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Have the Canucks Solved Their Centre Problem?

Brayden Fengler / August 8, 2022  

A different general manager, a different year of free agency, another centreman acquisition that comes with high hopes. With the acquisition of Curtiz Lazar have the Canucks now solved their issues with depth at centre, or is this new addition just shades of former Canucks’ GM Jim Benning’s Jason Dickinson pick-up only a year earlier?

Additionally like all things Canucks this off-season, The decision around J.T. Miller will also play a role in the evolution of the team’s plans at centre.

What Issue Do the Canucks Have at Centre

On July 13th, 2022 the Canucks signed local Salmon Arm boy and former Boston Bruin, Curtiz Lazar. In recent years Lazar has been a depth piece on the Bruins, and although that team’s glory days have been slowly fading into the distance, their overall horsepower has no doubt been greater than that of the Canucks in recent years. With Lazar, the Canucks hope to get what may have been Boston’s expendable depth and turn it into their bottom six fix at centre.

Last summer when the management of the Canucks was still in Benning’s hands, Jim also thought that he’d found the same solution to the Canucks’ centre problem with that of Jason Dickinson. At the time we here at StadiumChinatown.ca even said the Dickinson signing “may prove the be the most important acquisition this season”. Why though are two far from household names supposed to fix or have already fixed the Canucks’ issues up the middle of the ice? 

The answer to this question comes in two parts. One reason that the Canucks have an issue at centre ice, has to do with the match-up role that captain Bo Horvat has been consistently relied on to play. With a common Canucks’ first line of Miller, Petterson, and Boeser, or some combination of at least two of those three names, the team is very top-heavy.

This leaves opposing teams who have capable second lines, a chance to produce where their top line perhaps can’t. Captain Bo Horvat has, for better or worse, long been tasked with playing during those tough minutes, with his focus being less on producing offensively himself and more on matching up against the aforementioned powerful second lines of other teams.

The idea with signing Jason Dickinson and now Curtis Lazar was and is to take some of those match-up minutes away from Bo and allow him to be more productive offensively. Right now the Canucks are not fully utilizing the offensive abilities of their captain, and that’s a problem.

However, Benning’s version of the above-mentioned “plan” was reliant on Dickinson performing well enough to handle those match-up minutes, which due to their very nature, are not easy minutes to play. Regrettably, although Dickinson didn’t have a terrible season for a player of his caliber, producing 11 points in 62 games played, his Corsi percentage of 43.1% in all situations points to his inability to shut down the opposing team’s production. As a result, Dickinson failed to solve the very issue that he was signed to fix.

Miller at Centre

With Dickinson not panning out it also prolonged the experiment of J.T. Miller at centre. With J.T. up the middle, it can solve one problem for the Canucks but open up another. Miller at centre allows for the possibility of Horvat as a third line centre and J.T. and Pettersson up the middle on line one and two, boom! Problem solved.

Well not quite. That plan does create a ridged spine for the Canucks’ top six lines, but the sides leave a lot to be desired. For this very reason, Petterson and Miller still stayed together more often than not. Last season the lotto line was the third most utilized line combination for Miller, the second most for Boeser, and for Petterson, the lotto line was the line that earned him the most deployment.

Will Lazar Be Different?

With Miller still in the picture the Canucks’ centres look like Miller/ Petterson, Horvat, Lazar & Dickinson. Like with Dickinson’s inclusion last summer, this structure doesn’t look half bad, if all players play their parts as designed. If Lazar and or Dickinson still can’t provide match-up relief, and line shuffling is required then the Canucks risk landing back on square one in regards to their centre problem.

In considering Lazar more closely, he had his most productive season last year, aside from his second year with Ottawa in 2015-16. In that year he earned his team 20 points, this past season with Boston he earned 16. He may not be blowing minds with those numbers, but at the very least Lazar’s last year of production is higher than that of Dickinson’s. Lazar’s Corsi numbers at 49.2% at even strength for last season were also 1.3 percentage points higher than Dickinson’s as well.

Is that what Canucks fans are supposed to be excited about though in the comparison to Lazar over Dickinson? Just five more points on the year and a Corsi difference to squint at? It’s easy to see why the Lazar signing echos Dickinson’s so much. Both are clear depth pieces that are now and were expected to play an important role on the Canucks. 

The main thing that makes Lazar’s acquisition feel a bit different though is that there was a new management group and a new thought process behind the decision to acquire him. It makes it hard to accuse the organization of insanity, if the similar thought in question, came from two different minds.

Number 9

A lot of what was discussed above had to do with the Canucks’ centre problem last season and the season before, and both of those problems included J.T. Miller in their solutions. However, a lot of that changes for the Canucks if J.T. Miller is no longer a piece on this team that they can leverage towards solving their issues at centre.

Miller at centre is still a relatively new thing, but if you look online you may think he’s been a centre his whole career. NHL.com, Hockey DB, and Hockey Reference all list Miller only as a centre. Miller is still though mentioned as a winger and a centre on Cap-Friendly and Elite Prospects and just simply as a winger on Wikipedia.

There was and still is hesitancy among Canucks fans and pundits about putting Miller at centre, with concerns that his value is not being capitalized on in that position. However, Miller himself has claimed to enjoy playing centre and his numbers in that position were impressive this past season. This past year Miller earned 1.24 points per game, comparing this to his last wing-heavy season in 2019-20, when Miller finished that year with 1.04 points per game.

However, Miller’s Corsi numbers have fallen ever so slightly in comparison to his first wing-heavy season with the Canucks, earning a 59.3% CF in all situations that year and a 54.5% this past year when most of his time was spent up the middle.

The difference in Miller’s production across the two positions is negligible though in many respects and it’s clear that Miller is effective no matter where he plays, including at centre. So how will the team manage if Miller does end up leaving before the season? Well, Bo would be forced back into a significant matchup role almost undoubtedly, unless Lazar pans out for his new club exactly as they hope.

Petey would be back at centre full time, which is not inherently a problem unless he has a significant slump like he has had a couple of times in recent years. If this does happen, lineup shuffles may be needed to kick start EP40 out of his slump, and in the event of a substantial shuffle where new centremen are needed on the roster, the Canucks would be looking at Justin Dowling, Sheldon Dries, or the prospect Dakota Joshua to fill that role. Does this team have a winning structure with Horvat, Lazar, Dickinson, and Dowling at the spine, most likely not.

How It Works From Here

If Miller stays there are more ways that this new Canucks center core can workout, and without getting into the overall effects, or benefits of Miller staying or leaving, the conscious outside the organization still seems to be that Miller leaving, is the best thing for the Canucks.

If Miller does leave, one or two things need to happen, in order for Vancouver to have a successful year.

Lazar needs to pan out, the Canucks can’t have the same performance that Dickinson gave last year, Dickinson wasn’t terrible, but the team needs something stronger on the third line and Lazar needs to be that. Beyond that, if the Lazar addition doesn’t go as planned then the Canucks need to have acquired some forward help from a possible trade with J.T. Miller.

It’s not about replacing Miller with someone exactly like him, that task would be impossible. But rather the Canucks would need someone that can in their own way provide value to the structure of the team immediately, and allow Lazar room for growing pains. As it stands right now if Miller leaves they do not have that room to offer him.

Like many things to do with the Canucks this off-season #9 is at the centre of it. Pun intended. The centre situation for the Canucks has a chance to survive with or without him, but in the event that he does move on to greener pastures, the Lazar acquisition will be a more vital piece for the Canucks heading into next year, than it will be if Miller is staying.