The Vigneault Solution

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.

Lowetide has been poking around the fourth line for a while now – with items here and here – and I tend to agree with him that it’s an area of concern. In his latest take he had four suggestions:

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.

  • Did I try to make the title of this post sound like a Robert Ludlum book? Yes I did.

    Am I asking questions of myself and then answering them? Yes I am.

    Why am I doing that? It’s an awfully hard habit to break out of once you start. Lowetide fired it up a few years ago over on his blog and he’s been warring with his other personality ever since.

  • judgedrude

    The issue is whether you can get the puck out of the zone and not stay hemmed in the whole shift.

    Somebody please find the link, but I remember that for all of Paajarvi’s box score blemishes, he was a machine at zone advancement (at the expense of puck possession if I recall).

    Would this then make him a useful player on such a fourth line? Yes, I think it very much would.

  • I dont mind the Belanger, Petrell, X combo on the 4th line.

    I’m a little concerned about tossing Paajarvi in there. I’m not so sure I want him apprenticing for a career on the 4th line. Malhotra spent a few years up and down with the Rangers and is a veteran. I was about to say that it’s a little quick to be setting a 10th overall pick as a 4th liner, but Malhotra himself was actually 7th overall. Still though, I think I would prefer Paajarvi play 1st line minutes in OKC than play 4th line minutes in YEG.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    I LOVE the idea of a hard defensive zone 4th line, especially with the offensive talent we now have up front. Unfortunatly though, outside of Belanger I don’t think we’ve got the personal for it.

    On the bright side, we could probably get the right people for the job fairly cheaply via free agency, or worst case trade late picks/mid range prospects for them.

    Unfortunatly I think managment (and the fan base) is too busy trying to find guys that can throw 1 – 2 body checks per night rather then guys capable of playing 75% defensive minutes against top 6 talent without getting completely blown up.

  • There are lots of teams that would love a kid that scored 15 goals in the NHL at the age of 19. We’re blessed to have a kid of his abilities sitting around as an extra part to the puzzle.

    I think having a healthy Ryan Whitney dishing out pucks will only help Paajarvi. Magnus looks real good when he’s skating at full speed through the neutral zone. The trick is to hit him with the puck right on the tape and Whitney is the most capable Dman on the roster to do that regularly. Then Magnus can beat defenders with his speed. He won’t razzle dazzle, but if he can drive the puck to the scoring zone, I think you’ll see better results for him.

  • Maybe this is something they are looking at because Petrel was brutal and should not have been signed unless they think he is a tradeable asset or is being used in a defense only role.

    I would hate to limit Paajarvi in this role, but I do think he would excel at it. This would also free up the Horcoff line to be another offensive threat.





    Jones has value as a tradeable asset and in this model I don’t know if there is room for him unless you can get a lot more for Hemsky and put Jones on the 3rd line.

    I personally would prefer to see;





    with the 3rd line taking the toughest assignments. Then all 4 lines have a scoring threat

    • Stack Pad Save

      Cody anderson wrote:

      “This would also free up Horcoff to be an offensive threat”

      2006 called and they want your image of Horcoff back!

      What I think the Oilers lines will be are:

      Hall – RNH – Eberle

      Paajarvi – Gagner – Hemsky

      Yak – Horcoff – Symth

      Eager/Petrell – Belanger – Jones

      So I kind of see your idea of using Horcoff in a more offensive role than last year, however I think it is more about sheltering and mentoring Yakupov. I think Paajarvi could also be replaced with Hartikainen, however I think they are going to want Paajarvi because they will want to try and salvage him from last years flop and wait until Hartikainen is 100% ready to either step into the top 6 or use him to replace Eager/Petrell/Jones if one of them is traded or dropped from the team.

  • After watching Yak’s goal yesterday I am even more convinced we need to keep him on the right side, which is why I have not included Hemsky in the top 6.

    Although with Kreuger’s comments about pairing Hemsky with Gagner and sticks along the boards I think he will start Yak on the left. It will be a deadly line with the big O push, but i think we are taking away Yak’s biggest weapon.

    Lines opening night will probably look like this





    with Hordichuk coming in and out and replacing whichever wing is performing the worst of Jones, Harti, Petrell or Paajarvi

  • paul wodehouse

    JW…what were Belangers’ numbers offensively 5on5 and defensive zone starts …were they at all comparable to Malholtra? 88 O-zones starts to almost 600 D-zone starts? wow and did Lapierres’ numbers mirror the opposite to any extent? do the Belanger #s translate into the stats that made it the brutal season he had or what was it that made him this
    ” Belanger Triangle ” ?

    • Stack Pad Save

      I completely agree with you. However what is Jones true value around the league? I don’t think it is much. The fanboy in me wants to trade Gagner, Jones, some prospect and next years first for a legit big center. However I doubt that the Oilers management have the ability to pull this off, or that the trade I described is even possible.

  • OilClog

    If we’re going to go with a defensive trio set up on the 4th line.. then wouldn’t the 3rd line checking turn into a 3rd line scoring option??

    Having 3 scoring lines, and 1 shut down line would be almost something a thinking man would do.. Ralph what say you?

  • Wax Man Riley

    With Jones providing a much needed spark on most nights, I would go with the below for opening night.

    Harti – Nuge – Ebs
    Hall – Gags – Hemmer
    Smyth – Horc – Yak
    Eager/Pajaarvi – Belanger – Jones

  • Gi JQE

    I’m not convinced Harti is truly a top 6 option… personally I didn’t see the offensive side in the bigs to support that. 3rd/4th line duty would be more fitting.

    Yak – Nug – Ebs (soft mins, o-zone starts)
    Hall – Gags – Hemmer (second toughs, o-zone starts)
    Smyth – Horc – Jones (tough minutes, mix of starts)
    Harti – Belanger – MPS

  • master of my domain

    as much as I hate the canucks,I have to admit that AV is a smart hockey man.

    I feel dirty now after complimenting a canuck, please excuse me while I go wash my mouth out with beer

  • master of my domain

    You’re only as good as your weakest link. If our fourth line can take care of business defensively, then our top nine is more than talented enough to get the job none.

    My only concern is that beyond Belanger, I don’t really think the personel is up to it. Paajarvi is a capable defensive forward but in a perfect world is playing above the fourth line. Eager is too inconsistent. Hordichuk fills his role but is far from a defensive wizard. Jones likes to hang out on the other side of the blueline. Petrell is an alright defensive forward.

    Still, I like the philosophy and I think we can all agree that improvement from our bottom six will be a key to how much we improve this season.

  • stevezie

    Totally agree, JW. If you’ve got the Sedins, or our young guns, why not put them in a position to do what they do best?

    The importance of two-way play obvious to everyone, but there is no shame in putting your best players in the best position to score easy goals.

  • vetinari

    I agree that it would be nice to specially task 3-5 players as your “defensive zone” specialists for continuity, and most likely, make them your 1A penalty killers as well… the question is which players should earn those honours?

    Belanger is a natural, and as for Petrell, any of the games that I had seen him in, he hustled his butt off (and he’s older and bit more mature to handle this role) so he would be a logical choice too. Hordichuk, Jones, and when a faceoff specialist is needed (other than Belanger), throw Horcoff out there.

    I think I would be grooming Harti and Paajarvi as top 9 players unless needed elsewhere due to injury, etc…

  • Hayek

    As long as your 4th liners are good enough to hold their own, what a completely reasonable proposal.

    Why not have your offensively gifted players start in the offensive zone more, while those with hands of stones take d-zone starts.

    4th lines should be around for these d-zone starts and for the PK to allow offensively minded players more shifts in the offensive zone, and for the PP.

    For what it’s worth, I think the 4th line shouldn’t play any minutes at evens at all, but the above is probably a more reasonable balance.

  • Hayek

    Coach Krueger has a very difficult job ahead of him forming four NHL-calibre forward lines that can adequately compete on a regular basis. The talent isn’t there.

    Other than the four top draft choices, he is stuck with aging veteran forwards that have lost at least one step in compete, their ability to score has diminished and lack ‘sandpaper’ (Belanger, Hemsky, Smyth). And then there are the others who never really competed (Eager, Hordichuk, Petrell) that are tying up contracts and slots. Time to clean house.

    Can Gagner really play 2nd line centre in the NHL? And what of Jones? Where does he fit?

    The wild cards are in OKC (Paajarvi, Hartikainen, Lander, Vandevelde) and looking at their development, unfortunately, may stay there this coming season, if there is an NHL season.

  • Pinch

    It’s interesting that you point out the Canuck’s 4th line as a strong point, as its been one of the more maligned parts of our team the last couple years, specifically in the Stanley Cup finals when they got almost no ice time whatsoever.

  • Pinch

    I suggest an NHS solution.The fourth line should be identical in form,function and execution as the first line,a solidly executed NHS system doesnt require line matchups with opponents and there is no skill requirement beyond average to execute system responsibilitys on any given line more than another.

    Matching lines by trying to match skill level to skill level is a questionable approach,its an arms race.

    We dont need to consider skillsets beyond system execution when we consider who starts as a 1st line,its just a rotational position,the NHS allows the system to absorb and inequitys in skill level with the opponent through tactical control of the ice surface.The NHS incorporates a full rink “trap”as a core value and this immediatly evens the skill differential out in our favor at any given time on the ice.

    many people only consider tactile and tangible dynamics when we talk about lines,the NewAge System only considers them as rotational positions,the need to tacticly move individual system assets or players most effectively for 60 mins on the fly is to abolish this concept of line definition and purpose as a group.

    There is a major flaw in conventional hockey thinking and tactics,and this is that there should be some change or adjustment between the 1st and 4th lines as per the opponents system presentation,that doenst apply in the NHS.

    It shouldnt matter if you are lineing up against an all-star 5 men,a superior and accurately executed system will overcome their skill level.

    The trick is to find a system like the NHS that allows you to do this without playing a defensively catalysed system,the only way this could be done in the past was by useing the “trap”,well look at LA they used a hybrid system with a few NHS adjustments to enact a new version of the trap,a full rink version,and they did it useing NHS tactics.

    Eliminateing set play mentality and its system execution allows the NHS to immediatly begin to erode the skill differences with the opponents irregardless which line rotational position you are in as an individual,superior speed,and size are only advantageous if you can create a dynamic where you can use those assets in an overwhelming attack,you need to dominate to maximise these physical skills,so you need to be in some type of one-on-one dynamic to force a system to address you super-weapons.

    The core values of the NHS address this potential skill disparity dynamic on every level and it is a primary catalyst for the NHS full rink cycleing tactics and the Gapping tactics incorporated into that two phase cycleing.Opponents dont get the situational dynamic to make their skill level a terminal factor because we outman and outnumber them in both zones for 60mins in every dynamic.We are all literally closer to the play and the puck for 60mins.

    The NHS solution is what I hope the Oilers adopt for our fourth line rotational position.Pure offense for 60 mins just like the other 3 lines.

    I am hopeing that we can roll three lines ,double shifting special dimensions like Halls speed and Nuges shiftyness,and our fourth line rotation can sit a lot and include our veterans like Smyth and Horcs,we need to pace them from game one on to be ready for the post-season,and we can always bring them up individually on a tactical basis at any time regardless.We need to prepare to hit other teams third and fourth lines with way more offense this year,and the best way is to roll three strong offensive lines trying to catch their fourth with our third as much as we can,and keep our fresh fourth rotation to lay the offense on the opponents fourth line late in the game after our 3rd has softened them up a little.We dont need to consider our 4th line tacticly as they do because the skill level differences on our team are negated by the NHS tactics and core values.Their 4th line can be defined by physical skill,while ours cant,so our offensive push with our fresh and more evenly skilled players is an advantage for us especially in the 3rd period.

    I like Smyth-Horcs-Jones sitting there fresh and ready to pick apart any teams 4th line with a 3rd period push,they are all big and savvy enough to handle the workload and would take other 4th lines to ribbons quickly,in fact their offense would become premium because they would probably generate more from the fourth than the 2nd considering minutes on the ice,a perfect way to use vets.

    I guess overall I feel there should be absolutely no real difference between the 1st and 4th lines in terms of form and function and system execution,and I see no reason to man any rotational position with bigger or smaller men for any reason,this is a way to cover up system weaknesses which the NHS doesnt present like most systems.The NHS isnt reactive to other teams systems or size or speed,it is pro-active and creates a neutral environment from which it can manifest offense.Letting teams make us become reactive to factors like their positioning of skill levels line by line is a dynamic the NHS deals with at the core value level–this reactionary perspective is a momentum issue on some levels and the NHS uses this tacticly itself,it doesnt allow itself to be dictated to by the dynamic.The NHS is designed to control momentum on every level for 60 mins.and part of that philosophy is to level the playing field skill wise through NHS system induced momentum and ice surface control.

    I hope our 4th line plays exactly like our 1st line,all offense for 60 mins.