Rolling and the Deep: Canucks Take 14 Forwards Into Playoff Stretch

by Kolby Solinsky

White Cover Magazine

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We have stats for everything. We understand it all so much more than we once did, although a few are still clinging to the golden years, wishing they could just make stuff up like they used to without someone 30-and-under calling out their proof as little more than a theory, a shot at an idea.

It’s a legacy thing. You see it in publishing and music, where the titans of 20 years ago malign the forces of tomorrow, blaming the Internet for humans’ inadequacy – this idea that blogs about cats are ruining journalism, a business that’s always been endangered, threatened by amoral ad interests and the audience’s short attention span.

But sometimes, debates begin and end in the in-between, the purgatory middle. They’re vague, general, and fluffy. And they’re enjoyable arguments for that very reason. They’re not supposed to have conclusions or factual final says. They’re casual, and that’s cool.

Take depth, for instance.

There’s nothing I think hockey fans misunderstand more than the idea of depth, and how important it is. Or rather, what it is.

I don’t have any ability to quantify this. I just know, all I hear about depth is something along the lines of, “The best teams need to have four lines.” They need to play four lines, thought goes, to compete with other contending teams who all, suggestion has, have four themselves.

But depth isn’t about having four lines. Depth is about having 12 forwards, six defencemen, and one excellent goalie.

It doesn’t hurt to have 14 forwards, actually. Or eight d-men. Or two – even three, as Andrew Hammond’s shown – tenders.

Having ‘set’ lines isn’t as important, if you ask me, than having a crop of all-around players who can flexibly flutter up and down their roster. They call it a depth chart, after all.

Take Ryan Kesler. Simultaneously, he was Vancouver’s most valuable and Vancouver’s most overrated player for the past four years, before he asked for a trade and spared saddling the Canucks with his fall. (It will come, even if he wins a Cup on his way down.)

Kesler was capable of winning playoff series on his own, sure. He was a very, very good player – excellent, on occasion. And he was the club’s most valuable piece, in the way that he was often the best player on Vancouver’s cap.

But he was an anchor, a giant weight clogging up the middle of the Canucks’ order. He was a second-line centre and only a second-line centre. Only a few players found their game on Kesler’s wings. And while there were several nights where he wasn’t only Vancouver’s best player but their only good player, that’s not necessarily a pro.

So what if you score your team’s only goal? That means the whole team only scored one goal.

Compare that to Nick Bonino, who’s often the third-best player on his line, at least recently. Playing with Radim Vrbata and Chris Higgins, Bonino is a distributor and the link in the chain – the closest thing the Canucks have had, in a long time, to what Brendan Morrison once was.

Bonino makes players better, even when he’s invisible. His all-around ability – like Vrbata’s – has an exponential quality, whereas Kesler was a black hole of selfishness.

Kesler couldn’t pass. He could only wave his stick like a mad man, bang it off the ice until someone passed it to him, slap-shoot the puck, often miss, and sometimes score.

That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. It’s the role Kesler played, and it worked in 2011 – when he was playing behind the best offensive centre in hockey (Henrik Sedin) and in front of the best defensive centre in hockey (Manny Malhotra). And it could work in Anaheim, where he’s second-fiddle to the by-far best player in Orange County, No. 1 centre Ryan Getzlaf.

But Kesler’s gone, and first thoughts directed at the West Coast last summer were, “Where do they go from here? Will they recover, without Kesler? How will they fill that hole?”

The good news: They never had to fill that hole. What’s the point?

The Canucks went Billy Beane after Kesler’s departure, deciding to pick-and-roll away from No. 17 and his Charlie Brown eyes.

They didn’t replace Kesler with any one player – instead, they replaced him with several.

Radim Vrbata. Nick Bonino. Linden Vey. Shawn Matthias. Zack Kassian. Bo Horvat. Ronalds Kenins.

None of them were brought in, necessarily, to become the second 17. Some of them weren’t ‘brought in’ at all – Matthias and Kassian were already here. But with Kesler gone, the Canucks who were drowning on the bench are now playing prime minutes, and the new guys have run full-speed into a new dawn for a team with a fresh lease on life.

After their 5-4 win over Nashville last night, the Canucks are far from safe, but they’re sitting healthy. Vancouver’s seven points up on the L.A. Kings – in 9th – with only a few to play out West, in pole position to finish second in the Pacific.

This was supposed to be a rebuilding year, or a retooling year. It’s neither.

And yet, they don’t have four lines. All year long, the only guys who’ve stuck together are Daniel and Henrik. They have 14 forwards, eight defencemen, and they’ve used three goalies.

And they’re winning. At least, they’re winning enough.