Dallas Eakins and the Edmonton Oilers’ fourth line

Jonathan Willis
November 18 2013 10:52PM

Edmonton’s fourth line, for much of the year, has been built around the duo of Will Acton and Luke Gazdic. Those two forwards combined for 30 points in the AHL last season; Gazdic has cracked 20 points once at that level and Acton never has. After the Oilers’ game against San Jose on Friday, head coach Dallas Eakins talked about what their role is on the team.

Asked by TSN’s Ryan Rishaug whether he was disappointed in a line that he barely used against the Sharks, Eakins offered the following:

You have a great plan going into games, and your plan is always that you’re going to be even or winning. As soon as we got down-and then our fourth line was the start of the dominoes falling on our third goal-you get down. Your fourth line is, you’re looking for them usually, at least with our team; it’s them being physical, them keeping zone time, cycles alive. You’re not looking for a lot of chances; you’re looking for zone time and a lot of heaviness from them. But when you get down in the game, now you’re looking to score, you’ve got to get back in it. That’s when those guys end up suffering, just because the math says they’re not going to generate a lot of goals and that’s when you go to your other three and lean heavily on them.

“You’re not looking for a lot of chances”

As I see it, Eakins’ comment about what he expects from the fourth line can be summed up with three bullet points:

  • The fourth line is not expected to contribute scoring.
  • The fourth line is expected to contribute heaviness.
  • The fourth line is expected to keep the puck in the offensive zone.

Let’s start with “heaviness.” The fourth line predominantly plays other team’s fourth lines, because they get destroyed in terms of goals for and against versus other lines; there simply aren’t that many NHL coaches that want to put 15-point AHL’ers against good NHL players. So all the hitting and physical wearing down that Will Acton and Luke Gadzic and rotate-a-winger do comes against players that in the grand scheme of things don’t really matter that much. Sure, they’ll get the odd hit on a second-pair defenceman, but is the five minutes of ice-time they get a night really enough to soften up opponents?

And that’s the only real payoff of having that line at even-strength. They don’t score, they aren’t expected to score, and the coach just has to hope against hope that they don’t give anything up either. It’s null time, five minutes of each game where the Oilers basically grant the opposition sanctuary from the fear of being scored on in exchange for the nebulous benefit of a few hits on depth opponents.

Is this really the best possible use of one-quarter of Edmonton’s forward contingent?

Well, as the comments section points out, general manager Craig MacTavish made his feelings known on that score in the summer.

"In today’s NHL you really have to be a threat to score at some point, even marginally," MacTavish said then. "We had a lot of guys who really, the best they were going to be in any given game was a non-factor. There wasn’t a lot of upside for our guys, our role players to significantly help us."

At the time, he'd made it seem like that was a bad thing.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 James Vander Woude
November 18 2013, 10:58PM
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"Is this really the best possible use of one-quarter of Edmonton’s forward contingent?"

No, it is not.

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#2 sizzler
November 18 2013, 10:59PM
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Well put....on good teams 4rth liners are at worst good penalty killers.

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#3 Dangilitis
November 18 2013, 11:00PM
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MacT built this line all on his own. How terrifying is it that of all the options available internally and on the free agent market, he chose Acton, Gazdic and would be Macintyre? 05-06 Playoffs had pre-captain Moreau, Dvorak and Laraque/Harvey. How can he think that they are comparable? This line was the only thing really under his control to have ready to go for the start of the season.

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#4 wiseguy
November 18 2013, 11:01PM
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So in other words mact is icing 4th liners that at best is a non factor on any given night. Kinda what he swore he wouldn't do.

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#5 DrunkGuyTy
November 18 2013, 11:02PM
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I like to cheer for these guys but in the quest for functional toughness, they need to be more functional.

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#6 Retsinnab5
November 18 2013, 11:08PM
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DSF is on this site to much. How many comments did he have on that last article. I'd say 50.

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#7 Retsinnab5
November 18 2013, 11:08PM
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DSF is on this site to much. How many comments did he have on that last article. I'd say 50.

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#9 Nina Russo
November 18 2013, 11:16PM
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Finally a blog I can agree with. Imagine what this line could produce if the two key components were Gordon and Jones, with an every odd game of Ryan Smyth. It will take Eakins the rookie about until the Olympic break to figure he has three quality skill centres above Gordon on the depth chart before he plays a fourth line that produces jack and doesn't give up more.

But MacT is a rookie also so what can you expect? Just a guess but I think Todd Nelson or Jon Cooper would have figured that out in the preseason -- two coaches that do their diligence before the season starts.

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#10 Dog Train
November 18 2013, 11:18PM
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Acton and Gazdic are not NHL calibre players and expecting any other winger to change that is foolish. These guys can get in the lineup yet somehow Arcobello can't? I know we need toughness but these guys aren't good enough at the whole hockey part of the game.

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#11 Rotten Ron
November 18 2013, 11:20PM
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One word sums up the Acton situation, nepotism. He doesn't crack a lineup AHL or NHL that doesn't have his father or his fathers best friend on the coaching staff. Eakins credits Acton Sr getting him his assistant job for the Leafs I guess getting Jr a job is payback. He's at best a slower,less physical, worse at penalty killing Pettrell, and Petrell had no business on an NHL roster.

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#12 pkam
November 18 2013, 11:22PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

I can't believe I didn't think to include that in the piece. You're so right.

Edit to add: Fixed now.

But a lot of fans here posted that Gazdic and Ference fights energized the team and was the main reason we won over the Flames. If that is true, how can we say they are non factor.

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#14 sizzler
November 18 2013, 11:28PM
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Jon....when i look at Hall, Yak and Ebs i see a lot of north south play. Very rarely do i see these players win possession going east west. And same goes for dmen like jschultz. So far players/prospects with east west game...Harti and omark are too slow to keep up with hall and company......do you see any prospects in okc that might be able to make the jump next year and add the east west component to the oilers game? I think the problem with oilers is they try to play possession while going north south and those two things dont go hand in hand unless you are very skilled....aka patty kane.

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#15 kawi460
November 18 2013, 11:31PM
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I guess it all depends on what you want on your team. But with the small and soft (non physical) top 9 I like a tougher 4th line. I'd personally give Gazdic the benefit over Big Mac. At least he can skate to get in and finish a couple of hits. Gazdic is still a younger player. He reminds me of a Brandon Bollig a couple seasons ago for the Hawks. Maybe soon he could develop into a Thorton type of enforcer.

Also think they messed up not claiming Maroon last season. He would add a lot to this team. Moves up and down with the ducks... plays 9-11 mins when on the 4th line.

I can see Gazdic/Gordon/Joensuu as decent 4th line. Maybe next year that would be possible?

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#16 Oilcan
November 18 2013, 11:31PM
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This comment by Eakins made no sense, I still don't understand the mindset behind that. Would you not be better off icing a line of Arco, Hemsky and even omark (doesn't have to be omark but a scorer) and give them 7-9 minutes of EV time and play PP, the 7-9 minutes to be play against other teams 4th lines? They would have a better chance to continue a cycle and play the OPP zone then the current 4th line.

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#17 kawi460
November 18 2013, 11:32PM
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@Jonathan Willis

I think Ference fight was heat of the moment. He looked pissed after that hit.

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#18 Oilcan
November 18 2013, 11:33PM
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I did not mind when Eakins played arco gazdic and smyth as the 4th and then sat gazdic and roated 3 center between the 4 lines of wingers.

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#19 kawi460
November 18 2013, 11:35PM
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@Oilcan

I think that would be possible if the team was tougher. If the players want an enforcer then they will get one, its not up to the fans. Maybe a line of Gazdic/Arco/Jones would be a more effective line in the offensive zone.

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#20 pkam
November 18 2013, 11:36PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

I tend to think it was the four goals scored roughly 30 minutes later.

Particularly since the first goal after the Ference/Gazdic fights was a Calgary one.

So you don't think the two fights changed the momentum and helped us beat the Flames? Glad we think the same but we obviously are the minority.

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#21 Romulus' Apotheosis
November 18 2013, 11:38PM
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God that 4th line is a mess. The more things change…

It's not like they couldn't cobble together something resembling an NHL 4th line with

C: Arco/Lander/Horak W: Omark/Smyth/Joensuu/Jones

Not exactly world beaters, but miles better than some of the 4th liners we've iced so far this season (Acton, Brown, Gazdic in particular).

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#22 madjam
November 18 2013, 11:39PM
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Our fourth line is basically 4th line AHL players , and not of great quality to begin with . Rest of our core from last season performing worse than last season . New additions doing little to improve overall team results . The answer is not in our system , as we have found out all to well/often . Does not look like our fab 6 or so not turning out to be near what should/would have thought possible . Our results point that out , and probably most of your own analytical eyes . I think they have to start another rebuild discarding , in trade , many of the fab 6 whom I just do not forsee us winning with even in the future . Results show they are a bad mix .

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#23 Romulus' Apotheosis
November 18 2013, 11:44PM
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The other thing that needs to be mentioned is special teams.

Most NHL teams try to cover off at least some of the special teams with their depth players (often 4th liners PK and 3rd pairing guys PK or PP).

Not getting anything (outside of minimal PK time from Acton) from the 4th line on special teams just puts more pressure on the other lines.

This is a critical failure of both management and coaching so far this year.

Critical.

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#24 pkam
November 18 2013, 11:50PM
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I remembered I was thumbed down badly when I commented here after the preseason game vs the NYR that 4th line of Acton, Gazdic and Eager was terrible, even we won the game that night. And they were playing against some AHLers.

Finally after 2 months, someone agrees with me.

Edit: sorry, it was Acton, Eager and Hamilton, not Gazdic.

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#25 Mike
November 19 2013, 12:03AM
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The Oilers have absolutely no depth!

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#26 Oilerz4life
November 19 2013, 12:06AM
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Retsinnab5 wrote:

DSF is on this site to much. How many comments did he have on that last article. I'd say 50.

Somebody should moderate DSF posts. The 12 paragraph essay on chaos theory in the last thread (that he got off Jarasic Park) was to much.

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#27 Moog's helmet
November 19 2013, 12:52AM
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I think the reason heaviness is important on a fourth line isn't so much to do with wearing down the other team's marginal players it's to change momentum with physical play. While I agree the role of a fight in changing momentum is minimal there's no doubt a 4th line that gets a cycle going, lays a few hits and takes the puck to the net for some face-washing can change the course of a game. If it didn't then every team in the NHL would carry a fourth line with veteran AHL 1st liners.

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#28 Rheal1
November 19 2013, 05:25AM
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Whatever the Oilers' problems, shortfalls and inabilities actually are, we are 30th overall at this time - and if the past eight years constitute a pattern, we will stay down for the next while. Future certainties for the Oilers include another top 5 pick in June (trade for immediate physical, shutdown Dman such as Emelin). Often to shake things up there are "wild card" events that kick start the steep climb out of the cellar. This could be Bryzgalov playing stellar and stealing us some wins. That could trigger huge morale boost and the kids would/could rally to make us more competitive game after game and holy crap we are in contention for #8 spot. Or more of the same for the kevin Lowe team: mediocrity. Bryzgalov, IMHO constitutes that wild card; he can be our saviour and become trade bait by March. As a bonus he's kiking DD in the pants to perform.

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#29 Roland
November 19 2013, 06:05AM
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@James Vander Woude

To me I think this is on Eakins. I think this is a case of MacT letting Eakins pick his line-up. I suspect (hope) MacT cringes at this quote as much at the rest of us.

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#30 CDean
November 19 2013, 06:05AM
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I agree with the comments of Acton not being what MacT was referring to last year and that there are better options out there. What I do like is Gazdic, he is a better option than MacIntyre but he should only be played as a rotating 4th liner.

If they are going to keep all the players that we currently have they should mix it up to get a guy that can play physical on each line. Oliers options for physical players Hall, Perron, Jones, Arcobello, Gazdic, Joensuu. This way Hall - Hopkins - Eberle can still be your number one line with a good back up on the defense. Perron - Gagner - Yakupov for your second line, even Gagner and Yakupov can finish checks and have an edge. Smyth - Arco - Hemsky for a third line that can play both side of the puck. And for the fourth line Joensuu - Gordon - Jones/Gazdic. To me that is a very balanced roster while still having skill players together and a threat to score on every line. You can even swap Yakupov and Hemsky or really any of the right wingers.

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#31 HardBoiledOil
November 19 2013, 07:04AM
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i think one thing that bugs Oiler fans is the fact that they play Will Acton at 4th line center and didn't sign David Steckel. Steckel is a 6'5" 215 pound NHL level 4th line center who a lot of fans think is better suited for the role than Acton is.

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#32 Spydyr
November 19 2013, 07:04AM
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How are the first three lines of small skilled players working out so far?

The same goes for heavyweights that can't keep up.

What the team needs throughout the lineup is 200 foot players. Guys that can play the whole game.You know honest ,hardworking, tough and gritty players.

Right now they have three Gordon, Perron and Ference.

They just traded their fourth away for magic beans.

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#33 Gabby
November 19 2013, 07:07AM
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Maybe the only way Eakins could get Keith Acton was to guarantee a roster spot to the kid. I sure hope this is not the case. A non-factor fourth line gets a do-over. If MacT can't deliver then the least he can do is keep his mouth shut.

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#34 Spydyr
November 19 2013, 07:11AM
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Gabby wrote:

Maybe the only way Eakins could get Keith Acton was to guarantee a roster spot to the kid. I sure hope this is not the case. A non-factor fourth line gets a do-over. If MacT can't deliver then the least he can do is keep his mouth shut.

If the "braintrust" has guaranteed a roster spot to a fourth liner who just happens to be an assistant coach's son.Things are worse then I thought and that is saying a lot.

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#35 Mac962
November 19 2013, 07:28AM
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Someone please blindfold Bryz this Morning so he can't see outside. Just tell him its a freak cold/snow storm and does not usually happen here. Are Lada's good on ice ? or do they make them anymore ? lol

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#36 Benhur
November 19 2013, 07:32AM
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@Dangilitis

I believe Acton would have been an Eakins pick as he played for him in TO.

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#37 HardBoiledOil
November 19 2013, 07:36AM
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Benhur wrote:

I believe Acton would have been an Eakins pick as he played for him in TO.

yup, the same reason Eakins tried to fit AHLer Ryan Hamilton into the lineup this year.

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#38 HardBoiledOil
November 19 2013, 07:38AM
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Mac962 wrote:

Someone please blindfold Bryz this Morning so he can't see outside. Just tell him its a freak cold/snow storm and does not usually happen here. Are Lada's good on ice ? or do they make them anymore ? lol

but like a lot of people realize from what Bryz has said in the past about Edmonton, if he'd held out just a little longer for a contract, he may have gotten one from the Islanders now that Knobokov is injured, and wouldn't have to worry about the big, bad snow storm we've had the last few days, LOL.

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#39 Nimrod
November 19 2013, 07:39AM
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I think it's fine to have a zero-sum fourth line. Their main function is to give the other lines some time to rest during games. If you can have a fourth liner play on the penalty kill, that's a big bonus.

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#40 Loweblows
November 19 2013, 07:40AM
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If Eakins can't see that Arco is far and away a better player than Acton then he has no business being a coach. Acton is freakin useless and on 29 other NHL teams you would never see him on the ice..... EVER! MacT your words ring hollow.

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#41 Loweblows
November 19 2013, 07:56AM
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NOTE TO MAC T: Your 4 th line when centered by Acton is a non-factor. Please restore our faith in you and release acton.

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#42 -30-
November 19 2013, 08:00AM
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Is it just me or do all the words that are spoken by a new hire MacT, Eakins, Kruger, etc. seem full of promise and then fall spectacularly on their faces?

Eakins mantra was compete. Huh? I haven't seen much of that the first 20 games.

MacT hollers out, if you can't score we don't want you hooligans and thugs and then proceeds to hire MacIntyre.

Krueger, well, you get the rest.

Is there ever anybody that is accountable in this organization?

-30-

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#43 JJ
November 19 2013, 08:16AM
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Nina Russo wrote:

Finally a blog I can agree with. Imagine what this line could produce if the two key components were Gordon and Jones, with an every odd game of Ryan Smyth. It will take Eakins the rookie about until the Olympic break to figure he has three quality skill centres above Gordon on the depth chart before he plays a fourth line that produces jack and doesn't give up more.

But MacT is a rookie also so what can you expect? Just a guess but I think Todd Nelson or Jon Cooper would have figured that out in the preseason -- two coaches that do their diligence before the season starts.

If you think having the top 3 centers as Baby Nuge , Sammy Snowpants, And Arco is a good idea and will win you games... Then you're mistaken. They'd get slaughtered in the west, even more so than what they already are. Get either Snowpants or Arco out of Edmonton.

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#45 Andrew
November 19 2013, 08:50AM
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What kind of an organization allows a coach to bring his kid into the dressingroom. You can't tell me that kind of blatant nepotism goes unnoticed by the team. Added to that the player is mot an NHL quality player. That has messy written all over it. This Oiler management is for the birds. Eakins other move to bring one of his favourites has a guy in OKC.

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#46 pkam
November 19 2013, 08:52AM
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Although our 4th line usually looks terrible and is a non factor, the funny thing is that they are all positive in the +/- column. Will Acton is +1, Luke Gazdic is +1, Ryan Jones is +1. The other funny thing is the other 2 players who are positive in the +/- column, Ben Eager and Grebeshkov are in the minors. Not trying to prove anything, just find it really strange.

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#47 pkam
November 19 2013, 09:13AM
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pkam wrote:

Although our 4th line usually looks terrible and is a non factor, the funny thing is that they are all positive in the +/- column. Will Acton is +1, Luke Gazdic is +1, Ryan Jones is +1. The other funny thing is the other 2 players who are positive in the +/- column, Ben Eager and Grebeshkov are in the minors. Not trying to prove anything, just find it really strange.

More interesting fact is the other 2 Oilers who are 0, Lander and Pitlick, also played in the 4th line.

Really make me wonder why.

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#48 forsoothed
November 19 2013, 09:21AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Even assuming the fourth line could change momentum with big hits - something that I think happens far less in actuality than in anecdote - Eakins has said repeatedly that he won't play them when the team is down because they can't score.

You don't need to change momentum when you're nursing a lead.

This. We need a 4th line that's good enough to not be stapled to the bench the instant we get behind. They don't have to be world-beaters, just NHL-calibre players.

For example, a team that's good enough to push Jones and Smyth to the 4th line... that's a start of a decent bottom 3 forwards.

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#49 Moog's helmet
November 19 2013, 09:28AM
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@Jonathan Willis

I agree, you're right. Eakins doesn't deploy his fourth line properly. Doesn't mean heaviness in that unit isn't important. Eakins point about not using them when you're behind because the math suggests they won't score makes no sense to me because the math also suggests they're the most likely to get scored on when you're up by a goal. So what he's really saying is you only play them when you're up or down by more than two goals. Which is almost never.

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#50 loweblows
November 19 2013, 09:31AM
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@Romulus' Apotheosis

Armchair manager: Center Depth Chart- #1-RNH(no defense zone starts) #2-Arco (Gags to wing) #3-Gordon (#1 for critical draws) #4-Lander or Horak(tell both that a roster spot is available and the next 5 games in the AHL determines who will get it) and finally put Acton on waivers IMMEDIATELY. Gags 4th line center for 5 games.

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