One of the few consistent parts of the New Jersey Devils for the past two weeks has been the fourth line of Rod Pelley, Dean McAmmond, and Ilkka Pikkarainen.
|2009 - Rod Pelley
|2009 - Dean McAmmond
|2009 - Ilkka Pikkarainen
Recently, this threesome plays about 10 minutes a game and they're not all that productive (though Pikkarainen scored what will most likely be one of the weirdest goals of 2009-10 last night). They aren't a defensive group, told to shut down forwards.
Yet, that's not their role. They bring energy on the ice, throw a few hits, and manage to have a few good shifts. For a fourth line comprised of players making a combined salary of $1.55 million (per CapGeek), I don't think that's too bad. After about a month and a half of tinkering on the fourth line, Lemaire appears to be happy with this group. The big news out of practice today according to Gulitti was that Lemaire split up Zach Parise and Travis Zajac and jumbled all of the forwards with one exception. That's right, the fourth line. Out of all of what Lemaire changed and could change, he's kept the fourth line intact. To me, that's a sign that Lemaire is pleased with the group. It's entirely possible they'll be kept together for tomorrow's game.
As it currently stands, I see no reason for this line to be changed by giving Andrew Peters or Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond a game. That's unfortunate for Leblond (7 GP, 5:14 ATOI), who hasn't really got a legit chance like Andrew Peters to make his case to play regularly. It's, well, not totally undeserved as Peters (17 GP, 5:43 ATOI) hasn't made any physical impact despite his size and reputation as an enforcer despite limited minutes. So it's this group that's getting it done and so it should remain for now.
Even if they don't contribute much to the scoreboard, a decent fourth line is invaluable. Outside of it being generally used for more physical players or supplemental lines, it gives the other forwards time to rest up. Not unlike how the third pairing defensemen take some of the pressure off of the other four. A fourth line playing perfectly acceptable, decent hockey like the current group for the Devils means Lemaire doesn't have to shorten his bench during the game and it gives the top forwards extra time to catch their breath. Over the course of a game, it can have a real effect on a team's performance. Tired players tend to not do so well, after all.
However, as the Devils become healthier and with players like Vladimir Zharkov making a convincing case to stay up in New Jersey, will this unit last? I don't see how it will. When Dainius Zubrus and David Clarkson, some players will have to be sent down to Lowell to make roster space. Then what happens with the fourth line? Does Pelley and Pikkarainen, two players who have notably improved in recent weeks on the ice, start becoming press box fixtures? Where do you fit in someone like Dean McAmmond? Do the Devils risk players through waivers to keep someone quick like Zharkov up, but in a lesser role? That I can think of this many questions speaks well of the Devils' depth; a good problem for Lemaire and the Devils to have, I suppose.
Most importantly, what do the Devils even want out of the fourth line? With this group, you get an energy line and so far so good. Clarkson and Zubrus aren't coming back anytime soon, so this is a long-term question. But when they do come back, the Devils could have options to tinker further. They could go big and physical with Zubrus and Clarkson combined with Pelley or Pikkarainen. They could go for a more defensive direction by sliding, say, Jay Pandolfo down and have him play with McAmmond. They could go in other directions. For now, let's appreciate the fact that the Devils are apparently satisfied with one part of their lineup. Hopefully, they'll settle on the other three lines anytime soon.
Are you pleased with the fourth line? If not, what would you want to see from the fourth line? What changes would you make if you were in Lemaire's shoes? Share your thoughts in the comments.