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The Evolution of the Fourth Line

The role of the fourth line in the NHL has changed over the past several years, but not quite as much as it probably should.

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Former Hurricane fourth-liner Viktor Stalberg drops the gloves with Josh Manson of the Anaheim Ducks
Jamie Kellner

In 2011, the Boston Bruins defeated the Vancouver Canucks to win the Stanley Cup. That was a strong team, led by Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, and absolutely stunning goaltending from Tim Thomas.

They also featured players like Milan Lucic, David Krejci, and Johnny Boychuk in supporting roles. Future stars like Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin offered young energy and occasional production.

But beyond Chara and Thomas, the aspect of that Bruins team that received the most credit for their success was their fourth line. Boston’s fourth line that season was made up of Dan Paille, Gregory Campbell, and Shawn Thornton.

Six years later, those three players combined to play zero NHL games over a full season. Only Thornton is of an age where retirement is the reason he’s out of the league.

But man, at the time, the hockey world loved that line. A NESN article from that summer hailed them as the best fourth line in the league. Here’s an article wishing that the Bruins 2015-2016 fourth line would be comparable to the 2011 edition.

The thing about that line, though, is that they weren’t good at all. Among forwards with at least 30 games played with the Bruins that year, Paille, Thornton, and Campbell were the three worst in terms of corsi share.

That’s not a particularly shocking fact or anything, but assuming that they were primarily facing other teams’ fourth lines, to come out that badly is not reflective of a line that is supposedly the best of its kind in the league.

The Recent Past and Present

This isn’t something that’s really faded that much with time, either. Before Matt Martin’s departure to Toronto, it was the New York Islanders who were lauded as having the league’s best fourth unit, comprised of Martin, Casey Cizikas, and Cal Clutterbuck.

Those three were a possession disaster in 2013-2014 before turning in a solid season in 2014-2015. They then reverted back to getting hemmed in most of the time in 2015-2016.

The underlying elephant in the room here is that the model of the fourth liner that has dominated NHL rosters for the past several decades is probably not a very good hockey player.

It’s even very arguable that the fourth lines of old were not even particularly effective in the first place.

As fighting has been phased out of the game in recent years, fewer and fewer teams have given one of their fourth line spots to a token enforcer-type player. However, there is still a spot on pretty much every roster for a big, bruising winger who does supposedly important things like “set tones” and “protect stars” while his team is routinely out-possessed and outscored with him on the ice.

As the dominant mode of hockey analysis has shifted from eye-based to data-driven, somewhat of a shift has occurred wherein producing good results (scoring production, driving play) has become more important than a player looking like they’re working their behind off while in the midst of a minute-long shift spent entirely in the defensive zone.

If you asked most NHL front office executives about this, I would guess that they would grasp the concept fairly well. However, the shift from holding these general views to letting them influence roster-building decisions has been a much slower one than the one that saw public opinion on what makes a good fourth liner change.

As evidence, you don’t really need to look any further than this season’s playoffs. Anaheim used one of their 12 forward spots on Jared Boll in eight of their playoff games this year. He didn’t record a point.

Ottawa and New York had a weird dance in their series where Tanner Glass’s presence in the Rangers’ lineup seemed to justify and even command Chris Neil’s presence in that of the Senators. Neil’s two appearances were hilarious debacles, and while Glass actually resembled somewhat of an effective player this postseason, he still took away a roster spot from Pavel Buchnevich, who is inarguably a superior player.

Cody McLeod has played 13 games for the Predators during their run, with just one point to show for.

The only team that has gone far in the playoffs without giving regular minutes to this sort of player is the Penguins, who have a 2-0 series lead in the Final. It would be dishonest of me to say that this is why they’re as good as they are, but it certainly plays a role.

The Present and Future

It isn’t all bad with the present-day fourth line, though. In fact, I would argue that having an excellent fourth line can make a mediocre team look much better than they really are.

Take Columbus, for example. For much of this season, they iced Scott Hartnell, Sam Gagner, and Lukas Sedlak as their fourth line. The three players had 50, 37, and 13 points on the year respectively. With a Wennberg line, an Atkinson line, and a Karlsson line drawing the toughest matchups, the Gagner line feasted against what was left on opposing teams.

Columbus didn’t have anyone put up more than 62 points, and they were a mediocre possession team for most of the year. What propelled them to such a successful regular season was, of course, the terrific play of Sergei Bobrovsky, but right behind his contributions comes their ability to get such strong production from the bottom of their forward ranks.

The approach that Columbus used should convince every single team to go out and fill their fourth line with as much scoring ability as possible.

For a team like Carolina, who gets below average contributions from its best forwards, why punt away the offensive potential of your fourth line by having it centered by a player like Jay McClement?

The Hurricanes had seven forwards compile over 40 points, which was a huge step forward, but outside of those seven, only Derek Ryan had more than 16 points. That huge production gap between the top of the Canes’ forward group and the bottom is easily the chief reason for why they were doomed to another below-average offensive season.

The direction that Carolina’s fourth line, and really anybody’s fourth line, should be heading in is the usage of younger forwards with skill who aren’t total defensive liabilities.

In many cases, the players who are typically thought of as not being “NHL ready” because they can’t handle top six minutes yet really are ready to successfully fill a role in the NHL. Just because they aren’t high-end NHL players by the age of 21 or 22 doesn’t mean that spots at the bottom of the roster should be taken away from them and given to veterans who are well past their prime years which were nothing to write home about in the first place.

For the ‘Canes, this would look like letting McClement walk in free agency, resisting the temptation to bring in a veteran in the mold of Viktor Stalberg (just as an example, as he was a fine add) and going into camp with players like Joakim Nordstrom, Phil di Giuseppe, Lucas Wallmark, and Valentin Zykov competing for those three fourth line spots.

I see little reason that some combination of those five players wouldn’t make the best fourth line that the Hurricanes have had in recent history. Players like McClement and Manny Malhotra have been good at face-offs and solid on the penalty kill, but they left a lot to be desired at even-strength, as the Hurricanes’ fourth line has been a relative possession black-hole for quite some time now.

If the Hurricanes are serious about being at the cutting edge in terms of implementing analytics-driven principles and allowing them to influence roster and line-up decisions, then this is the type of step that they need to take.