We don’t know the precise makeup of Edmonton’s “fourth” line for this coming year, but it’s a fair bet that the duo of Matt Hendricks and Mark Letestu will form its heart. It’s also a fair bet that these two veterans will be putting in appearances in a lot of high-value defensive situations.
The New Fourth Line
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.
– Craig MacTavish, July 1, 2014
Gordon’s gone and MacTavish’s business cards no longer say “general manager” but the basic line of thought expressed above reflects a real shift in the way teams build their rosters across the league. Increasingly, the stereotype of a third line with a primarily defensive focus and a fourth line built around energy players has given way to 3A and 3B lines, one built on outscoring opposition depth and the other built on being able to take on any defensive situation.
That defence-focused line looks like it will be back again this year, and like it will be built on the duo of Hendricks and Letestu. We don’t know who the third member of that line will be, and it’s entirely possible we’ll see a rotation which features Lauri Korpikoski, Rob Klinkhammer, Luke Gazdic and others, but the first two players are going to be the heart of it, even as Hendricks and Gordon were a year ago.
The penalty kill. There really isn’t any serious question as to which forwards will be Todd McLellan’s go-to-option while shorthanded. Letestu led all Blue Jackets forwards in TOI/game last year (2:41/game) while Hendricks was second to Gordon among Oilers (2:10/game). Both are smart, veteran forwards with plenty of experience in the role, and it only makes sense that they would work as a duo here.
Defensive zone starts. Hendricks is a reasonably strong, left-shooting faceoff option and Letestu is a very strong, right-shooting option. This gives the Oilers a good option on either side of the goaltender. McLellan isn’t as tied to having a specific defensive zone unit as someone like Alain Vigneault or Joel Quenneville (or Dallas Eakins) but it’s a fair bet that for crucial faceoffs in Edmonton’s end we’ll see Hendricks and Letestu more often than other lines.
The shift after the power play. No matter how good the power play, failure is a more regular occurrence than success. The shift immediately following a failed power play is a dangerous time for the team losing its manpower advantage. As a rule, that team’s stars are tired and the opposition’s stars are chomping at the bit, so it’s one of those rare occasions where the opposition coach consistently has a favourable matchup regardless of the arena the game is played in. Hendricks won’t be on the power play and Letestu probably won’t get much time there, so this is a set line that McLellan will have at his disposal and will likely deploy in these situations.
Some nights, particularly nights where the Oilers have the lead or there is a lot of special teams play, Hendricks and Letestu are going to be the heart of Edmonton’s third line. On other nights, particularly nights where Edmonton is trailing early, they’ll likely settle into a fourth-line role. Both are liable to see moments where they are double-shifted as faceoff insurance, and Letestu’s varied skill set means he may see some time on offensive lines on nights where McLellan wants to shorten his bench. Mostly, though, they’ll likely be playing together and in situations where the coach just wants someone reliable to put out fires or prevent them from starting in the first place.