For many NHL players, being moved to the fourth line would be considered a negative and something demoralizing. For Andrew Copp, though, it’s been a positive and revitalizing. His move to the middle was key in creating what’s been an extremely effective Winnipeg Jets’ fourth line.
New Year, New Role
On New Year’s Eve, head coach Paul Maurice rolled out some new-look lines. The new fourth line consisted of Copp — who had been playing left wing on the hard-nosed, yet offensively capable ‘TLC’ line, but had just returned after missing nearly a month with a concussion — back at his natural position of centre between 2017-18 AHL Outstanding Rookie award-winner Mason Appleton and sandpaper forward Brendan Lemieux.
The rationale for this was two-fold, according to the Winnipeg Free Press’ Jeff Hamilton: the first was that it would allow the fourth line to shoulder more defensive zone starts thanks to Copp’s adeptness in the faceoff dot. The second was that it would allow Copp to better use his offensive abilities.
As Hamilton put it, “playing with Lowry and Tanev, his primary job was to shut down the opposing team’s top line. Matched up against lesser opponents on the fourth line, he’ll be asked to do more in the offensive end.” (from ‘Fourth-line centre role suits Copp’s hockey IQ’ – Winnipeg Free Press – 01/03/19.)
While the new line found instant success — five points in their first game together — Hamilton cautioned against taking too much stock in small sample sizes. However, he noted that “there might just be enough already to suggest Winnipeg is on to something.”
Copp’s Hockey IQ Is Key
Two-and-a-half months removed from Hamilton’s piece, it’s clear Maurice’s decision to move Copp was right on the money. The fourth line has become one of the Jets’ biggest assets, a trusted trio that logs meaningful minutes, including late in close games.
Copp is driving the line’s success due to his adaptability and above-average hockey IQ. It’s clear Maurice has faith and confidence in the 24-year-old and his line, as he’s consistently given them 10-plus minutes per-game while continuing to make heavy use of Copp on the penalty kill.
“Andrew is a very bright man,” Maurice said Tuesday after a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers, in which Copp scored the game-winner. “If you want to sit down and talk about what happened in the game tonight or any play, he can tell you. I mean that in a very positive way. He captures the the entire game. It didn’t take him very long to figure out when he went out with those two guys they spent a fair amount of time in the offensive zone and there was action to be had there.”
Copp Facilitating Fourth Line’s Feats
Copp, who has suited up for 268 NHL games, has brought the best out in the rookies around him, primarily thanks to his defensive and puck-possession skills. He is one of the Jets’ best at breaking up opponents’ passes to the slot and his Corsi For at even strength of 52 percent and Fenwick for at even strength of 51.8 percent are good for fourth and third on the team, respectively. He has been on the ice for 24 goals for at even strength this season and just 11 goals against.
There are lots of ways for forwards to keep pucks out of their own net – good o-zone time, good exits and entries, etc.
Strictly in terms of d-zone defensive coverage, I'm not sure there is a better Jets forward than Andrew Copp and if there is, it's his old linemate Adam Lowry.
— Murat Ates (@WPGMurat) January 30, 2019
Copp is also posting career-best faceoff numbers, having won 54.9 percent thus far this season. Having the steady Copp to ground them has allowed Appleton — a strong puck handler and offensively dynamic player who put up 66 points for the Manitoba Moose last season — and Lemieux — who has found his groove and is showing the offensive abilities he did with the Barrie Colts and the Moose — to begin to blossom and play with confidence.
“They’ve been outstanding,” Blake Wheeler said Tuesday of the line. “By and large, making the most of their opportunity. It’s tough to roll four, and those guys are out there and making an impact. Copper obviously doing a great job in the middle there, you know he really solidified that line… that line plays direct and fast, kind of like our team. They’re a really tough line to handle.”
“(We are) trying to force him (Maurice) to play us as much as possible,” Copp said. “It can be frustrating times when you are not getting into your rhythm but being able to produce like we have, I mean we’re kind of running good right now.”
Fourth Line Is Offensively Adept
One key to the Jets’ success so far in 2019 — especially given Patrik Laine’s brutal slump and Nikolaj Ehlers’ injury — has been the fourth line’s ability to chip in offensively. Their offence comes as a result of their dominance in holding the puck in the offensive zone and applying pressure at five-on-five. In fact, they’ve been the Jets’ best line in this regard.
The fourth line “is uncharacteristically excellent at moving the puck into dangerous areas,” Andrew Berkshire noted in a recent piece. “Offensively, (Lemieux) and Copp are second and third, respectively, on the Jets in high-danger chances since the beginning of December, both topped only by Adam Lowry.” (from ‘Jets fourth line dominates at even strength’ – Winnipeg Free Press – 02/01/19.)
Strong start! 💪
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) February 3, 2019
Stats from another recent Berkshire piece comparing potential trade target Kevin Hayes’ play to that of the Jets’ four centres, show Copp produces scoring chances, high-danger chances, cycle chances and forecheck chances at a higher rate than Mark Scheifele, Bryan Little and Lowry per-20 minutes of even-strength play (from ‘Jets should make room in barn for Hayes’ – Winnipeg Free Press – 02/12/2019.)
In 19 games since the move, Copp has four goals and eight assists, including five points in February alone, in comparison to just two goals and two assists in the 25 games prior to the move. He’s benefited from Appleton and Lemieux’s aggressive forecheck, dogged puck pursuit and penchant for winning board battles. Appleton, meanwhile, has 10 points and Lemieux has 11 — points that have come mostly since being united with Copp.
Line Breakup Likely on the Horizon
But it won’t be a breakup due to incompatibility. Even though the fourth line is happy together, it likely won’t survive the month. Changes are on the horizon.
Ehlers is nearing a return, and although it’s going to be at least another week or two until he suits up again, having him back will cause ripple effects throughout the Jets lineup — it will likely push Jack Rolsovic back to the bottom-six and either Appleton or Lemieux to the press box.
Related: Jets’ Lineup When Ehlers Returns
In addition, the Jets will probably have a new face before the month is through: they are widely expected to trade for a top-six forward — such as Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, the aforementioned Hayes or Wayne Simmonds — prior to the Feb. 25 NHL Trade Deadline, which will further shake things up.
These things will mean new linemates for Copp. Whether he’ll succeed down the stretch — offensively, at least — to the same degree he has with Appleton and Lemieux is a question mark. However, it’s clear he should stay in the middle, as his skills make him a good foundation for any fourth line combination.