The NHL has evolved into a four-line game.
Where as in previous generations of the sport, three lines of specialty forwards could be run with success, today's game often times calls for teams to develop and field a strong fourth-line.
If you look at Edmonton Oilers Head Coach Dallas Eakins and the systems he likes to run, his philosophy is to play his best players on special teams. Running the talented top forwards in not only five-on-five situations but also on the power play or penalty kill can wear out even the best players in the world. Especially in penalty-riddled games.
That is where having contributions from the fourth line draws even more importance.
The Oilers have arguably been on the hunt for an effective fourth-line since 2007-2008 when Kyle Brodziak centred Curtis Glencross and Zack Stortini. Glencross scored nine goals in 26 games that season after being traded to the Oilers in February. Those three developed chemistry and played well in that role and were a big part of a late season surge and playoff push that fell just short.
It was also a line which provided the physical toughness that the NHL fourth-line is known for, while chipping in offensively as well.
"A hard-nosed, tough game," said Oilers forward Mike Brown who is currently slated on the fourth-line with Luke Gazdic and Will Acton. "Kind of like a simple, tough game where we've got to get pucks to the net. Not creating any turnovers but get the puck in the zone and get after the defence. Big hits and any chance you get, finish checks and just get the puck to the net, drive the net and just cause that havoc."
Head Coach Dallas Eakins is the kind of bench boss that rewards strong play with more minutes. If a line is buzzing on the ice and creating energy and scoring chances, it doesn't matter what line it is, they are going to play. He admitted after Tuesday's season opening loss to Winnipeg that he should have tried to play the line of Gazdic, Acton and Brown a little more.
"I thought they had limited minutes but they certainly made a stir every time they came on the ice," said Eakins as he reflected on his fourth-line's play. "They got that goal for us, they were good on the fore-check, they flexed their muscles a little bit when things were starting to go a little awry out there. I was happy with that group.
"That was probably my second mistake. Not getting them on the ice a little bit more."
The Oilers have been searching for a strong fourth line to compliment the highly skilled forwards at the top of their depth chart. Is that search over?
"I think we can all skate," Brown said. "We can all handle the puck, we can all play physical and when you get a line like that… that can be reliable in the defensive zone too and get pucks out and make smart plays, that's what you need on the fourth-line.
"We're not going to have big minutes but when we do go out there we've got to create that energy. That's what we're going to bring."
The centre on that fourth-line added to Browns comments, touching on the chemistry that the line is building
"I think we are all on the same page and I think we like to play the same way," said Acton. "I think we like to play in straight lines and like to chip the puck and get it behind their defencemen and be physical, just control the puck down low. I think for our line, the big key is to get it out of our end, advance it and get in the other end and maybe create a bit of momentum going our way so some of the higher end skilled guys can go out and do their thing."
Don't expect that line to be taking away too many minutes from the talented bunch up front on the Oilers roster but do expect them to continue to tribute for Eakins' squad moving forward.
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