It’s time to take an in-depth look at something that I know all Wings fans out there care very deeply about – the fourth line. Yes, I know the first two lines are important, and the third line grinds it out like no other, but it’s time to talk about the fourth line, and more importantly, whether Jan Mursak or Cory Emmerton deserve to be playing on a regular basis.
The fourth line has been consisting of Abdelkader at center with Homer on one wing. Since Mursak has been activated off IR, he and Emmerton have each played two games. I feel that each player is valuable and does help the team, but only one can usually play each night. Let’s look at each player and see how they line up.
Jan Mursak has the one thing I believe you cannot teach in hockey: speed. I would say that he’s the second fastest player on the team in pure speed, after Darren Helm. He can create chances for himself and his teammates by using his speed to either beat opposing defensemen to pucks on a dump-in or at least hitting them and tiring them out. Forcing turnovers always helps too. Look at this play from Dallas on January 17th:
As you can see, Mursak is the one who dumps the puck in. He then beats the defensemen behind the net and gets the puck from Bachman, the Stars’ goalie. He then forces the puck out front, where it goes off of Justin Abdelkader and sits in the slot for Tomas Holmstrom to completely blast by Bachman for a goal. This play does not happen without Mursak’s speed and willingness to go to the dirty areas.
He’s also a right-handed shot, and with Patrick Eaves out (and probably for a while still…), Mursak is the only Wings forward who is right-handed. That seems really strange, but look at their forwards; all lefties. This is obviously not a deal breaker, but I feel it’s something that could be considered.
The downside to Mursak is that as far as my knowledge goes, he has never played center. Most centers can play the wings, but not vice versa. Mursak has also never killed penalties in his NHL career. I know he’s only played a grand total of 19 games, but I would think he would have played a shift or two on the PK, just to see what he has. If he wants to make the NHL, he’s going to need this skill set. I don’t believe he has the greatest hands in the world, so he’ll need to stick to staking, forechecking, hitting, and solid penalty killing (let’s call this The Maltby Model) to make the Wings on a full-time basis.
Cory Emmerton has the potential to be a solid NHL player. His main attribute is that he is a natural center, but can also play on the wing when needed. I think he has decent hands and has some ability to find the back of the net. Let’s check out his goal against Dallas on January 3rd:
Yes, I know it’s not the prettiest goal ever, but he still had the smarts to go to the “soft” area of the defensive coverage and get a shot on goal. Catch the goalie sleeping for a bit and get a quick shot off? Smart hockey (I also want to point out how awesome of a pass that was by Gustav Nyquist, a Wings prospect who has massive amounts of skill and whose jersey I will own when he gets called up full time). Emmerton has scored a couple of others like this in his short career. It shows he has the ability to go the right spot in the offensive zone and create chances.
Emmerton has also been used on the penalty kill this year. While he’s not a frequent contributor, he is averaging 0:44 a game on the PK. He was getting more time earlier in the season, but lately, he’s only used when the game is no longer competitive or other penalty kill guys are hurt or in the box. I do think he has the capability to be in this role on a full-time basis.
While Emmerton does have some upside, the question is: Is it enough? Will he ever be able to make the transition to a second or even third line player? He does need to bulk up, especially if he plays the wing. With more time spent near the boards and against strong defensemen, gaining strength is a necessity. Will he ever get back to being a regular on the PK? If he can get that responsibility on a regular basis, I’d have to think he’ll have a future here.
Gun to your head: Who plays right now?
I have to go with Mursak. While I think Emmerton is good, and should get some chances to play, I don’t believe he currently brings anything extra to the lineup. Mursak flies out there and looks like he can make things happen. Obviously, he’s only played two games this year since breaking his ankle, so we’ll have to see if he can do this for an entire season. Also, I think he can keep up with Helm, which gives the Wings the option of putting their two fastest skaters together on the third line.
Emmerton does have the advantage of being a center, which can help if Babcock decides he wants to bump Abdelkader up to the third line and drop another player down to the fourth line. I just don’t think playing fourth line center is enough to keep Mursak’s speed out of the lineup since speed never takes a night off. This isn’t meant to be a dig on Emmerton. I like him and don’t want to get rid of him, I just wish he would do something to assert himself into the lineup.
If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment. Or, if you prefer, you can yell at me on Twitter at @KevinN37.