A complete overhaul of the Winnipeg Jets’ fourth line is on the horizon.
The three players on the current fourth unit — left-winger Joona Luoto, centre Logan Shaw, and right winger David Gustafsson — will be pushed out of the lineup soon due to a waiver wire addition and two returnees from the injured reserve.
A New Addition Down the Middle
Replacing Shaw at centre will be Nick Shore, who the Jets claimed off waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday.
Shore, a 27-year-old third-round 2011 pick, played 21 games for the Maple Leafs this season, scoring two goals and adding an assist. A veteran of 257 NHL games, he also played for the Los Angeles Kings, Ottawa Senators, Calgary Flames, and last season, with the Kontinental Hockey League’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
Shore is a depth centre similar to now-Boston Bruin Par Lindholm, whom the Jets acquired from the Maple Leafs last season. Shore won 54.4 percent of his faceoffs this season and 50.5 percent in his five-year career. His possession numbers are eye popping: a career Corsi For at even strength of 54.7 percent and a Fenwick for at even strength of 54.5 percent.
“He’s a positionally smart player…” head coach Paul Maurice said of Shore after Wednesday’s practice before the team departed for Dallas for the back half of a home-and-home versus the Stars. “He knows where he needs to be on the ice. The addition there — he has hands to make a play, so it’s not just off the glass and out — and he has the awareness of the ice around him. You want more than just banging the puck out all the time.”Paul Maurice on Nick Shore’s skill set
“We’ll put wingers out there that can handle pucks: Mason (Appleton) is coming back, Gabriel (Bourque) is coming back… we want someone that can move the puck a little bit from that middle ice position.”
Shore didn’t play Thursday against Dallas as Maurice wanted him to have another full practice with the team before suiting up for a game.
Appleton Close to Ready After Freak Injury
Speaking of Appleton, he’s close to a return after suffering a freak foot fracture playing pick up football at Regina’s Mosaic Stadium the day before the Oct. 26 Heritage Classic.
The injury has forced the second-year pro to miss more than a month. Like Shore, Maurice said he’s an option for the Jets’ Sunday-afternoon tilt against the Anaheim Ducks, as long as he shows well enough in practice. Whether he returns Sunday or sometime next week, he’ll bump Gustafsson out.
“As soon as he got a little bit more a green light to get back going, he went after it,” Maurice said of the 23-year-old left winger who suited up for 36 games last season and recorded 10 points. “He’s fit and he feels strong.”
“Playing that first game will definitely put it all in the rear-view mirror,” Appleton said of the injury that derailed him early on in his first full NHL campaign. “Rehab and bag skating aren’t as fun as playing in games and going on the road with the team and enjoying all of that. So, it’s been a pretty tough five or six weeks but I’m excited to get back in there.” (from ‘Following freak football injury, Appleton ready to return… to hockey,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 12/4/19.)
Bourque Nearing a Return, Too
The player who’ll complete the new-look fourth line is Gabriel Bourque. The left winger suffered a lower-body injury in an early-November matchup against the New Jersey Devils and has since missed the Jets past 14 games, is, like Appleton, will be returning soon. He’ll push out Luoto.
Bourque recorded a goal and two assists for three points in 16 games prior to his injury. On Thursday, the 29-year-old skated in a non-contact jersey for the first time.
Bourque is a hard forechecker and speedy player who can also play right wing. He’ll also provide further a boost for to the Jets penalty kill that’s been much better of late: he was a PK mainstay prior to his injury and with the Colorado Avalanche last season.
Fourth-Line Overhaul Is Much-Needed
This isn’t change for change sake. It’s change that’s very much necessary.
The Luoto/Shaw/Gustafsson line was never meant to be a thing; Gustafsson made the team out of training camp, but Luoto and Shaw began the season with the Manitoba Moose. The trio, put together out of necessity, has been overwhelmingly ineffective.
They’ve often been pinned in their own end and haven’t been good enough to be trusted in latter stretches of close games, which the Jets play a lot of. They only get about seven minutes per game and their Corsi and Fenwick numbers are in the basement — all the way down in the 20s, in fact, save Gustafsson’s Corsi.
The lack of a viable fourth-line has forced the Jets’ top nine to carry a heavier burden, especially the Adam Lowry/Andrew Copp/Mathieu Perreault third line.
New Fourth Line Will Give Jets More Balance, Offence
The Bourque/Shore/Appleton trio should be able to handle more minutes and be trusted in crucial situations to a greater extent, as each player has more NHL games than their counterpart. Bourque, for example, has played 377-career games to Luoto’s 13.
The line should also be able to provide offensive pop the current fourth line just can’t: Appleton, despite going pointless in his first nine games of 2019-20, is an offensively adept player with great awareness; he recorded 37 goals and 98 points over two seasons with the Moose.
The current fourth line has a grand total of one point in their combined 50 man games. Gustafsson’s first NHL goal, which he scored Nov. 27 against the San Jose Sharks, is their only entry on the scoresheet.
It seemed Shaw would be able to provide a scoring touch but it hasn’t worked out that way. He led the Moose with 27 goals a season ago and had put up five points in eight games there this season prior to his recall, but is pointless in 15 with the Jets. A veteran compared to his line mates, he has not been able to get the line trending in the right direction.
The Jets will send Shaw and Luoto back down, while Gustafsson will likely be sent back to Sweden. That’ll give him the chance to represent his country at the 2020 World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic later this month, and play bigger minutes for his club team, HV71 thereafter. (As a second-round European selection, Gustafsson is not eligible to play for the Moose.)
The Jets have succeeded despite the fourth line’s lack of success as they have fully embraced a new scrappy, hardworking identity. Against all odds, they just put up the most November wins in their nine-season history.
However, all teams are better when they’re able to roll four lines and the Jets are no exception. Last season, a fabulously effective fourth line of Copp, Appleton, and now-New York Ranger Brendan Lemieux added an extra dimension to the Jets’ offensive attack game as they proved dominant in holding the puck in the offensive zone, applying pressure at five-on-five, getting the cycle going.
The Jets, already 17-10-2, are undoubtedly trending upward; in some of their most recent victories, they’ve looked akin to the superb 52-win 2017-18 squad. The fourth line reload on the horizon could be just what the Jets need to get back to that level…a level that seemed unreachable when the season began.