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 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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#52 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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#53 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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#54 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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#55 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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#56 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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#57 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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#58 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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#59 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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#60 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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#61 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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#62 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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#63 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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#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 **
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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#66 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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#67 OilDieHard
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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#68 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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#69 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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#70 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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#71 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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#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 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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#74 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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#75 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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#76 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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#77 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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#78 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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#79 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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#80 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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#81 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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#82 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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#83 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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#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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