Dallas Eakins and the Edmonton Oilers’ fourth line

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.

  • HardBoiledOil 1.0

    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.

  • pkam

    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.

    • Johnnydapunk

      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.

      • pkam

        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?

  • cabaj

    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.

  • **

    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?

  • Tikkanese

    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.

  • mrBacon

    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.

  • mrBacon

    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.

  • Connor Snipes

    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…

  • Admiral Ackbar

    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.

  • Admiral Ackbar

    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.

  • Admiral Ackbar

    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.

  • Admiral Ackbar

    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.

  • mrBacon

    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?

  • mrBacon

    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!!

  • mrBacon

    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.

  • mrBacon

    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

  • Rdubb

    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…