When it comes to constructing a Stanley Cup contending roster, the most vital line is the one filled with players that play less than 10-12 minutes a night. The fourth line, once a position of hope for enforcers and “gritty” players alike, is gradually changing into units used to excel in defensive situations and prevent the top nine from tiring out before they are needed the most.
The best teams in the NHL have learned to use the fourth line as a weapon against squads that have not adapted to the shift in talent level on the line. Those that fail to go deep into the postseason have consistently iced fourth lines reminiscent of a previous era, when fighting was rampant and fourth liners saw single digit minutes on ice per night.
The Chicago Blackhawks and the Tampa Bay Lightning matched up in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, a showdown between two of the best fourth lines in hockey. Chicago featured Marcus Kruger between Andrew Desjardins and Andrew Shaw, a trio that posted an above 50% Corsi For Percentage combined in the postseason.
While playing major defensive minutes, the three each brought their own abilities to the table. Kruger was the faceoff man and shutdown center contributing on the penalty kill, Desjardins provided help along the boards in addition to a physical presence, and Shaw contributed on the power play, while being his usually pesky self.
The Lightning offered Jonathan Marchessault, Brian Boyle and Brendan Morrow to challenge the Blackhawks. Marchessault is an example of a player that would not be afforded a chance to play in the NHL in the past, due to being undersized at 5’9, 175 pounds, but the Lightning saw a talented player and utilized him correctly.
Boyle, a member of the fourth line of the New York Rangers 2014 Stanley Cup Finalist team that relied heavily on their fourth unit, was once again in the Stanley Cup Final on the fourth line. Boyle has a mix of Desjardins and Kruger in him, with the added superlative of being one of the tallest players in the NHL at 6’7″.
Morrow represented an anomaly of an example of one type of player that does not belong in today’s NHL. He spent the 2014-2015 season with the Lightning trying to go out on top with a Stanley Cup victory, and to be fair he did his job for the most part. Unfortunately, NHL teams have consistently chosen to sign veterans like Morrow over young players with potential, or players with a wide array of attributes to contribute to the teams.
For example, the New York Rangers signed Daniel Paille on the same day Ben Smith was available on waivers. Paille has posted one Corsi For Percentage at even strength above 50% in his eight-year career, while Smith has posted four in five seasons. Simply put, Smith belongs on an NHL roster, while Paille, who posted three points in 31 AHL games, does not.
Some NHL organizations have also failed to understand that the enforcer role is a thing of the past. The recent incident with Brian McGrattan being knocked out in a fight in the AHL should only further the argument that fighting is a thing of the past in the NHL. The percentage of games with fights has dropped from 41.38% in 2008-2009 to 24.57% this season.
Despite that, teams continue to carry enforcers on their rosters to “protect” their star players. In reality, the fighters are the players leveling the damage and getting into the fights, much like McGrattan choosing to put himself at risk in his bought. Of the 16 NHL teams currently in a playoff spot, seven have an enforcer on the roster, and only six have one that plays regularly. One example is the San Jose Sharks, who not only waived Ben Smith, but kept enforcer Mike Brown on the roster to do so.
Another example is the Rangers, who last season traded Lee Stempniak for a prospect they allowed to leave for Russia to keep Tanner Glass on the roster, only to see Stempniak join the Devils and post what would be the third-most points of any Ranger on the season.
In the playoffs, the teams with well designed fourth lines eliminate the teams with patched together veterans and enforcers. The 2013-2014 Rangers rolled through the postseason with a defensive trio of Boyle, Dominic Moore, and Derek Dorsett, but eventually fell to the Los Angeles Kings, who featured a possession powerhouse fourth line at the time in Kyle Clifford, Jarret Stoll, and Jordan Nolan. Both teams managed to defeat teams with brighter superstars and top sixes due to their ability to use depth to their advantage.
In the 2014-2015 postseason, as previously discussed the Lightning and Blackhawks advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, but a closer look a a team that did not advance shows the importance of a useful fourth line. The St. Louis Blues iced big-bodied Ryan Reaves and Steve Ott in addition to Marcel Goc, but were dispatched by the Wild, featuring a fourth line of the underrated Sean Bergenheim, Kyle Brodziak and rising depth player Justin Fontaine.
The brightest minds in the NHL are realizing that there is some ground to be gained in the standings and in the postseason by picking the right players to finish off their team’s rosters. Enforcers are in the past, as players can take care of themselves while also contributing skill in the process.
Specialists no longer have a place in the NHL, but instead complete hockey players that are on the rise or unable to handle the offensive expectations of a top nine spot are perfect for the fourth line role. When June comes around, expect to see the teams that understand how to assemble a fourth line still standing.