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, 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 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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#3 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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#4 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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#6 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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#7 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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#9 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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#10 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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#11 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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#12 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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#13 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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#14 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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#15 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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#16 Manfly
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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#17 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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#18 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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#19 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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#20 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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#21 Manfly
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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#22 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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#24 Tikkanese
November 19 2013, 10:22AM
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I have no problems with Gazdic. How many goals against has he been on the ice for? 1? You can quote shot differentials all you want but the goals against stat is all that truly matters in the end. I'm not calling him a defensive guru by any stretch but he's hardly a problem out there. We can argue all day on the merits of how a fight changes momentum or not. But I won't. Gazdic however is one of the very few players playing with heart. I don't think anyone would argue against that or that the Oilers need more of those.

However, Napolean Dynamite, I mean Will Acton is a useless "non-factor". The problem is we have no one to replace him at this time. Lander, many are arguing should be playing instead. I seem to recall everyone and their dog saying Lander needed another season in the AHL. They should have signed another Boyd Gordon, not Acton.

Gazdic, Gordon, Arcobello and Perron are about our only bright spots this season.

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#25 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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#26 -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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#27 Lochenzo
November 19 2013, 09:50AM
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Steckel is slower than I am on the ice and I'm a pseudo-alcoholic.

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#28 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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#29 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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#30 Mike
November 19 2013, 12:03AM
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The Oilers have absolutely no depth!

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#31 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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#32 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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#33 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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#34 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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#35 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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#36 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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#37 cabaj
November 19 2013, 09:33AM
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I'd like to see at least one game where they abandon the current approach and ice a 4th line with gordon centering some combination of jones, smyth, and joenssu. With Arco, Gags, RNH centering the top 3 lines.

That would hopefully allow them to play 4th liners that have some hope of maintening a cycle/scoring threat near 10 min/game, with Gordon getting extra minutes for faceoffs and pk.

Yea right though... Heaven forbid we play a game without someone who's best skill is taking a punch to the face.

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#38 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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#39 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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#40 lmao
November 19 2013, 09:32AM
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Manfly wrote:

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.

The Oil would never sign Steckel. He actually wins fights once in a while, and is not related to any of the coaches or dating, and recently dumped by, the niece of six rings sorry Taylor). There is no NEPOTISTIC reason to sign him.

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#41 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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#42 Ed in Edmonton
November 19 2013, 10:34AM
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camdog wrote:

At the beginning of the season Eakins said he didn't want role players killing penalty minutes. It was his belief that this teams elite talent would need to learn the penalty kill.

I think Eakins underestimated the difficulty in PK in the NHL. Just playing talented players on the PK may work in the AHL where the skill differential may make up for lack of PK technique, not so much in the NHL.

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#43 GriffCity
November 19 2013, 10:44AM
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Joensuu should be playing on the fourth line, I like Gazdic for his grit and the fact that he finishes checks but he is poor on the puck at the nhl level and i cringe when he goes to make a pass. Acton should not be in the nhl and on any other respectable team he wouldn't be. I can respect the fact that he has been trying to play a big mans game but his slender build and general lack of skill are evident to anyone paying attention. I was happy to see him score when he did but he needs to be replaced on the fourth line if the Oilers hope to achieve anything there. My opinion the centres would be Nuge, Gags, Arco, Gordon. I dont love these choices as most are undersized and without speed but such is the state of the Oilers and the more Acton plays the worse the 4th line becomes.

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#44 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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#45 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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#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 Ratbastid
November 19 2013, 10:00AM
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Let me be creative here and suggest that Daryl Katz gets some cohones, and fire the asses of Lowe and McTavish, rapido. Then Mr. Rexall can get a couple of guys who don't think that since they have been in a few Stanley cup appearances that they have the market cornered on knowing how to win and in their complete arrogance are blind to the fact that the team smells like a can of bad meat. Maybe a new GM will then look at Dallas Eakins and realize the guy is trying to work with 75% of players who are at best, AHL calibre, and wonder why he isnt saying anything about the situation. Then there's reason to send him packing since his judgement seems to be questionable. It just seems like its time to go back to the drawing board, doesn't it?

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#50 camdog
November 19 2013, 10:33AM
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Manfly wrote:

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.

If Steckel was on this team he would be the worst player on the team. The only thing he is good at is winning face offs. His hockey IQ is among the worst in the league and he can't keep up with the play. Absolute horrible hockey player!

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