Much Ado about the New Jersey Devils' Fourth Line

With the New Jersey Devils sweeping their recent road trip, the team got back to practice and that meant plenty of news from Gulitti and Chere.  The biggest news with respect to the team is that Patrik Elias has stepped up his practices, and according to Gulitti, Lemaire has stated - again - that he intends to slot him at center.   It's great he's progressing in his recovery, but I'm personally not sold on Elias as a center.   Feel free to give your two cents as to what you think the Devils' forward lines should be when Elias returns in this FanPost by Fearloathing13.

What shouldn't be big news is that Lemaire has seemingly shifted the lines again in practice.  Gulitti and Chere both have those lineups - and only use a pencil to write them down, it could change tomorrow, in between Friday's and Saturday's game, and most definitely after both.   Lemaire has been tinkering with the lines in some way or form every game so far in this young season.  Namely, the wingers have been shifted between games numerous times already after 5 games.  David Clarkson has been moved all over the place, save for the top line, thanks to his "unpredictability" according to Lemaire, via ChereAlso according to that same post from Chere, Lemaire has said that Brian Rolston's position is "everywhere" and so has been shifted between the second and third lines. 

During games, Lemaire has moved Rolston up to the third line and the first line on separate occasions, switched defensive pairings (e.g. Andy Greene getting shifts with Paul Martin against Tampa Bay), and made other moves to try and get a more advantageous matchup.  In addition to this, Lemaire has also revealed to both Gulitti and Chere that he wants forwards to play at about 18 minutes, yet he has (and had to, given the close nature of some of these games) given the ZZ Pops line an average of 20-22 minutes a night.

What is a bit concerning is what Lemaire plans to do with the fourth line.  We can say positive things about the top three lines.  They have each contributed positively so far this season.  Yet, based on these past 5 games, the fourth line is seemingly a good bet to not produce any real benefit on the ice.  Not to mention not really seeing the third period at all.  Were I to name a set of 5 disappointing Devils so far this season, I'd cheat and place 4 fourth liners on that list.  If Lemaire wants to give Parise, Zajac, and Langenbrunner fewer minutes and improve the team's performance overall, then the fourth line issues must be addressed.   Let me break down the situation on the fourth line.  If only to highlight why it's not that simple of an issue.

 

The Constant: So far the Devils have had 4 separate versions of the fourth line, and the constant has been the center Rod Pelley.  Lemaire has been tinkering with his lines but not with how his centers line up.  If his plan is to use Elias as a center, then Pelley should hope that someone's getting moved to a wing.  A likely possibility, as Dainius Zubrus and Rob Niedermayer both have significant experience as wingers. 

Pelley needs to hope for this as he hasn't been impressive in any of the four games.  Yes, he's been limited to an average of 7:07 and that isn't solely his fault. Yet, Pelley has only 4 shots on net in 5 games, won only 8 of 21 faceoffs (38.1%), and hasn't contributed much of anything outside of hits (he officially has 7).  These are not the numbers of a player who wants to cement a spot on the team, in my opinion.   I feel like this is a "chicken and egg" situation, Pelley may not be doing more because he doesn't have the chance - yet he hasn't earned the right to get that chance because he hasn't done much.     Likewise, are his performances hurt by his linemates not stepping up, or would his linemates do better if Pelley's own game was raised.

Either way, he and the coaching staff needs to figure it out and soon.   So far, Pelley's spot is secure because the Devils only have four centers on the roster right now.   If Elias returns and sticks as center, then Pelley could risk seeing some games from the press box (or wherever scratches watch the game at The Rock) if he continues to just be "there" as the fourth line center.

The Contracts: What really ties New Jersey's hands on the fourth line are the contracts.  On surface, Ilkka Pikkarainen, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, and Andrew Peters would be generally considered to be fourth line caliber players.  Is there really a need to keep all three up, along with Rod Pelley and Matt Halischuk? Based on skill set and talent, I don't think so.  But the contracts are the reason why they're up in New Jersey.

Unfortunately, the Devils are stuck with them if they don't want to risk them to the waiver wire.  According to Cap Geek, all five of those players except for Halischuk are signed to one-way deals, meaning that any one of these players would be subject to waivers.  When Elias comes back, a roster space will have to be opened for him - and Halischuk is the only one who can go down to Lowell without some other team swooping him up from the waiver wire.  

Thankfully, none of these players are signed for a lot of money; Pikkarainen and Peters are making the league minimum with Leblond and Pelley making just above that mark.  So this isn't a cap issue, it's a roster issue.  It's why the answer can't be: "call someone up."

While you can argue that their performances so far wouldn't entice any team to pick them up, the Devils don't want to expose anyone to waivers if at all possible. Remember the return of Martin Brodeur last season for a moment. The Devils sent Scott Clemmensen down because he couldn't be subject to waivers as he was an "emergency call up"  to replace Brodeur.  By performance alone, it should have been Weekes; but due to the rules regarding NHL call ups, the Devils were able to avoid losing Clemmensen for nothing.  Therefore, I don't see Lou allowing a player to go without any compensation.  All four of Pelley, Pikkarainen, Peters, and Leblond are going to stay up with New Jersey namely due to their contracts in the foreseeable future.

The Skills: Halischuk has potential as a two-way forward and Lemaire even gave him shifts as a second line winger against Florida.  Pelley has been forecasted as a checking center.  And those are the only variations from the other three fourth-line players.  Peters' calling card in this league is as an enforcer.  Leblond is young and smaller enforcer who skates decently enough.  Pikkarainen is a gritty winger with a "bad side."   Even with Halischuk and Pelley on the line, the third player should be bringing some toughness, some meanness, some physical play to the table.

Yet, where is this energy and physical play?  I can't say with a straight face that this is an energy/physical line like last year's permutations of the fourth line.    Officially at NHL.com, Pelley and Peters both have 7 and 6 hits respectively.  They aren't leading the team in that questionable stat, but it's up there. However, have they been pounding opponents on a regular basis? No.   While I don't care for fighting, I have to point out that neither Peters or Leblond have fought at all yet.  This is very curious as that's what helped got them contracts in the NHL; instead, they both have taken minor penalties (2 each).  And between all 5 players, there is a total of 10 shots on net - 3 from Halischuk, 4 from Pelley, and 2 from Peters.  Nothing from Leblond (OK, he played all of one game for 5:42, but was he even a factor?) or Pikkarainen (No shots, 4 PIM and for restraining fouls? Come on.).

Have I had it all wrong?  Maybe I am mistaken in expecting Peters, Pikkarainen, and Leblond to get out there on the fourth line and hit somebody and mix up the tempo of the game?  If so, then what can they do? 

A Last Thought:  If/When Halischuk is sent down, this fourth line on paper needs to be bringing it.  Yet, no one has really made a strong case to stay on that fourth line.  Pelley is there by necessity as a center.  Leblond has got one game and needs more minutes.  Pikkarainen missed most of preseason, but he's struggled to fit in.  Peters was signed during training camp, yet he's looked slow, he hasn't been a big body presence on the ice, and Rob Niedermayer has looked to be better shape than him despite being signed even later than the "enforcer."

Can we really expect a solid 7-10 minutes a night from a unit consisting of these players?  Right now, I don't think so and apparently Lemaire's choices in the third period seem to agree with that.

I'm hoping some of these guys turn around their slow starts and actually make a statement on the ice.  I don't think it's an issue of whether they can handle the spot.  They have just been unimpressive at best and so Lemaire is changing the combination almost between each game so far.  Even as to go as far and having David Clarkson play on that line to get something going.  I think the opportunity to be a regular on this team is there, albeit in a fourth line role - even after Elias returns.  But the effort has to be better from all who have played on that line (except Clarkson, his spot on the team is safe as milk).

What should Lemaire do to get this fourth line to be more effective in some way or form?  Will further tinkering help (e.g. trying Peters and Leblond in a game?) What kind of fourth line do you even want the Devils to have?  Does a move have to be made to improve the fourth line?  Leave all your fourth line related thoughts and suggestions in the comments.

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