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.