Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fourth line needs rebuild

Current group not up to speed; Jets' top players getting overused, tired

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John Woods / the canadian press
New York Rangers celebrate Carl Hagelin�s goal against Jets goaltender Al Montoya (35) in the second period Friday as Jets� Michael Frolik (67) watches.

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John Woods / the canadian press New York Rangers celebrate Carl Hagelin�s goal against Jets goaltender Al Montoya (35) in the second period Friday as Jets� Michael Frolik (67) watches.

Getting a fourth line should and must be part of Kevin Cheveldayoff's plan this summer.

The club's inability to consistently use four lines has been a nagging problem since the Jets landed back in Winnipeg three seasons ago. Claude Noel couldn't find a combination of players that made up four useful trios and neither has Paul Maurice.

It kills the Jets. Their top players get overused, and in games against teams that can spread the ice out among 12 forwards, the difference in stamina becomes glaringly apparent late in periods.

The Jets have lost 21 one-goal games this season, tied for third in the league in that category. Would a serviceable fourth line make a difference? How about a fourth line that not only holds its own in terms of ice time and not only grinds down the opponent, but also chips in a little offence?

Winnipeg's fourth line was again mostly non-existent in Friday's loss to the New York Rangers, playing less than five minutes on the night. The Rangers' fourth-liners all played more than 10 minutes. That's a disadvantage the Jets just can't afford to continue suffering. They're undermanned before the puck drops on a nightly basis.

Cheveldayoff doesn't need to land a No. 1 centre this off-season and his top-six forwards seem to be rounding into form. It's after this where things begin to fall off for the Jets.

Conventional wisdom would suggest it's easier to fix the bottom six than the top six when free agency and trading are the employed mechanisms.

Other teams, just like the Jets have done, lock up their best players and are slow to move them. But third- and fourth-line players by nature are more readily available. They're less expensive and not valued by GMs to the same degree.

Cheveldayoff will have lots of cap room this summer, and depending on the budget set down by ownership, may have some room to try adding through free agency. Targeting a bottom-six centre or some wingers to play with Jim Slater on the fourth line could go a long way to establishing some depth at the NHL level.

The Jets lost effective fourth-liner Tanner Glass to free agency in the summer of 2012 and still haven't found a replacement for the late Rick Rypien and his versatile package of physicality and defensive smarts. Add those two players to this current Jets team and they're far more competitive on a regular basis.

Cheveldayoff has done an excellent job drafting and has already inserted top-end players such as centre Mark Scheifele and defenceman Jacob Trouba to his roster. There is a raft prospects, pro and amateur, still pushing to get their way to the Jets.

But none of this should preclude Cheveldayoff adding when he can, such as the fine deal he made last summer for Michael Frolik.

Finding an older veteran with playoff experience to add another leadership voice to the locker-room would help shore up another issue, and that's the current group's inability to consistently play at the emotional level required to win in the NHL.

The Jets are a work in progress and Cheveldayoff has locked up foundation and luxury pieces. It's time for the more mundane middle-of-the-pack players that bolster a roster.

No one likes to talk about block heaters or snow tires when buying a new car. But they sure come in handy around February when it comes to getting started or unstuck.

The Jets need to worry about getting around in the winter months if they ever want to soar in the spring.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2014 C2

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