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Canucks experimenting with lineup down stretch

by Kevin Woodley
With just 16 games left in the season and three new players on the roster, the Vancouver Canucks are in the midst of a chemistry experiment, tinkering with their lines, pairings and power play as they prepare for the playoffs.

The biggest change heading into Tuesday night's battle of division leaders with Dallas comes up front, with newcomer Zack Kassian being promoted to the second line.

Kassian's move up comes at the expense of a struggling Mason Raymond, who drops to the fourth line, and could find himself out of the lineup entirely should the Canucks choose size and grit over his speed and go with either Dale Weise or Byron Bitz, who figures to be called back up from the AHL come playoff time.

"I'm trying to figure out where the pieces go," coach Alain Vigneault said. "We have a short focus on the game, but I'm also keeping a big-picture approach with the pieces and how they best help us move forward to get into the playoffs. I've got an idea, but I don't know. The players are going to decide for me."

Kassian is off to a good start since arriving from Buffalo as a key component to a four-player deadline day deal. The big winger started by showing a physical presence on the fourth line, then made the most of a promotion to the second line during the third period of a 5-3 loss to his ex-Sabres team, scoring once and setting up new linemate David Booth for another as they combined with center Ryan Kesler for two goals and several dominant, often physical, shifts.

"They've got speed, size and skill, and two of three have a little edge," Vigneault said. "If it works out, it's a good line. Our scouts felt really highly that Kassian has the potential to be a top-six forward and get there fairly quick. How long that's going to take, I'm not sure. He obviously caught our attention as far as the skill level and physicality that he can bring. Like any young player, can he maintain it and will it continue? Those are the questions we're going to get answered."

Part of the questioning includes what to do with Raymond, who lost an entire offseason and preseason to broken vertebrae from an awkward hit into the boards during Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, and hasn't been able to rediscover his 25-goal form of two seasons ago.

Vigneault stressed patience given all Raymond had to overcome -- both physically and mentally -- and has so far ignored calls to drop him from the lineup altogether for failing to use his considerable wheels to take the puck to the net. Raymond, who has 8 goals, 8 assists and a plus-8 rating in 41 games since returning in early December, remains in the lineup to help a second-unit power play that lost its playmaker when Cody Hodgson was dealt to acquire Kassian, and as a top penalty killer.

"I am trying to do what is best for the team, and at the same time also looking at his challenges," Vigneault said. "I know we are going to need him down the road. We are going to need that 25-goal scorer, but at the same time I have to look at the big picture right now. For now, obviously I am looking at some other people in that second-line spot and we'll see how that goes and how it affects our team."

The other tinkering involves the power play. Marc-Andre Gragnani, who was the other player coming to Vancouver in the trade with Buffalo, is getting an extended look -- perhaps in part because he needs 12 more games this season to avoid becoming a Group 6 unrestricted free agent this summer -- on a first-unit power play ranked third in the NHL, but with just one goal in seven games.

That dry spell helps explain why top-line twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin have one assist combined in the last five games and over the last six weeks have fallen well off the pace that saw them combine to win the last two NHL scoring titles.

"I've got a lot of confidence in the people we use in that situation," Vigneault said, pointing out the number of chances has also dropped significantly. "For whatever reason there doesn't seem to be as many power plays as there was before, and considering the fact we've played a lot of games in a short amount of time we haven't been able to spend a lot of time in practice working on it, which keeps our execution and momentum good. We have a pretty good month to practice it."

That includes 11 games in March -- and 13 of the last 18 overall -- at home.

That's plenty of time to practice -- and to tinker – before playoffs.
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