Any coach will tell you it’s an asset and a luxury when he can trust his fourth line to provide energy, defensive responsibility, and the occasional goal. It makes the entire team more balanced, and better.
For the past several Blue Jackets games, the line of Derek MacKenzie, Mark Letestu, and Jared Boll have been giving head coach Todd Richards exactly that. The line has scored two goals in the past four games, including MacKenzie’s game-opening goal in the loss to L.A. Tuesday. With the reassignment of center Ryan Johansen, the lines will be restructured for the near future, but you can bet the Columbus coaching staff is well aware of the way the MacKenzie-Letestu-Boll line came together so quickly. MacKenzie believes the addition of Letestu was the key.
“Well, I think in a lot of ways Mark was the final piece of the puzzle,” the veteran forward explained. “We’ve often spoken about having a guy who has a little ‘finish’ around the net. We had a little success a couple of years ago with Matt Calvert on that line. Boller (Jared Boll) and I like to get pucks deep and work hard, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to finish once in a while. We might not be the best at that, but it’s certainly nice when someone like Mark can put the puck in the net and kind of reward our effort.”
Earlier this week, Coach Richards summarized the recent good work of his fourth line by saying the unit doesn’t sit back. He said the trio goes out and hunts down pucks instead of waiting for a puck to bounce to one of them. It’s an aggressive style, and MacKenzie says that’s the way a line that isn’t logging huge minutes needs to play.
“I think we need to be as aggressive as we can be. And, again, that’s the result and the difference between playing 11 minutes and playing 20 minutes. In the flow of a game, the guy playing 20 minutes may not be able to forecheck as aggressively as we can forecheck. And sometimes we have the liberty of recovering and sitting for three, four, five minutes. We’re obviously anxious every time we get on the ice, and the forecheck is probably the biggest part of our game. It’s a chance for us to get physical on the other team, a chance for us to provide some momentum in the offensive zone, and there’s nothing better than one of those shifts early in a game.”
And when the group’s collective work produces a goal, as it did after a textbook, prolonged energy shift in Minnesota last month when Letestu scored from in close, what does the payoff for that kind of effort feel like?
“That’s obviously an ideal shift, with the ideal ending,” said MacKenzie. “But the persistence and energy is expected. We don’t play as much as other lines, and our job is to provide energy, and that’s what we try to do on a regular basis. I think you keep hearing get pucks deep , chip, do these little things, but I mean that’s really our game, and I think when we’re on our game, the end result is quite a bit of puck possession in the other team’s zone.”
After the Blue Jackets took a 2-1 lead over the Detroit Red Wings Saturday night at home, it appeared to be telling that the MacKenzie-Letestu-Boll line was out there for the very next shift. That’s tangible affirmation that the coaching staff trusts the line to keep the momentum going in Columbus’s favor, and it wasn’t lost on MacKenzie.
“Those are the little things that are so rewarding. I think the guys in the room have been real gracious in giving us credit for providing momentum and energy. I think the three of us have a sense that everyone in this room appreciates what we do even though it’s not flashy. At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask, that we feel like we’re helping the team, and our teammates feel we’re helping them. Along with that hopefully comes some success for this team.”