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A plan for foot soldiers

Noel needs to find a way to give fourth-liners more ice time

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Saying and doing have not matched up very well for the Winnipeg Jets when it comes to getting meaningful fourth-line minutes.

 

The Jets are hardly alone when it comes to that. In their case, the climb back from a very poor start to has come, in part, by increasing the ice time of the team's top forwards.

In 27 games, Winnipeg has played just three in which the team's least-used forward has reached nine minutes of ice time. And all three of those instances were in the season's first three weeks.

Often, two and sometimes three forwards are in the neighbourhood of five or six minutes, sometimes less. And it's perfectly understandable and even normal, given the Jets have often been pressing hard to tie a game or feverishly trying to protect an advantage.

So while it's hard to argue with the recent winning record -- especially a 7-2-1 mark in the last 10 -- this can be a road that has its bumps.

Jets coach Claude Noel had no argument with that on Wednesday.

"You want to play four lines," Noel said. "It's a lot better, a lot easier. But you've got to watch these games. The games we're all in are these one-goal games. One little mistake and you're on the wrong side of the game.

"It'd be easy if the other team rolled four lines as well, and I could keep continuing to match. But they don't do that. When they're down a goal, they're going to three and that forces me to juggle more things."

The coach said Wednesday that he's looking to improve his own performance in this area.

"I've got to do a better job of incorporating those players into the lineup," Noel said. "What I need to do is play three lines and roll plus one and plus one and plus one, rather than put the (number) 10, 11, 12 (forwards) as a unit, just put one in on the first line, one of the second line, etc.

"That's the best way to do it, because they're all good players."

Wearing out the team's top forwards is one of the potential bumps.

Today, centre Bryan Little is the Jets' most-played forward, averaging 20:07 per game so far.

That's not a dangerous number, but there is a cumulative toll.

"There might be a fatigue factor but you've got to get to four lines and we know that," Noel said. "But as we're getting healthy, we know that's going to happen. It's automatically going to take place.

"And that's a lot healthier situation, going four lines. I want to get there and I will get there because I'm the one who's deciding whether we get there or not."

Said Jets left-winger Tanner Glass: "Guys are in good enough shape now to play a three-line game almost the whole game. That being said, in a long season and if you're going long in the playoffs, I think it can be an advantage to play that fourth line.

"I think guys can take it but it can be an advantage to your team if that line can log minutes."

Glass has seen both sides of the fence. Before signing in Winnipeg, he was a fourth-line skater most of the time on the Vancouver Canucks, who went all the way to the Stanley Cup final last season.

Even early on here, Glass, Chris Thorburn and Jim Slater were considered by many as Winnipeg's fourth line. But injuries and other changes have clearly promoted that trio into third-line minutes, and some nights even more.

Tuesday's summary showed that the Jets' bottom-three-minutes players were Tim Stapleton (six minutes), Carl Klingberg (5:47) and Jason Jaffray (4:14).

"I think it's the toughest position to be in on the team," Glass said. "You're usually out there to have an energy shift, get the puck in deep, make some hits. That's so difficult when you're playing two, three shifts a period to get out there and have any energy.

"I find it so much more difficult than, say, playing against (Alex) Ovechkin's line or other top lines in the league.

"A very difficult spot to be in, to keep with it mentally and emotionally and get out there and have good shifts."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2011 C3

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