Note: This article was also featured on the Legion of Blog on The Province’s website as part of Feature Friday. Big thanks to Wyatt Arndt (better known as @TheStanchion on Twitter) for the opportunity!
Early on in head coach Alain Vigneault’s tenure with the Vancouver Canucks, he was known as a compulsive line juggler, and was criticized heavily for it. In the past two seasons, Vigneault has gotten away from line juggling, instead keeping more stability with his lines. That was, until the last 2-3 games.
Byron Bitz with the Sedins? How about Ryan Kesler on the second power play unit? Both of those moves paid off in a 4-3 win over the Nashville Predators on Tuesday. On Thursday, Vigneault threw some more names into a hat, coming up with trios that featured Duco-Hodgson-Lapierre and Raymond-Malhotra-Hansen. Those two bizarre moves got Maxim Lapierre and Manny Malhotra their first goals in 24 and 10 games respectfully.
In the short term AV has managed to spark his team, giving them a break from the monotony of an 82 game regular season. But what I am most interested in is the long term effects of this.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t foresee Byron Bitz becoming a full-time linemate of Daniel and Henrik Sedin on the Canucks first line. Nor do I see Ryan Kesler getting demoted to the second unit power play. But when the playoffs roll around, the Canucks will likely need a plan B at some point. With rare exception, teams in the midst of a long playoff run face some adversity. In a lot of cases, the head coach of said team makes some kind of key lineup change that helps his team to victory.
I think most people would agree that Alex Burrows has been a great fit with the Sedins ever since he was put on their line in 2008. But what happens if their line gets shutdown? In the past AV has had two options for the Sedins: Alex Burrows and Mikael Samuelsson. In fact, Samuelsson played much of the 2010 playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings with Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and was their leading scorer in the first round. Without that critical move, the Canucks may have lost the series. Last season it was a line that featured Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond that got the job done in game 7 versus the Chicago Blackhawks.
Perhaps if a playoff series got nasty, the Sedins would be more effective with Byron Bitz than Alex Burrows. Maybe Bitz would give the Sedins more room. Perhaps if an opponent’s top defence pairing neutralizes the Sedins, Alex Burrows would be able to contribute more with Ryan Kesler.
I don’t know if Byron Bitz is the best second option, or even the third or fourth best option to play with the Sedins, but now is the time to try it. Alain Vigneault would (rightly) be hesitant to try experimenting with new line combinations in the Stanley Cup playoffs, especially combinations that involve putting a guy with 10 career NHL goals on your top line.
So I say, keep on experimenting AV! People can call you crazy all they want, but four years ago nobody thought a former ECHL checking forward would be the perfect fit with the Sedins, did they?