Slotting in on the fourth line is no easy task. It takes hard work and perseverance to earn your chance only to be given under 10 minutes of ice time to prove that you belong. It is a constantly rotating part of the lineup, and one bad game may prove enough to drop you right back into the AHL or onto the ‘taxi squad.’ This short leash is tough to deal with, but the Stars’ fourth-liners have risen above it.
The players on the Dallas fourth line this season have been Tanner Kero, Rhett Gardner, Justin Dowling, Ty Dellandrea, Joel L’Esperance, and Nick Caamano, with a little bit of Mark Pysyk, Jason Robertson, and Jason Dickinson mixed in. That is a whole lot of names fighting for the final three spots on any given night.
Earn Your Time
As a fourth-line player, your goal is to play a solid two-way game. You are not expected to chip in much offensively, but it is a good way to solidify your roster spot if you can. Whichever three players have drawn in for Dallas have been able to make a difference throughout the entire season.
Kero is having one of his best seasons in the NHL. He has played in 31 games and has recorded eight points. That may not sound like a huge season, but he has a total of 30 points in 108 career games, so it has been a breakout year for him. He was given the chance to jump into a top-six role due to injuries and made the most of his opportunity.
Playing with Jamie Benn and Denis Gurianov, Kero scored a goal and added two assists in two games against Detroit last week.
“All of those guys that have been in and out of the taxi squad, they come to work every day,” Jake Oettinger said. “It’s not an easy job, to see them get rewarded is huge. I couldn’t be happier for (Kero). All of those guys who have filled in for injuries have done such a great job, and it’s really nice to see them get rewarded.”
Dowling has been a solid fourth-line player for Dallas for a few years. He usually plays about 20 games each season and has had success. This season, he has shown some flashes of offensive skill with slick passes and a goal back in January.
He is usually a top choice in the playoffs as he brings some experience along with his skill. He has had success with L’Esperance, who has scored two goals in his 12 games this season.
Dellandrea, Caamano, and Gardner are in similar positions. They are young players that have very limited experience in the NHL. Gardner has only played in 33 games in his career but added his first NHL goal this season against Nashville, while Caamano has played in 25 games this season and provides a gritty defensive style of play.
Dellandrea is only 20 years old and is seeing his first taste of the NHL this season. He is a first-round draft pick with a very high ceiling for potential. Head coach Rick Bowness has been balancing his development by not overplaying him, which has paid dividends with other Stars’ players. When he does draw into the lineup, he is noticeable on every shift. Skating around with loads of energy similar to Antoine Roussel, he is able to track down pucks, throw his body around, and chip in offensively.
Like most young players, he still has a lot to learn but has shown flashes this season that he could be a big-time player for Dallas.
Dickinson slides up and down the lineup and can play on every line but has had success on the fourth line. Pysyk is normally a defenseman but has played some forward in his career, including a huge chunk of last season with the Florida Panthers.
With the injuries that the Stars have faced and Bowness wanting some of the younger players to sit and watch more games, he has asked Pysyk to step in as a winger once again. Joel Hanley, Andrej Sekera, and Sami Vatanen seem to be the front-runners for the bottom defensive pair, so moving up is a way for Pysyk to help his team win and get into the lineup more often. He has looked solid in every game and even added the tying goal in the third period against Detroit on Thursday.
If you have watched the Stars since March, you will recognize the name Robertson. After being a non-factor in his early-season games, he was a healthy scratch for a few games. After that, he started to see the ice better and has become the most dominant player on the Stars roster.
He quickly moved up from the fourth line and is now on the top line, as he chases down Karill Kaprisov in the Calder Trophy race. While most of his success did not come on the fourth line, he was the exact success story that Dallas desperately needed this season, missing Tyler Seguin, Ben Bishop, and Alexander Radulov.
Under the Radar
With the Stars’ top two lines playing as well as they have lately, the bottom six flies under the radar. Everyone knows the importance of the patented “F-C-C” third line with Radek Faksa centering Andrew Cogliano and Blake Comeau. However, the fourth line has held its ground and helped the team win as well. Dallas has embraced the “Next Man Up” slogan since the bubble last season, and it shows with the success of their fourth line.
If the Stars are going to make the playoffs and go on a run, they will need all of these players to step in when needed and make a difference.
Sam Nestler is a Dallas Stars contributor for the ‘The Hockey Writers’. Growing up in New Jersey, Sam has been playing hockey since he was 7 years old. Developing a love for writing in college, Sam uses his hockey knowledge to create analyses and articles on every aspect of the game. Sam also hosts his own podcast on Spotify, the “Slapshot Sammy’ podcast, breaking down action across the NHL and NCAA. Check out the podcast here, and give his latest article a read!