice for that sort of brutal treatment. He’s a veteran defensive forward, and expert penalty-killer and one of the league’s best faceoff men – all exactly the sort of qualifications that suit him to centering a line of defensive zone specialists. It’s also a role he’s filled before to a significant degree, under Jacques Lemaire during his time in Minnesota.
The question is which players would be assigned to play on Belanger’s line if he were placed into such an assignment. Ryan Smyth and Shawn Horcoff both have the defensive chops, but are certainly bound for top-nine roles. That leaves some combination of Ryan Jones, Magnus Paajarvi, Teemu Hartikainen, Ben Eager, Lennart Petrell, Darcy Hordichuk and call-ups like Anton Lander and Chris VandeVelde.
Lennart Petrell, whose virtues tend to be on the defensive side of the puck, seems like an obvious choice for the job. Darcy Hordichuk does not seem so obvious, but he might be able to rotate into that fourth line on an occasional basis – after all, he did it in Vancouver. For the other regular job, though, my preference would be Magnus Paajarvi or Ryan Jones. Eager’s a possibility, though he’s never done the work before and doesn’t seem to have the defensive toolkit others do. Paajarvi’s a great choice, but ideally would get a chance to work on his offensive game. In this scenario, I’d suggest the following for the bottom six:
- Smyth – Horcoff – Paajarvi/Jones
- Petrell/Eager – Belanger – Paajarvi/Jones
with Hordichuk rotating in as necessary.
The personnel isn’t ideal, but at the very least it’s an interesting approach to using them.