Fourth line: three players known for their physical play that is used to give their teammates an emotional or energetic boost; limited scoring ability, but strong skating ability; little ice time.
At the beginning of the season, Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault focused a lot on finding an identity for the fourth line. The big question he faced was whether speed or physicality is more important. It seemed like he had found the answer in a solid line made up of Dale Weise, Maxim Lapierre and Aaron Volpatti.
The season before, the Canucks used 13 different players on the fourth line, and while that number may not be as big this season, there have been multiple changes made to the line-up.
Disaster struck when the team was plagued with injuries, and a few days after scoring his first and only goal of the season, Volpatti had an MRI and discovered that he would need to undergo shoulder surgery. After talking with team management he decided that it was the right time to go through with the surgery, which would leave him out for four to six months. His last game was December 1, and in the 23 games he played he had one goal and 37 penalty minutes.
Dale Weise has sort of disappeared. He was out of the lineup in early February for a few games as he injured himself when he blocked a shot and has been either injured or listed as a healthy scratch for the past few weeks.
The only one who has remained in the same position since October is Lapierre.
“He’s definitely been one of our most consistent players, he’s playing 12-13 minutes a game, which is a good number for a third or fourth line player, and he’s helping us killing penalties and he’s helping us on the forecheck,” Vigneault told Canucks.com at the end of October.
It is March now, and Lapierre has continued to play well. His chirping may irritate many and give him a very good reason to be hated, but it contributes to and enhances his gritty playing style that makes him effective. He has been in the penalty box quite a bit this season, with 120 penalty minutes, but has also played every single regular season game. He is healthy and able to play each and every game at his full potential. He is strong in faceoffs, winning 53.9%, and was leading the team in hits with 148 through the first 50 games of the season.
“I really appreciate my role here,” Lapierre told Team 1040. “I want to go out there and bring some energy and finish my hits and play good defensively. If I can go out there and block a shot, finish a hit, win some face-offs, those are the main things, but to be honest, the only thing that matters is to win hockey games…If once in a while we can score some goals, obviously, it’s fun, but our main goal remains to bring some energy…the main thing is to win some games.”
Lapierre has played on the fourth line with Andrew Ebbett and Andrew Alberts this season as well. Alberts, normally on defence, dressed as a forward on the fourth line for a game or two and Ebbett would most likely still be playing if it was not for injuries.
Now the fourth line consists of Lapierre, veteran Manny Malhotra and newcomer Zack Kassian. Malhotra has struggled offensively, and knows it. As he is playing on the fourth line, the third line has become more offensive while the fourth line has become the checking line. Malhotra is very good with faceoffs and on the penalty kill, much like Lapierre. He may not be as in-your-face and annoying, but Malhotra has the same amount of goals (six) and even more assists (11) than Lapierre. He has a lot of experience in the NHL and is a very strong leader, but his struggles on the ice, both offensive and defensive, continue to frustrate him.
Zack Kassian, one of the newest additions to the team, is coming off a two point night, in which he notched his first goal as a Canuck. He has played only 30 games in the NHL, 27 with the Buffalo Sabres and three with the Canucks, and may prove to be valuable for the Canucks, who have felt the need for a gritty fourth line forward for a while.
“There’s not much not to like,” GM Mike Gillis told Canucks.com of Kassian. “He’s 6-4 and 225 and he just turned 21 a month ago. He put up almost a point a game numbers in the American League, so for a player who is that physical who can do that, it’s a rare opportunity that you get the chance to get a player like that.”
Perhaps the Canucks have found what they have been looked for all along – a fourth line that has both physicality and speed. Lapierre, Malhotra and Kassian are good all-around players. None are superstars, but they all have the ability to develop a positive identity for the fourth line.
“They have a deep line-up, that’s no secret,” Kassian told Canucks.com of the Canucks when he joined the team. “They have a top team and have a good chance to go all the way. Like I said, I just want to work hard in practice and earn my spot.”
If the Canucks can develop their fourth line into one just as effective as their third or even second line, they could totally revamp the definition of fourth line. They now have several tough guys in Weise, Lapierre and Kassian, and all those players can contribute in other ways as well. Only injuries stand in their way. Weise could slot back into the line-up at any time as well, and it will be interesting to see how long Kassian will last. Will he be like Byron Bitz or Bill Sweat, expected to make a splash, play five games and then disappear in the minors? Or will he become a permanent installment on the team? He scored his first goal as a Canuck while on the second line against Buffalo on Saturday when Vigneault switched the lines up, but whether he remains there is still to be seen.
Only time can tell, but for now, the Canucks should be pretty pleased with the fourth line they have.