Matt Hendricks came to Edmonton via trade on January 15, 2014. Shortly after his arrival, the term ‘wagon line’ was thrown around to describe whatever line Hendricks happened to play on.
“We’ve always called him ‘Wagon’ so I think it’s guilt by association. You’re on the wagon line if you’re with Hendricks,” Oilers centre Boyd Gordon said.
The wagon line was responsible for the heavy lifting, the hard, defensively responsible minutes usually associated with a fourth line in the NHL.
“It’s just kind of a motto,” Hendricks said. “We’re kind of there as the workhorses when we have to be and if we can chip in here and there, we want to. We want to support the team offensively, but we’re here for those tough minutes. When your chips are down, everybody climb on board because we’ve got to go to work.”
This year’s fourth line is Hendricks and Jesse Joensuu on the wings, centred by Gordon.
The trio has earned the respect and praise of their head coach so far this season. They’ve done the heavy lifting and have created a few scoring chances in the opponent’s end nearly every game.
“We know what we need to do,” Gordon said. “We get out there with a lot of defensive zone starts and we try to get the puck going the other way as fast as we can and keep a hold of it. I think it’s encouraging, the way it’s been going. Hopefully we can put the odd puck in here and that would change a few things.”
After the home opener, Head Coach Dallas Eakins was asked what he thought of that line’s performance, as it looked like they played well.
He thought that was a conservative assessment.
“You’re hard (on them),” Eakins said. “Pretty well? I thought they were excellent. I like that though, that’s good that you’re hard on them. I thought they played a big, heavy game. I thought that Jesse continued where he left off in training camp. Boyd and Hendy gave us really good games, they turned the tide a couple of times for us in the game with big shifts. They were able to get zone time and then they were able to do some heavy lifting in our zone on those face-offs.”
Their play has continued to be a bright spot on an Oilers team that’s still searching for its first win of the season. In a 6-1 loss to Los Angeles, Hendricks scored the team’s lone goal. In Friday night’s game against the Canucks, that line once again generated a handful of scoring chances.
Photo by Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oilers
“I think we just want to be going like we’ve been going,” Gordon said. “We’re all kind of similar players, we like to play north to south. For us, it’s key to provide some energy, try to get possession of the puck, try to create some chances. We’ve been doing that and hopefully we can get one or two of them to go in.”
Communication is key to the fourth line’s start this season.
“We talk to each other on the ice,” Joensuu said. “We try to make sure that everybody is in position and doing their job and everybody’s helping each other by doing their individual job. I feel like that’s why we’ve played good.”
Aside from communication, the three forwards have found instant chemistry while focused on their responsibilities.
“I think it has been our structure,” Hendricks said. “I think we’ve complimented each other well. We’re really trying to possess the puck as much as we can. We’re trying to give our team opportunities to have offensive chances or offensive zone draws. We’re trying to hem the opponent down in their end. I think we’ve just been complimenting each other very well in those areas.”
Possessing the puck starts with having the puck. That’s what makes Gordon the ideal centreman for this group.
“He’s one of the best draw men in the league,” Hendricks said. “When you can start shift-in and shift-out with the puck when he wins the draw, it’s a lot easier to maintain it and hold onto it. That’s one of his many talents.
Hendricks said Joensuu brings size, speed and strength to the unit.
With Jesse, I think it’s his size and his speed and his ability to skate defenders right into the end boards,” he said. “They have to turn and not only try to keep up with his speed, but they have to try to out-battle him and his strength and power. It’s a task, I can tell you that for sure. Those two have been great for me and it has been a lot of fun playing with them.”
Hendricks brings an aggressive style of play and physicality that compliments the defensively responsible Gordon and the big, quick Joensuu.
“Boyd never leaves the defensive zone if the puck doesn’t leave it,” Joensuu. “That’s something that you notice right away in his game, that he’ll make sure that the puck leaves before he leaves. That obviously creates good defence and Matt is the same way. Matt is a good hitter, a good skater and very aggressive player. They’re easy to play with.”
The fact that all three bring something different, but all three work well together makes for a solid combination. In the NHL it’s always a good thing to have all four lines contributing.
“It’s huge,” Gordon said. “We want to have one through four that are consistent and on the same page. That’s important. If you can get all four lines to contribute, obviously that helps. We’ve got some high-end skilled guys. It’s definitely there and hopefully we start defending the house a little bit better to give ourselves a better chance to win the game.”