Vancouver Canucks take a different look at the fourth line

Here’s a test for you: name all the guys who have skated on the fourth line for the Vancouver Canucks so far this season.

Fearing failure and perhaps embarrassment, Tanner Glass laughed and then politely declined an opportunity to take the exam after a recent practice. And if anyone should have the answers, it’s Glass. The feisty forward has been the only constant on that line, which injuries and inconsistency have changed on an almost nightly basis through the first two-and-a-half months of the 2010-11 National Hockey League season.

When Aaron Volpatti made his Canucks debut against the Toronto Maple Leafs on December 18 at Rogers Arena, he became the 11th player in just 30 games to skate shifts as a fourth liner. Volpatti took the spot of Jonas Andersson, who had briefly replaced Joel Perrault—who had taken over from Mario Bliznak, who in turn had earned his shot after Peter Schaefer’s NHL comeback bid started to sputter, and after Rick Rypien was suspended for six games for grabbing a fan in Minnesota. And when the Canucks later granted Rypien an indefinite personal leave, Alex Bolduc was ready to return from an ankle injury suffered on opening night, when he had centred a fourth line with Tanner Glass on one side and Guillaume Desbiens on the other. But Desbiens suffered a broken hand in a November 4 game in Denver, and his absence set the merry-go-round in motion yet again.

Even veterans Jannik Hansen and Raffi Torres have seen some fourth-line duty. And while the lineup line dancing may seem like a distraction and challenge for a team trying to build chemistry for late-season games and the playoffs, there is also a benefit.

The Canucks’ coaching staff, which wanted an improved and more reliable fourth line after consecutive playoff losses to Chicago, has had the luxury of auditioning a number of players and looking at various combinations in an effort to find the mix it’s seeking.

In the past, the Canucks have employed the services of a heavyweight fighter. This year, they’ve opted for a different look on the fourth line, and players earning spots there need to be able to offer more than three shifts a night. Whether that means winning face-offs, killing penalties, swinging momentum with a big body check, or even contributing a little offence, there is certainly an expectation that the fourth liners—whoever they are—will leave their mark on a hockey game.

“We’re looking for energy and grit,” Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault said when the Straight asked for his fourth-line job description. “I think as a group we’ve played our best when we had a balanced lineup. When we had four lines and we could spread the minutes out, we seemed to have a better pace and a better tempo. Basically, we want guys who can spend some time in the other team’s end through the forecheck and the least amount of time in our end.”

Vigneault seems to like the size of Bolduc in the middle, and Glass has developed into the poster boy for the Canucks’ fourth line—a guy who has good hockey smarts, finishes checks, is willing to drop his gloves, and shows the odd flash of offence. So those two are likely to be regulars in the lineup. Now the organization can hold trials for the right-wing spot, to see whether it already has what it needs in the system, or whether this is an area that must be addressed before the February 28 trade deadline. And that should serve as motivation for players on the Canucks’ Manitoba farm team, who know that the club is willing to reward those who perform well in the minors.

When completely healthy at forward, the Canucks have enough depth to slot a player like Hansen in on the fourth line. However, they may decide they want more size or a more physically imposing presence in that spot. The beauty of it all is that the Canucks don’t need a final answer right now, and can take their time gathering information and giving guys a chance to prove themselves.

As for Glass, he’s not getting caught up in what’s going on around him. He’s certainly aware that he’s had a dizzying number of linemates this season, but says that adjusting to a revolving cast of characters hasn’t been an issue.

“I think the key to having a good fourth line, with all the guys we’ve had this year, is to communicate early and try to make the guys who haven’t been in the lineup as comfortable as possible,” he explains. “If you’re comfortable and confident, you’re going to play better. My game is up and down and straight ahead, and I know these guys know how to play. I trust them and know they’re going to do the right thing out there, and that makes my job a lot easier.”

Glass may not be able to recall all of the guys who have skated with him on this season’s fourth line. But the Canucks hope that by taking their time now to make the right decision, the grinders that they ultimately go with will be impossible to forget when the postseason rolls around.

Jeff Paterson is a talk show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter.