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This article was published 23/12/2014 (2259 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
CHICAGO — It’s been hard to argue with Paul Maurice’s work this season. In many ways his handling of the Winnipeg Jets has been masterful. But a continued reliance on just three lines could prove to be his team’s undoing.
Coaches often say, in deference to their bosses, they work with the players they have and don’t worry about things beyond their control. Not often will you hear a coach utter, "our fourth line sucks and we can’t win with this collection of players," because the next thing he’d hear is the GM giving him the "don’t let the door hit you on the can" speech.
Maurice’s actions, however, speak volumes about his faith in his fourth line. He doesn’t use them because he doesn’t trust them.
The Jets can handle the lesser lights in the NHL using nine forwards with a heavy addiction on the trio of Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler. But when they play a team positioned above them, and in particular the big, balanced clubs that rule the West, they struggle.
It should come as little surprise on nights when the opposition can roll four lines the Jets come up short. Maurice is coaching with one hand tied behind his back. The question is rapidly becoming, how does he untie that hand?
Just recently, Maurice has come up with combinations that have his first three lines operating with efficiency.
The aforementioned top line consistently produces offence and the combination of Mark Scheifele, Michael Frolik and Mathieu Perreault is now scoring as well. Evander Kane has been working with Matt Halischuk and rookie centre Adam Lowry for a stretch and there seems to be some offensive chemistry here. The team’s top-10 defensive record speaks to their attention to the entire ice surface. These nine are playing well at both ends.
It’s the fourth line where the trouble begins, and where the Jets’ hopes may end. Veteran Jim Slater has been flanked by Chris Thorburn and Anthony Peluso most nights and Maurice uses them sparingly. Even less so late in games when the score is close.
In Sunday’s 4-3 OT loss to Philadelphia, Slater led the group with 6:31 of work while the Flyers’ fourth line icetime leader was Vincent Lecavalier with 10:40 of work. Slater’s linemates both played under six minutes.
Maurice needs to continue stacking up wins, and shortening the bench is a coaching technique used from novice on up. The best players play more. But in today’s NHL, with its bloated schedule, watered-down talent pool and onerous travel schedule, the team with balance throughout its lineup holds an enormous edge.
Some teams are able to get production from their fourth line, but that’s more than Winnipeg can reasonably expect.
The fourth line’s job is to give the other players some rest while not hurting their team on the scoreboard. If the last set of forwards can also generate energy with a bruising forecheck or match up well against the opposition’s second or third line, all the better.
The fourth line should also serve to create competition within a team. If the third line starts to sag, the coach can flip players up and down. It gets everyone’s attention, as ice time is the lifeblood of statistics and in today’s NHL that’s how players hit pay days. More ice time is what every player wants. The Jets currently don’t have that competitive current running through their lineup. Comfortable is a more apt word, and for a young team that’s dangerous.
The Jets arrive in Chicago owning a wild-card playoff berth with a 17-10-7 record for 41 points in the Western Conference. They’re near the top of the league in goals-against and team save percentage.
They’ve done a lot of good to date. But as Maurice made great pains to stress earlier this season, being in the playoffs at Christmas just means you’ve made one step. A team has to continue reaching goals or it will fall by the wayside.
The Jets have built their winning record to date by lumping up on the weak. Against sub-.500 teams, the Jets own a 12-1-3 mark for an .844 winning percentage. When they play teams with records of .500 or better, the Jets are 5-9-4 for a .389 winning percentage.
The rest of the schedule will see the Jets play 33 of 48 games against teams with records of .500 or better. If they continue on the same trajectory, this team will fade down the stretch.
Maurice needs to get this team to take another step to achieve a playoff berth. But making that move with just three lines will be difficult.
Maurice needs strength from below.
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