One of the more underrated storylines of the 2019-2020 Vancouver Canucks has been the relative reliability of their supporting scoring cast. Tanner Pearson is set to have one of his best offensive seasons to-date. Jake Virtanen will almost certainly hit the long-desired 20-goal mark. Adam Gaudette has proven to be a relatively consistent third-line scoring centre, while Antoine Roussel does his part as well. Indeed, this depth is perhaps one of the main reasons for the turnaround of the club. Yet, among this success, the one weak link has been the productivity and relative incapability of the fourth line. That being said, there are some options that can be explored to enhance the fourth line, and make it a legitimate asset for the club.
For the most part, the staples on the fourth line have not been particularly useful. Jay Beagle, in 50 games played, has just a single goal and four assists. The recently traded Tim Schaller had a brief goal scoring heater to start the year, but still had just five goals and six total points for the Canucks. Tyler Motte, while injured and playing in just 26 contests, is still on pace to score just 17 points over an 82-game schedule. Aside from a counting stats perspective, those three collectively get vastly outplayed in the realm of possession. Beagle, Motte, and Schaller also hold the bottom three slots in CorsiFor%, with rates of 37.25%, 38.06%, and 40% respectively. Between Schaller and the next closest Canuck is a six-point gap (Brandon Sutter at 46.03%). They also have the three lowest GoalsFor% on the roster. It’s clear that the fourth line — at least as defined by its three regulars — is a liability. How, then, can it be altered to maximize success? There are a few options.
The most notable change that can be made is relying on Brandon Sutter as the full-time fourth line centre. While hardly an incredible possession driver, Sutter does have a level of offensive capability that Beagle doesn’t. In 34 games this season, the 31-year-old has eight goals and assists for 16 points, a 39-point pace over a full campaign. For all the criticism he (often rightfully) takes for his contract and tendency to get outplayed in terms of shot share, that would nearly match his career high of 40 points in 2009-10 (with the Carolina Hurricanes). Sutter is not a perfect player, but as a 4LC, he is a substantially better option than Beagle, and would be a relatively effective offensive contributor in that role.
On the wings, there are internal options that add a level of offensive capability. Zack MacEwen, a highly touted prospect and frequent call-up this season, offers both grit and skill that are tantalizing in a depth player. While his skating has room for improvement and he has just three points in 12 games, MacEwen is also becoming demonstrably more confident with each game and is proving himself to be a legitimate NHL-level contributor. More than that, MacEwen also helps to address the lack of ‘pushback’ that many claim is a problem with the club (particuarly given the recent Matt Grzelyck hit on Elias Pettersson). One could also argue that Justin Bailey, despite a less-than-stellar pair of games recently, is the type of player that fits on a modern, tenacious, and offensively-minded fourth line, with his speed and scoring instincts that have landed him 40 points in 45 games with the AHL’s Utica Comets.
When fully healthy, the team may also have the luxury of moving Roussel, scoring at a 30-point pace, down to the fourth line, or keeping Loui Eriksson, as maligned as he may be, in that capacity. While expensive (cap hits of $3 million and $6 million respectively), both have some demonstrated capacity for offense, and can also drive play in the offensive zone (Eriksson draws roughly even in CorsiFor% this season and Roussel, while having a bit of an off year in this regard, places sixth on the club in the statistic over the course of the last two seasons). It is this idea that outlines why added middle- and top-six depth is so important to the Canucks: not just adding talent up the roster, but having the ability to move players down the lineup, to the point where the fourth line can become a legitimate asset for the team.
The NHL is increasingly a skill-first league, and the Canucks need to adapt to this reality up and down their roster. A fourth line that simply plays to give the first nine guys a break is no longer an adequate solution. The moving out of Tim Schaller and bringing in of Tyler Toffoli will certainly help in this regard by taking strain off the likes of Loui Eriksson to play top-six mintues and allowing for someone like MacEwen to possibly become a full-time fixture. There isn’t necessarily one ideal way to configure the fourth line, and of course injuries will always play a role; there does, however, need to be a change in philosophy. The Canucks need to become a four line team, and not in the dogmatic Willie Desjardins style of ‘four lines, equal minutes, no matter the result’. They have the pieces to do it, it’s up to management and the coaching staff to implement a scoring-first strategy across the lineup.