For much of the season, the Canucks' 4th line has been a target for criticism. It's been a patchwork unit all year long, with little in the way of consistency (save the presence of Tanner Glass). Worse, the players the Canucks have placed on it have had such varying skillsets and playing styles that we once speculated that the team had no idea what we they wanted from the 4th line.
Guys like Guillaume Desbiens and Aaron Volpatti indicated a desire for toughness; guys like Peter Schaefer and Mario Bliznak indicated a desire for a checking line; guys like Joel Perrault and Cody Hodgson indicated a sudden hope of tertiary scoring. The personnel and personality of the 4th changed so drastically from night to night, it often seemed as though the Canucks were simply hoping to trip over the answer.
On Thursday, Mike Gillis was on the Team 1040 morning show with Scotty Rintoul and Ray Ferraro, and while querying him on the somewhat puzzling timing of the Cody Hodgson callup, Scotty finally asked him directly about the seeming inconsistency of the 4th line. Gillis's response was more than a little interesting:
The 4th line--there's been a lot made of it--but we've intentionally brought players in and out to give them experience, and to get them familiar with what goes on here and play in games here. We've used it as a little bit of a development tool, because we want to get these young players into game experience in the NHL. And, even if they're not ready to be as consistent as we'd like, you still want them to get familiar with everything that goes on: game days, how it works, getting on the plane, familiar with the training staff, familiar with their teammates. So we've used that as a little bit of an experiment the whole year, and now we feel pretty confident that we have young players [for whom] it won't be a big surprise if we have to use them down the stretch or in the playoffs. [...] Even though we might have wanted more consistency out of that line, we have used it for different purposes at different times, so it's a little unfair to say we've been searching for something.
In short: the Canucks aren't searching for something. They're prospecting.
Gillis admits here that the line has lacked consistency to the naked eye--that it's appeared, at times, the Canucks were on a bit of a mapless treasure hunt--but he also gives a solid explanation. The primary purpose of the Canucks' 4th line under Gillis and Vigneault isn't to provide checking, grit, or additional scoring--it's to provide development and experience to the players in the Canucks' prospect system. As for what the Canucks expect of these young players, it's simply this: to play their game, and to gain the experience necessary to improve it.
Friend of Tanner Glass and exceptionally cool tweep @RayDerge recently pointed out that The Scrabble Champ has been on the ice for the first NHL goal of four separate guys this season, as Mario Bliznak, Alex Bolduc, Aaron Volpatti, and Cody Hodgson all lit the lamp on his line (begging the question of whether Glass is being intentionally utilized as a mentor, especially considering his leadership history). Bearing in mind what Gillis has told us about the purpose of the 4th line, this has to be a win for the Canucks. In fact, through this new lens, the Canucks' 4th line appears to be doing exactly what it's supposed to: giving invaluable experience to a long list of young'uns.