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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#51 camdog
November 19 2013, 10:49AM
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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.

Few teams plays their 4th line when they are down, because 4th liners generally don't score goals. If they score goals they generally are third liners.

When Eakins came here he said he expects his elite talented forwards to play 22 minutes a night, winning or losing. The message that Eakins would have translated to Mact is that the 4th liners are expected to play 2-5 minutes a night, which at most is roughly 5-8% of forward minutes.

Good teams play young draft picks at 4th line (ex Pitlick, we don't have enough Pitlick's)and generally try and develop crash and bang forwards into solid third liners. Good teams don't need to sign 4th liners. The reality is that in the cap world, nobody invests significant cap space into 4th liners. With all of the money being spent on our top 9 forwards we just don't have the resources to expect more from our 4th liners. We need to draft better if want to expect more from our 4th line guys.

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#52 Top Cheddar
November 19 2013, 11:01AM
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JW,

Does Acton have a one way contract? Is this hampering both Eakins and MacT's abilities to experiment and try other guys like Horak, Lander, etc at that fourth line center role?

Just curious...

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#53 The Swarm
November 19 2013, 04:40PM
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Pitlick was the only effective 4th liner until he got hurt. They need more guys like him - fast and willing to bang with at least a reasonable chance to score. Putting Gazdic with two bigger speedsters would be ideal - similiar to Soritini, Glenncross, and Brodziak.

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#54 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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#55 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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#56 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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#57 Oier Al
November 19 2013, 10:24AM
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Not saying that Acton is an NHL player [ on a decent team ], but goodness, Gadzic,and Joensuu are 10 x worse. These two can barely carry the puck up the ice. Further more Gadzic is a terrible fighter for what its worth. Puts no fear onto the opposition.

Hundred of players kicking around beyond the 4 round draft picks, and this is all MacT can come up with. Why is Abney wasting a roster space at OKC..

There is almost zero toughness on this team...and plesase dont bring up SMid, he wasnt toough.. was a bearhugger, and a pylon shot blogger who couln't sakte, pass, or handle the puck.He was only tough when the whistle blew.

Eager, should have been an ideal 4 th liner, great skater for the forecheck, size, could move the puck a bit... but problem is his hockey IQ is that of a lizzard.

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#58 Romulus' Apotheosis
November 19 2013, 11:18AM
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camdog wrote:

I think all of the plans went a-wall when Mact couldn't move Hemsky. That 5 million cap hit could be used for more depth on the roster.

I'm not convinced that is the case for a couple of reasons.

MacT tried to spend in free agency with Clarkson and didn't get the player. Hemsky didn't prevent that move or any other. If he landed some big contract, he could have traded Hemsky for peanuts or bought him out.

Hemsky, the player and the contract, isn't hurting this team.

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#59 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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#60 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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#61 oilerjed
November 19 2013, 10:49AM
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-30- wrote:

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-

IMO the first 5-10 games, while not showing results showed tons of compete. It wasnt until the goalies sh&t the bed a couple of times each and injuries piled up that the air went out of the tires. Hopefully now that we are getting healthy again an dubbie and Bryz play well we will once again see a team that will show up and compete. Not saying they didnt have changes that need to be made, just saying that lost some mojo for a couple of weeks when every other shot ended up in the net.

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#62 camdog
November 19 2013, 10:59AM
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@Romulus' Apotheosis

I think all of the plans went a-wall when Mact couldn't move Hemsky. That 5 million cap hit could be used for more depth on the roster.

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#63 pkam
November 19 2013, 11:29AM
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Johnnydapunk wrote:

They are only on the ice for 6 mins a game give or take, usually in situations that are "lower risk" whereas other players are on when the the other teams chance to score is higher, like the penalty kill or the last 10 mins when Eakins decides to pull the goalie for example.

Assume our 4th line is on the ice for 6 minutes a game playing against other teams' 4th line, if they can finish their 6 minutes without minus, can we argue that they are at least on par with other teams' 4th line?

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#64 cabaj
November 19 2013, 11:55AM
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Spoils wrote:

I want to like that C order but you end up with a lot of shuffling trying to use Gordon to take key draws.

He's already shuffled to the max. The only thing that's different is that acton gets pushed out by arco, and gazdic by another winger.

Hell play gordon as 2/3C and use arco on a scoring 4th line with omark and joensu. Why they won't experiment with something like this given their record is beyond me.

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#65 LoweBlow
November 19 2013, 12:30PM
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All elite teams have 4th lines with speed, reasonable size (not giants) and serviceable offensive ability combined with grit. The best examples I've seen in the past couple years were last year's finalists.

BOS Peverly - Kelly - Paille

CHI Stalberg - Kruger - Frolik

This is what it takes to win. Perpetual winners like Chi, SJ, Det, Bos all have serviceable 4th lines that can be dependable for 10 minutes a game.

Don't fool yourself Eakins. You need NHL players on that 4th line.

They should be:

Hall - Nuge - Ebs Perron - Gags - Yakupov Smyth - Arco - Hemsky Joensuu - Gordon - Omark McIntyre

McIntyre can sit on the bench and punch faces as required. He probably won't be needed.

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#66 mrBacon
November 19 2013, 01:40PM
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The only thing ill say is that good teams make 4th lines look better. Edmonton has had plenty of players who have effectively played 4th line roles on good teams (Colin Fraser has 2 cups people) but they can't seem to cut it in Edmonton. What are they doing wrong? More importantly what is Edmonton as an organization doing wrong? How long do you give players to adjust to a new system before you start handing out blame?

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#67 Rama Lama
November 19 2013, 02:03PM
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If you play five minutes a game exactly how are you supposed to be a factor? Eakins has put these guys in a no-win situation, if they make the hit, perhaps they give up an odd-man rush? If they try and be a threat to score, well they are not doing their job physically.

It's Eakins job to manage lines, line combinations, playing time, to ensure that every line can contribute based on their job description. They only guys not getting punished with ice time are the first two lines.

Accountability is a hollow word when Eakins uses it!!

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#68 David. Ross
November 19 2013, 03:49PM
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There is more drama in the oilers management, than Rob Ford and toronto s city council!

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#69 Hairpiece
November 19 2013, 05:20PM
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Really - arguing the 4th line? Take a break!

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#70 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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#71 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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#72 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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#73 pkam
November 19 2013, 09:44AM
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cabaj wrote:

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.

I believe we did that vs the Dallas.

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#74 camdog
November 19 2013, 10:27AM
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@Romulus' Apotheosis

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.

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#75 Johnnydapunk
November 19 2013, 10:30AM
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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.

They are only on the ice for 6 mins a game give or take, usually in situations that are "lower risk" whereas other players are on when the the other teams chance to score is higher, like the penalty kill or the last 10 mins when Eakins decides to pull the goalie for example.

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#76 Romulus' Apotheosis
November 19 2013, 10:35AM
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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.

IIRC correctly, he wasn't quite so definitive about it.

At any rate, the numbers show he's using "role players" on the PK.

TOI PK leaders per game:

Gordon 3:03

Acton 2:06

Eberle 1:49

Smyth 1:41

Arco 1:35

Gagner 1:04

Eberle and Gagner are the only ones on here we wouldn't consider "role players"

he used Hemsky early but stopped when it wasn't working.

Whether the skill players (I'm not sure about these distinctions but so be it) or role players ought to be on the PK is a different matter.

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#77 Spoils
November 19 2013, 11:01AM
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@cabaj

I want to like that C order but you end up with a lot of shuffling trying to use Gordon to take key draws.

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#78 Pucker
November 19 2013, 01:04PM
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When they're down, teams shorten the bench. 4th liners are not included in shortened benches. Their ice time should be taken up by the 1st and 2nd lines.

If a team is as soft as the Oilers, it's probably wise to have bangers wherever you can put them. They shouldn't have to fight (particularly the staged fights) but they should have the ability to be physical. The goal would be to throw some hits, don't get scored on and pop a few over the season. When Larouque was doing his cycle, he wasn't generating any offense but he was making the bad guys work - and everybody likes to see that.

If you have the ability to use it as a developmental line, then your team has more depth and ability than the Oilers at his point.

I think the Ferrence fight did help the Oilers attitude. It would be nice to see more of that.

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#79 Pucker
November 19 2013, 01:05PM
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When they're down, teams shorten the bench. 4th liners are not included in shortened benches. Their ice time should be taken up by the 1st and 2nd lines.

If a team is as soft as the Oilers, it's probably wise to have bangers wherever you can put them. They shouldn't have to fight (particularly the staged fights) but they should have the ability to be physical. The goal would be to throw some hits, don't get scored on and pop a few over the season. When Larouque was doing his cycle, he wasn't generating any offense but he was making the bad guys work - and everybody likes to see that.

If you have the ability to use it as a developmental line, then your team has more depth and ability than the Oilers at his point.

I think the Ferrence fight did help the Oilers attitude. It would be nice to see more of that.

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#80 Pucker
November 19 2013, 01:05PM
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When they're down, teams shorten the bench. 4th liners are not included in shortened benches. Their ice time should be taken up by the 1st and 2nd lines.

If a team is as soft as the Oilers, it's probably wise to have bangers wherever you can put them. They shouldn't have to fight (particularly the staged fights) but they should have the ability to be physical. The goal would be to throw some hits, don't get scored on and pop a few over the season. When Larouque was doing his cycle, he wasn't generating any offense but he was making the bad guys work - and everybody likes to see that.

If you have the ability to use it as a developmental line, then your team has more depth and ability than the Oilers at his point.

I think the Ferrence fight did help the Oilers attitude. It would be nice to see more of that.

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#81 hammers
November 19 2013, 04:41PM
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problem is gags still hasn't proven his a #2 center . he should be on the wing and let arco have a go. rnh / hall /gags ; arco / perron /yak ; gordon / hemsky / smyth ; anyone but acton so lander joensuu ,gazdic or jones

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#82 **
November 19 2013, 06:35PM
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lmao wrote:

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.

I have been pulling my hair all season For many other reasons too) trying to understand why Steckel didn't come here. HE can do much, much better than Acton, and he is much, much bigger than any other Oiler forward. I think he is actually 6'6.

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#83 camdog
November 19 2013, 11:45AM
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Romulus' Apotheosis wrote:

I'm not convinced that is the case for a couple of reasons.

MacT tried to spend in free agency with Clarkson and didn't get the player. Hemsky didn't prevent that move or any other. If he landed some big contract, he could have traded Hemsky for peanuts or bought him out.

Hemsky, the player and the contract, isn't hurting this team.

I agree that Hemsky is not hurting this team. However in the off season Mac-t did try and trade Hemsky for those depth players you were inquiring about in an earlier post. That was the plan however no other teams bit.

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#84 hammers
November 19 2013, 04:44PM
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forgot i traded ebs for a #2 'd'.

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#85 Pucker
November 19 2013, 05:40PM
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Hairpiece wrote:

Really - arguing the 4th line? Take a break!

It's a Jonathon pet peeve

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#86 JR
November 19 2013, 06:11PM
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whoa whoa. Anyone notice the guy behind eakins with a load of ketchup on his onion rings? terrible..

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#87 Rdubb
November 20 2013, 06:40AM
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All those who are huge #64 fans, this is why he should be on the forth line other than on the PP, this comes straight from "player notes" on yahoo fantasy hockey - "Yakupov had another pathetic effort in another loss, 3-0 to Dallas." Now, this comes from people who have zero invested in Yakupov, cheering for him or hoping that he turns his head around & pulls it out of his rear-end and finally starts to listen to the coaches on how to play and play THEIR system...

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