The Edmonton Oilers new fourth line isn’t really a fourth line

Gordon, Boyd2

One of the little items that’s really been overlooked in the hue and cry over the Oilers’ (admittedly poor) centre situation is the fact that the line Edmonton plans to stick Boyd Gordon and Matt Hendricks on isn’t really the team’s fourth line.

It’s much more than that.

Craig MacTavish

Craig MacTavish6

June 17 Oilers Now interview:

I think that’s the model that we’re ultimately trying to piece together, where we’d have a fourth line that would have lots of defensive zone starts and be able to play against anybody, and then have three lines that were capable of having success offensively.

June 22 Edmonton Journal interview:

Much like Chicago’s got where they have three lines of offensive guys and a fourth line that can play against anybody. That’s what we’d really like to do. We need (Anton) Lander to step up and (Mark) Arcobello, or add a free-agent forward or two who can compete for those jobs. Maybe somebody who could come in and be a good fit with Yak (Nail Yakupov on the third line). We have the first line (Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle). If we can draft a guy at centre who can play, then we’d have that guy, Perron and Sam or some form of that.

July 1 press availability:

We’ve talked about how we want to build our team going forward. We want three offensive lines and we want a line, probably centered by Boyd Gordon, that can start much like Chicago is built, that you have another line that you can start predominantly in the defensive zone. Then you’ve got three possession lines, or three lines that you can count on for offence.

We can sum up Edmonton’s general manager thusly: ‘We want a line that can be leaned on for defensive zone starts, the kind of line Chicago has, and we plan to put Boyd Gordon at centre.’

Chicago

cHI TOI 7.23.14

The chart above shows the playoff per-game ice time for Chicago’s 12 most-used forwards. The duo that Chicago’s defensive zone unit is built on is Ben Smith and Marcus Kruger – a duo that averaged 13:00 per game at evens and better than 15:00 per game overall.

Brandon Bollig, who was spotted on the line at times, played more typical fourth line minutes, averaging 6:22 per game. But the ice time handed to Kruger and Smith more closely resembles what we’d think of as third-line time – significant minutes at evens, lots of time on the penalty kill, too.

So we can call Smith, Kruger and Bollig a fourth line, but that’s missing the point when Smith and Kruger are getting more minutes than Kris Versteeg and Michal Handzus.

Lines 1, 2, 3, 4

23-Hendricks-2

The model that MacTavish is looking to emulate doesn’t fit our typical notion of hockey – two scoring lines (Lines 1 and 2), a checking line (Line 3) and an energy line (Line 4). He’s not alone in this; increasingly around the NHL teams are deploying players in a way out of sync with how EA Sports portrays the game in its NHL series of video games. That’s at least part of the reason why so many NHL coaches get snarky when they’re asked about their third or fourth lines – the traditional view of a third or fourth line doesn’t do justice to their versions of those units.

In the Oilers’ case, if they copy the Blackhawks we’re looking at something more akin to this (lines ordered by ice time):

  • Line 1: A power-vs-power unit with significant offensive responsibilities.
  • Line 2: An offensive line that can play against good players.
  • Line 3A: A defensive specialty unit, occasionally featuring an enforcer but also spotting other players.
  • Line 3B: An offensive line that’s generally deployed in carefully selected situations.

There is no true fourth line in this scenario, because none of these lines have the ‘go bang bodies, don’t get scored on’ mentality we associate with the fourth line. All of them have a specific function that relates directly to goals for and against – the 3A line tasked with getting the puck out of the defensive zone without allowing a goal, the 3B line tasked with trying to make hay in ‘soft’ minutes.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • The Real Scuba Steve

    Fist to say I’m not shocked at all that MacT didn’t fill all the holes with the team. It will be done next year when we miss the play-offs again.

  • A-Mc

    If you look at who will likely fit on each line, they are starting to look like a real NHL team! I’m quite enthusiastic about what kind of progress the team might make this season.

  • knee deep in it

    In this situation, could we see RNH double shifted as often as possible? 1st line minutes and 3B?

    IF LD can handle the 2nd line minutes, then Arco/RNH could do the 4th line minutes depending on the game circumstances.

      • BlazingSaitls

        Would a veteran player like Saku Koivu fit in as a formidable 4th line centre with this young team ? I see big free agents like Ryan Malone,Bertuzzi & Winnik along with bangers like Tootoo and wonder what kind of 4th line could be put together on the fly in case our the 4th line turns out to be an anchor.

  • I’d argue that the “traditional 4th line” of bangers and crashers with feet for hands isn’t that traditional.

    When the NHL was 21 teams many teams, including the Oilers had a 4th line that was like the “3b” you mention above.

    The 4th line was used to break in kids into the NHL without putting them in a position to fail and not expecting too much.

    Horcoff started on the 4th, so did Hemksy. It used to be SOP. Often teams would put their “enforcer” with 2 good young players in order to keep them safe and not expose the enforcer to tougher minutes as well.

    Good teams had good 4th lines.

    Anyone who remembers the Oilers last Stanley Cup knows the 4th line was the “kid line” with Adam Graves, Joe Murphy and Martin Gelanis.

    Not a “crasher” or “banger” to be seen.

    Expanding to 30 teams diluted the talent and players starting making the NHL who had the skating ability to keep up to the play, but little else. Thus the “crash and bang” 4th line became the norm.

    Many of us have been calling for the Oilers to employ this type of line up for years and years,

    Glad to see they are finally doing it.

    It’s about bloody time.

  • justDOit

    Bang on assessment. Which means barring a new C coming in they have LD, Arco & Lander to hold down the 2C and 3B duties with Perron, Pouliot, Purcell and Yak to flank them. Not ideal, but at least they have 3 solid vets and a young guy with talent, something to prove and hopefully the sophmore jinx out of his system.

    At some point you have to find out if Arco and Lander can play in the show and now is the time. If not now, when? There was no parade planning anyway this year. If things struggle MacT has shown he can make deals in season.

  • justDOit

    The Chicago model for line composition, the Detroit model for prospect development – I hope the Oilers aren’t going to end up with the Chitroit model!

  • MacT/Eakins can’t seriously think Gazdic is a guy that can be played against any line. What does this arrangement mean for him? Should we (hopefully) expect him to dress for only like 40ish games?

    • BlazingSaitls

      The way I see this is more like.. 1st line.. power vs power.. then two offensive lines.. Line 2A and line 2B and then the third line of Gordon and Hendricks. I want Gazdic to play mostly against Calgary and Vancouver and the odd game here and there … If we dress him and he plays against the LA’s and Chicago’s that line will be in the possession toilet.

      Please play 12 NHL Forwards who can actually play the game and NOT have to make Scrivens stop 60 shots every game… I actually like the fact they are leaving that one spot open for Joensu Yak2 Kaira Pitlick Pinnazoto Lander to compete for.. this make for a competitive camp…

  • justDOit

    Willis : I noticed on side bar of hockeybuzz , they have Arcobellow listed as a RWinger . Has he actually played been effective as a RWinger ? I think he might do better/more effective as a winger than at center . Currently if we use Landers/Arco and Hopkins with Gordon down the middle the opposition is going to devise their play to physically run them like last year . Draisaitl has got to fit in and one more sizeable center for us to deflect running our centers . Surprise might be in store in Yakimov ? I like the idea and options running Arco on wing much more than at center . How might the lines look if Arco plays on the wing ?

    • Bucknuck

      When they moved Arco to the wing that was when his offence dried up. He’s strong defensively which you need in a centre. Additionally, he is strong on faceoffs and is a good setup man. He doesn’t have a great shot, so he’s better in the middle with some triggermen to dish to.

      He’s definitely a centre – a 3C on a deep team, but I think he will surprise if he gets a shot.

      • The more I think about Arco at center the more I am thinking give him a shot. Desharnais on the Habs is about the same size as Arco and has a similar career path. He’s wins more faceoff’s than he looses and he hits at around the same amount as Hendricks. This really may be a case of it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.

        If MacT can’t pull off a trade before Camp he may have no choice. The numbers he put up when he went back to the Ahl were great.. he may be ready…we wait..

    • Arcobello played a fair bit of right wing during the lockout season in the AHL, and he played some in the NHL last year (he was at Gordon’s wing for a while, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he gets spot duty there, particularly since he’s a RH faceoff man for that line).

      Personally, I like him better at centre because that’s where the need is – small or not, he was a solid player last year and he has a clue in his own end.

  • BlazingSaitls

    Nobody is talking goaltending. Scrivens looked horrible in the final game of the world championships. He faced pressure and dropped the ball. Easy to play well when you are on a non playoff team no pressure.

    • BlazingSaitls

      That’s the problem with these tournaments…If the goalie plays one bad game their team is done. I thought he actually had a good tournament. Unfortunately he never got us the win. I am confident he will have a good year based on the upgrades on D. There is a lot of pressure though as we will need him to be Varlamov good in order for us to get to the playoffs. A 928% save percentage would get us there AND make Eakins look like a genius…

      • Spydyr

        2nd string Goalies have little pressure , just look at Lack when Lou left.

        I’m not saying he can’t be a #1 goalie but he yet to prove it. Fans and sport writers make it sound like it is a given.

        • Some maybe, but I think the general consensus is basically what MacTavish said earlier this offseason – he’s looked good enough in net at the NHL level to give him more minutes, even if he isn’t a sure thing.

          I don’t buy the ‘pressure’ angle. Goalies are always the last line of defence; there is always pressure. Not only that, but Scrivens really comes across as a sensible guy anyway; he’s not likely to get stage fright just because he has a shot at a No. 1 job.

          Even if I was making a case against him, I wouldn’t lead with ‘he was bad in this one world championships game.’

  • PimKing

    Really think all this team needs is 2 things: Stay healthy for once, and when injuries do hit, the leadership really needs to step up and keep the team responsible at all times. Always seems like the air comes out of the sails when a significant injury hits this team and no one wants to find it again. Rudderless. And secondly, no more skating away after the whistle. Not drop the mits and fight, just don’t back down, take a shot or 2. Have some courage. It’ll turn into goals. Time to kick the bully’s ass.

  • Jonathan. I think you are kidding yourself if you think the Gordon-Hendricks-fill-in the blank is better than a 4th line, it certainly isn’t better on a competing NHL team in the Pacific Division.

    You have quoted MacT, who isn’t always consistent in what he states. If he is looking for a scoring 3rd line, this isn’t it.

    We’re back to the BIG problem at C. As noted by others, RNH and possibly Arco will have to double over three lines. Forget Lander. And Draisatl should go back to the WHL.

    If either RNH or Arco get injured, what happens? We saw what transpired when Hall was switched to C at the beginning of last season, a disaster.

      • nuge2drai

        Oiler Domination To Follow

        Oilers will pick up another Center before the season starts for this reason.

        Iif he doesn’t we can book McDavid. The silver fox knows we need another Center.

        I feel bad for Yaks if they don’t bring in an established Center for him to play with.

    • I’ve quoted MacTavish from three different interviews – consistently saying the same thing.

      As for whether Gordon/Hendricks are better than your typical fourth line or not, that wasn’t the point of this piece. They’re going to be used in a specialized way; the idea was to highlight exactly what that means.

      • Joy S. Lee

        Personally, I think Gordon-Hendricks and take your pick… are a real solid 4th line. They were playing 2nd line at times last year, how much better do you think they’ll fit in their proper roles, with appropriate linemates?

        Gordon wins faceoffs, and Hendricks is a treat. I would suggest he IS an “energy” guy, because he brings it up every time he’s on the ice. Sounds like Pitlick wants to hit everything in sight this year, which would make him a perfect fit for this unit, too. And as some have suggested, Gazdic for the Flames and Canucks games, etc.

        This is a good turn of events, not a negative one.

  • ubermiguel

    The Rangers are apparentlty making Brassard availalble. He’s probably more of a 3C but he looked pretty good in the playoffs. What would he cost and do we want him?

  • The Last Big Bear

    if mac t doesnt make a splash we are litterally one center position away from finishing in the basement… but also think about how nice it would be to get mcdavid then we would have 3 dominant centers. but I dont think i want another horrible year

    • Reg Dunlop

      You’ll have to help me here. 3 dominant centers with the addition of McDavid? First off, the league will not allow ‘the next one’ to be drafted by a NHL team that doesn’t need him. He will be drafted by an American team. Secondly, ‘3 dominant centers? On the oil? We have 1 generic NHL center in Gordon, one potential future NHL center in Nuge, 1 draft pick who can’t skate at a NHL level and an assortment of AHL centers. The big splash or basement part makes too much sense however.

  • The Last Big Bear

    I can’t help but notice that Boyd Gordon has a bigger cap hit than that entire Chicago line put together.

    Hendricks also made the same as Kreuger and Smith combined.

    Having Joensuu or Gazdic on the other wing pretty much defeats the entire purpose of the line, if you want a unit to compete against the top offensive lines in the NHL.

    Pouliot is really the Oiler’s best candidate for that spot.

    That would give the Oilers a grind line with a cap hit around $9m.

    That’s not the end of the world, but it’s fairly ugly from a cap management point of view, and is a very different beast from what Chicago has had.

    • You don’t want to waste a guy with Pouliot’s 5v5 offensive chops on a line that’s always starting 200 feet from the opposition net – though you could alternate Pouliot or Perron or Purcell on that unit and swap in whoever once they clear the DZ.

      But the Gordon line isn’t going to consistently see the top offensive lines – Hall and co. are still going to get the tough matchups personnel-wise. Gordon and co. are going to see a mix of opponents, with the common factor being that their shifts start in the Oilers’ end.

      • The Last Big Bear

        Pouliot’s pretty modest boxcars suggest to me that his 5v5/60 production might not be telling the whole story.

        I’m convinced of his defensive chops, but he has a distinct lack of actual goals for someone who is such an offensive threat that they shouldn’t be wasted on a shut-down line.

        I’d say Perron falls into that category, though.

        • There’s a big gap between even-strength scoring and power play scoring.

          Benoit Pouliot has 43 EV goals over the last four seasons (Perron, btw, has 47). That’s 131st in the NHL (2nd line country, given that there are 90 1st line forward in the NHL). Not bad at all, given he’s mostly played third line minutes. He can score at evens.

          Now, because he a) doesn’t get primo ice time and b) doesn’t score much on the power play (last season excepted) he has modest boxcars. That doesn’t mean you stick him on the Malhotra line at evens.

          • Chainsawz

            Pouliot has played 267 games versus Perrons 187 during that span. Nice try but they aren’t comparable offensively.

            Better dig a little deeper in your bag of stats to back up saying Pouliots “offensive chops” are wasted on a DZ line. I think they are made for it and he would excel in that role. Not ideal cap wise however.

          • Chainsawz

            Oh, another hole in your post here, sorry….

            If you think Pouliot being ranked 131 in the NHL in EV goals over 4 seasons puts him in 2nd line territory would you say he has better offensive acumen than, and this just two examples as there are more, Palat or Johnson out of Tampa?

            Lots of players have broken in that are just getting started their careers these last couple seasons that would push Pouliot even further down your rank.

          • Spydyr

            Stop poking holes in Willis’ argument. We only have a couple weeks left to praise everyone. Once the season starts it won’t be long until we can hate everyone again

          • BobbyCanuck

            Pffft, I am way ahead of the curve!

            I plan on hating Eberle and J. Schultz this year. I wish Eberle would D-up every now and then, and I wish J would hit someone every now and then.

            And Eakins, just because I do not want to feel left out, and I hate is first name, even more so now that they have Horcoff and Hemsky.

            Has anyone else already decided whom to hate?

          • I used even-strength goals in particular because I felt like replying quickly to someone who clearly doesn’t believe in rate stats.

            Now, for me, rate stats are the obvious number to use – how much a guy scores on any given shift.

            Pouliot ranked 119th among NHL forwards at evens last year in points per hour. He was 21st the year before that, 64th the year before that, 57th the year before that and 102nd the year before that.

            He has a long and productive track record as a good even-strength scorer. I honestly don’t understand how someone with two functioning brain cells looks at his history and decides, ‘nah, this guy can’t score at evens.’

          • Chainsawz

            You believe in rate stats hey? The very stat that would say Pouliot was a better offensive option than Ovechkin last season 5vs5? The same stat that had stats guy favorite whipping boy Jordan Eberle near the very top in 11/12? The same stat that would suggest last season Acton would be a better option than Nugent-Hopkins for offense?

            I think there may be some value to the stat but to label a guy a second line player because he’s in the middle of the pack of this stat is a reach. You can reach and twist all you want but the guy hasn’t broken 40 points 9 kicks at the can, granted he would have been close if not over during the lockout season, and is a lock on the bottom 6 with heavy DZ starts if the Oilers want success.

            All the obscure stats you can throw at the wall on this guy won’t change his spots.

  • nuge2drai

    I doubt MacT. wants to go into the season without another top 1-2 center and have to rely upon Arco or Landers . Why would he want to go this far and trivialize what he has done to date ? It’s coming before season starts , we just don’t know who yet .

  • I love these blogs — 3a and 3b, “checking” an “energy” — more like 4a and 4b, big slow plumbers and more big slow plumbers. Any other sport they would be relegated to the teams who can’t meet the payroll any other way. Any quality team, and these bottom six wouldn’t see the light of day.

    Those positions with limited minutes should be used to develop the young up and coming prospects, instead of throwing a player like Hall and Nuge into first line minutes where they struggle to compete and then cheat to rely on their strengths rather than developing their weaknesses. And then the scribes harp on a player like Yakupov because he can’t handle the learning curve (as if Hall — hurt his first two seasons, Nuge, ditto, Ebs as well, handled it any better).

    Time to develop good players at the top level, not hope they learn what they need to be effective at the top level against players who have never played there and likely will never play there. Call a spade a spade, Gordon and company, are FOURTH liners, a younger version of Belanger is still a Belanger not a Horcoff; they will never score, they will only cover up the mistakes of the under-developed top six via their penalty killing and defensive zone starts, giving those same under-developed top six the time to rest and recover.

    Two years ago Belanger wasn’t good enough for this team because he provided no offence, now we want two lines of Belangers. I hope Pouliot and Purcell prove otherwise … but I seem to remember a lot of local scribes be crying the loss of Clarckson a year ago, now it’s Toronto who are praying they don’t have to buy that contract out.

    My point, call them for what they are — fourth liners (on a good team, one which we aspire to be) — not what you hope they will be, or how they will be used on this team.

  • Nina Russo wrote:

    I love these blogs — 3a and 3b, “checking” an “energy” — more like 4a and 4b, big slow plumbers and more big slow plumbers. Any other sport they would be relegated to the teams who can’t meet the payroll any other way. Any quality team, and these bottom six wouldn’t see the light of day.

    Benoit Pouliot’s probably going to be on the wing of one of these lines – and he played the exact same role for the Bruins and last year’s Eastern champs. Nail Yakupov’s probably on the other side; you might think he’s a “big slow plumber” but I don’t. Boyd Gordon played 17:49(!) per night in the playoffs for the 2011-12 Coyotes, who went to the Western Final. Matt Hendricks played more than 16:00 per game for Washington the same year.

    I don’t think much of Gazdic and the centre of the other line is a big question mark, but IMO you’re way off here.

    Time to develop good players at the top level, not hope they learn what they need to be effective at the top level against players who have never played there and likely will never play there.

    Yeah, developing guys at the top level worked great with Paajarvi, Lander and Gagner.

    Two years ago Belanger wasn’t good enough for this team because he provided no offence, now we want two lines of Belangers.

    I have no idea how you figure anything above is ‘please, let’s have two lines of Belangers!’ One of the big pluses of a DZ specialty unit is not wasting one of the bottom-six units on a line that can’t score.

    I hope Pouliot and Purcell prove otherwise … but I seem to remember a lot of local scribes be crying the loss of Clarckson a year ago, now it’s Toronto who are praying they don’t have to buy that contract out.

    Since I’m the guy whose column you’re responding too, I think it’s only fair that I respond with what I wrote a couple of days after Clarkson signed with Toronto.

    My point, call them for what they are — fourth liners (on a good team, one which we aspire to be) — not what you hope they will be, or how they will be used on this team.

    The point here had nothing to do with the players’ skill level, but with the way a DZ specialty unit is employed. By time on ice, it’s not a true fourth line unit because those aren’t the minutes it plays.

    • Chongler

      “Since I’m the guy whose column you’re responding too, I think it’s only fair that I respond with what I wrote a couple of days after Clarkson signed with Toronto.”

      Well played sir! I like your style.

  • DonEnrico

    I just wish we had this plan before, Imagine how Lander,Paajarvi,Hartikanen,etc. could have developed on a 3b line. It’s great we have one now. At least Roy,Khaira,Chase,Yakimov,pitlick,and Moroz won’t have to be rushed in like they were. 3A and B lines are a way better route than playing a youngster on a checking line with Belanger and Eager and expecting them to produce than sending them to the press box for the whole season when he could have been working with Nelson name the boys to polish his game.

  • Jason Gregor

    JW,

    The theory makes sense and MacT has made it clear he wants a 4th line that can play tough minutes, however, there is one glaring difference between Gordon/Hendricks and Kruger/Smith.

    Offence.

    Kruger and Smith combined for 22 goals and 54 points last year.

    Gordon/Hendricks had 13 goals and 31 points.

    I agree with how Eakins will use them, but unless they produce more, which is unlikely based on career production, I wonder if he will use them less than Kruger/Smith.

    It also illustrates the difference between a Cup contender and bottom teams. Even their 4th lines are better. Ideally I think Anton Lander might be the guy who is closest to Kruger within the organization. When Draisaitl and RNH are experienced I think he is the best chance, currently, to fill that role of tough minutes, who can produce. But finding Smith will be the hard part. I think he will see more offensive minutes moving forward.

  • BobbyCanuck

    Nina:
    Learn the game.
    The fact that you reject this model means you do not believe
    BOS, CHI, LAK ar running poor systems and caopying them is silly.

    1. The best Production from top 9.

    1st line/2nd line forwards last 2 years
    after July UFA
    COL 5 1st/3 2nd
    CHI 5/ 2
    EDM 5/2
    these are the 3 best in the league. (Perron; Purcell / Pouliot)

    2. keeping shots to the low % areas. for reach level of comp
    LAK had 5 of the 20 BEST.
    That resulted in 5 of the 10 best EVGA/60
    Martinez;
    Greene;
    MITCHELL;
    Voynov;
    Muzzin
    See boston for this.

    Since June 13 Mact has added 5 with a strong history for there comp.
    Ference top 20 box protection 1st/2nd comp
    Marincin top 3 box protect top 10 EVGA/60 1st comp.
    Nikitin #1 2nd comp EVGA
    Fayne #2 2nd comp EVGA/60
    Aulie top 20 box protection.

    3. Get a strong Save% goalie inside 25ft (box/chance area)
    1. Bishop
    2. Lundquist
    3. Reimer
    4. Scrivens
    5. Rask
    7. Quick

    4. Strong FO% forwards with great tough zone start history.
    LW/C Hendricks; C Gordon;
    Pouliot and Purcell paired asvery successful 2nd unit tough Zone start in tampa.

    All the projections for Failure.
    Why?
    Most of you are basing it on a team that is not here!

    We retained Hall; Eberle; RNH; YAk; Petry; J. schultz.

    we will have added 17 of 23 positions in 13 months,
    Perron-Arco-Purcell; Pouliot-3C-XXX; Hendricks-Gordon-4RW;
    Ference-XXX; Nikitin-Fayne; Marincin-XXX; Aulie; Scrivens; Fath.

    McDavid?

    Talk about no clue!

    Chainsaw; points last 2 years Purcell 1st line and pouliot 2nd line adds to what is now one of the best depths in the west.

    Alot male cattle pooh!