One of the few times Brad Mills was on the ice, not against the weakest players on the opposing team, and with the puck. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Apologies for the late opinion on this matter, but it's been something that's been rolling around in my head. While it's not a major problem like the power play or figuring out where the wingers should play, I have an issue with the effectiveness of the fourth forward line of the 2011-12 New Jersey Devils. Rather, the lack thereof.
Last night in Buffalo, the team's fourth line of forwards actually played more than 5 minutes of ice time together. They actually got a few shifts in the third period. It would be for the first time in quite a while that either has happened. They weren't that bad, though they were caught on the ice for Buffalo's third goal of the game which essentially ended their night. It remains as an exception to how they have been used this season. And one of those players on that line, Vladimir Zharkov - a player who has been on the fourth line and achieved some small success in the past, was sent down to Albany today, as reported here by Tom Gulitti of Fire & Ice. In conjunction with how the fourth line has been sparingly used this season, leads me to ask the title question: do the Devils really want an effective fourth line?
So far this season, the pool of fourth line forwards have been Rod Pelley (6:05 EV ATOI, 2 SOG, usually scratched), Brad Mills (6:32 EV ATOI, 13 SOG), Eric Boulton (5:31 EV ATOI, 1 SOG, currently out with a sore hand), Vladimir Zharkov (4:43 EV ATOI, 0 SOG, sent down to Albany), and Cam Janssen (4:43 EV ATOI, 6 SOG). The limited-at-best ice time is a sign that DeBoer doesn't want to play these guys unless the Devils are cruising in the game or he has to early in the game. Among those five, only Zharkov seems to have any offensive skills like puck possession and awareness. The rest: "energy" guys at best. Those five players have combined for 1 assist this season; which was a secondary tally earned by Mills on a shift where he played on the third line for a few shifts. None of them have received much ice time to have done much on offense, though, that they don't do much on offense helps explain why they get much ice time at all.
Since there have been several changes with the fourth line from game to game, only Janssen and Mills can be called true regulars as the only members of this group to play more than 10 games. That's also not a good sign. On the one hand, Janssen hasn't been a total detriment to the team (namely, not taking boneheaded plays) and Mills is a step up over Tim Sestito (make that from what you will). On the other hand, both players have been black holes when it comes to possession with the little ice time, weak competition, and generous zone starts they have received according to Behind the Net. (Aside: a more visual representation of this will be clearer for Janssen and Mills tomorrow.)
Why are they given so little ice time? The answer is clear: the players aren't good. The two regulars get pounded in possession and they possess little offensive skill to fight back against it. The same can be said for Mills and Boulton. As understandable as that is, it means DeBoer's relying on 9 forwards in most games, particularly in the third period. That may be fine in November, but it's going to lead to concerns of fatigue should it continue through this season. Being overworked only plays into the opposition's hands, unless the Devil forward or line has been fantastic or something like that.
What's frustrating that the one player who had a shot at driving the play in limited minutes and against weak competition - Zharkov - was sent down to Albany today. While he certainly wasn't a panacea, he's a step above Janssen and Mills in terms of skill and offensive ability. I understand the decision to send Zharkov down. With Ilya Kovalchuk back from injury, someone's got to sit. Management prefers to have Zharkov get minutes in the AHL than to sit in the NHL. Plus, it allows Mattias Tedenby to get back in the lineup as well. That's all fine.
My problem is with the bigger picture. Why are the Devils are settling for a fourth line of forwards that DeBoer has not and likely will not play regularly? I expect that waiver rules are forcing the Devils' hand as to who can get sent down; but where's the effort to construct a line that could provide a little something in the game. I'm not so naive as to think the Devils absolutely, positively need a wonderful fourth line to succeed. However, a fourth line that can play 8-10 minutes without hurting the team and can chip in a few goals would be fantastic. I would be satisfied even with a fourth line that can defend decently enough, stay out of the box, and can spell the other three lines without being hurting the team as a whole. Zharkov can help in this regard. Perhaps some other players from Albany can do so as well. Perhaps one of the other four fourth line forwards can be coached up to chip in, like Pelley was in 2009-10.
Instead, the Devils have a fourth line that will have at least 2 forwards who won't do much in terms of going forward on the ice and who knows how many goals they can contribute. Even if the third forward is Zharkov, Tedenby (where may end up now that he's in the lineup, which would be bad for him), Nick Palmieri (a winger who could move down if Tedenby is back on the third line), or even the Ilya Kovalchuk (who was double shifted on the fourth line in October), this is not a line that will threaten the opposition in any way or form. If anything, they'll be looking forward to it since they know they can force them to defend - something else the fourth line hasn't been too good at either.
After 17 games, I'm still left wondering: do the Devils really want an effective fourth line? So far, the answer has been "not really." While it's not as major of a problem like the power play or a more minor problem like discipline at times, it's still a problem and one I hope the team will address at some point in the near future.
Do you agree or disagree with my questioning of the fourth line? Do you think this is a problem worth solving, or do you think it's really more minor than I make it out to be? What would you like to see on the fourth line anyway, what would you want them to do? Please leave your answers and other fourth-line-related thoughts in the comments. Thanks for reading.