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Boston, Columbus fourth lines beginning to change NHL thinking

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The way fourth lines are used in the NHL is slowly changing, and the Bruins are among the teams leading the way.

Boston Bruins v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

When you think of the fourth line of an NHL team, you think mostly of one thing.

Hits.

Traditionally, the fourth line in the NHL has been the domain of the enforcer, the battering ram, the "energy guy". It's a line, hockey thinking says, that you send out when you want an opposition team physically punished, whether that be with a fight or by being introduced to the plexi hard and often.

This is a line of thinking that's still very much prevalent among NHL fans - it's one that we see all the time when players are signed or traded for - the aforementioned "energy guy" phrase is repeated so often it almost becomes meaningless, and whenever teams are down in a game or working their way through a slump you can guarantee someone will call for the fourth line to "go out and bang some bodies, get a little energy going" or similar.

However, this view is being challenged in recent seasons, as part of the greater conversation of speed vs grit and brains vs brawn in the NHL. It is entrenched in hockey fandom by hundreds of hours of Don Cherry Rock Em Sock Em videos, junior coaches stressing hitting, media folks talking about "heart" and "compete level" and all the other horrendous clichés thrown out by the hockey public to defend the lionisation and stressing of importance of what is basically very large men skating into each other at speed for no real tangible reason.

Consider this - most of the hits so beloved by the masses are the massive ones, the damaging ones, the ones that leave players prone on the ice. Hits that, even when they're perfectly clean like Jake McCabe's monster wallop on Patrik Laine recently, don't actually do a huge amount - especially when another area beloved of old-school hockey, "defending your team-mates" basically gives a free pass to start a brawl every time a big one is landed, whether it's clean or not.

I present to you that the idea of a fourth-line with a sole purpose of hitting-even the very idea of an "energy line" will shortly go the same way as the enforcers...out of the NHL and down to the backwaters of hockey. Enforcers are already being forced further and further away from the NHL as fighting becomes less and less important (a recent poll said that over half the NHL fans surveyed wouldn't have their experience of hockey markedly changed if fighting was outlawed) - to backwaters like the UK, or the Quebec senior leagues. The very idea of what a fourth line is is changing.

A fine example of a team that is seeing the "old" and "new" thinking in the NHL collide is the Calgary Flames in their fourth line of Lance Bouma, Matt Stajan and Garnet Hathaway. For more, I'll let Liam McCausland, a fellow Brit hockey fan, Flames fanatic and sometime fellow SBN writer at Matchsticks & Gasoline, explain, as he does so far better than I:

Matt Stajan of the Calgary Flames is a very good example of what a fourth liner should look like in 2017.

Stajan is not the most physical player. In the 42 games prior to Monday’s defeat to Winnipeg (all stats quoted are prior to this game) this season he’d only thrown 30 hits, and only blocked 29 shots. He’s not the sort of player to throw a hard shoulder in the corner, and he likely won’t lie on the floor, a la Kris Russell, to get in the way of a shot. But, that’s because that’s not his strong point. It is the work on and around the puck that makes Stajan highly effective.

Stajan gets the hardest zone starts of anyone on the Flames who has played over 25 games this year, coming in with 22.1% offensive zone starts. He operates as a shut down forward, so this is to be expected. What you wouldn’t expect is for him to be one of the best possession players on the Flames, then. Except he is.

On a team that has been notoriously bad at possession over the past few years, Stajan’s even strength CF% of 51.8 is better than any forward in the team, except for the famed 3M line of Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, and only Alex Chiasson comes within two percentage points of him. The same is true in terms of FF%, his 53.2 making him fourth only to 3M.

He’s also spent 85 minutes on the penalty kill, as well as forcing 14 takeaways. He does all this by throwing less than one hit per game (30 in total), and making less than one shot block a game (29). He works on winning back the puck, forcing the puck away from his goal and pushing play up away from Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson.

In addition to this, his 4+12 for 16 points on the year, at a rate of 1.74 points per 60 minutes of on-ice time – makes him far superior to his current line mate, and a man who fits the bill more of people’s perception of a fourth liner, Lance Bouma.

Although Bouma has missed a chunk of the season through injury, he has not been at all impressive in his time in the team. Even just on a basic level, his 2+2 in 25 games leaves you with a P/60 of 0.86.

But he’s a shut down line guy, he doesn’t need to score, he should be shutting people down. Right?

To a point, sure. His CF% of 46.03 certainly isn’t the worst on the Flames, and his 48.4 FF% actually puts him seventh on the team. But he still gives up just shy of 56 Corsi instances in 60 minutes of ice time, compared to Stajan’s 48.

In terms of Bouma’s strengths, well, he certainly knows how to throw hits. He threw 270 in 80 games of his career year in 2014/15, and thus far has 63 through 24 (prior to Monday). But is that enough to be an effective shut down player?

Let’s compare the key stat in that regard – goals against while on the ice. Stajan has been on the ice for 21 goals against, at an average of 2.28 per 60 minutes. Bouma has only been on the ice for 14 goals against, but his much smaller ice time leaves that at an average of 3.03 per 60. Factor in, too, the goals for while on-ice. Stajan averages 1.95 goals per minute, much closer to his GA60 than Bouma, who comes in at 1.51 – nearly half his GA60.

It depends what you’re looking for from a fourth liner. If you want a hitter, an energy guy, someone to disrupt the opposition, Bouma certainly isn’t the worst. But if you want someone who can drive play forwards, contribute a bit offensively as well as stopping teams playing in your zone, you want Stajan.

I know which I’d prefer.

What Liam says is relevant here because, as he mentions, Matt Stajan and Lance Bouma are polar opposites their makeup, but they are both considered "ideal" fourth liners by differing schools of thought. Bouma is the traditional type, while Stajan is an excellent example of the "new school" of thinking, one that is also seen this season in Boston.

But first of all, for your information, here is a comparison of current fourth lines in the NHL, as of close of play on Jan 10th, , along with their TOI together, goals for (GF), goals against (GA), GF/60, GA/60, Corsi For % (CF) the percentage of starts they have in each zone (N, D and OZF) and the number of hits the line throws per game. Given the somewhat inconsistent nature of 4th lines, which tend to change every game or two, we're looking at the lines that have stayed together, thus the ice time is set at a minimum of 30 minutes, or around 4/5 games worth of ice-time together for a fourth line in today's NHL.

Untitled

Line TOI Goals Goals Against GF/60 GA/60 CF% NZF DZF OZF Hits/game (line)
Line TOI Goals Goals Against GF/60 GA/60 CF% NZF DZF OZF Hits/game (line)
BOS (Schaller-Moore-Nash) 34:29:00 2 1 3.48 1.74 66.7 22.6 51.6 25.8 2.5
CAL (Bouma-Stajan-Hathaway) 44:44:00 2 1 2.68 1.34 47.8 31.1 46.7 22.2 5.4
CAR (Nordstrom-McClement-Stalberg) 180:46:00 6 4 1.99 1.33 50.5 37.4 27.6 35 4
COL (Colbourne-Mitchell-McLeod) 30:47:00 0 _0 0 0 44.4 37.5 18.8 43.8 4.2
CBJ (Hartnell-Sedlak-Gagner) 164:59:00 8 2 2.91 0.73 51.6 30.3 37.4 32.3 2.3
LA (King-Shore-Nolan) 98:08:00 1 1 0.61 0.61 52.8 38.6 28.4 33 3.7
NYI (Kulemin/Cizikas/Clutterbuck) 124:42:00 7 1 3.37 0.48 48.5 35.5 46.5 18.1 7.1
OTT (Kelly-Lazar-Neil) 47:42:00 0 1 0 1.26 33.8 32.6 27.9 39.5 5
PHI (Vandevelde-Bellemare-Lyubimov) 138:24:00 3 4 1.3 1.73 50.2 41.2 32.8 26 3.1
PIT (Wilson-Cullen-Fehr) 85:31:00 2 4 1.4 2.81 38.2 32.9 54.1 12.9 4.4
STL (Upshall-Brodziak-Reaves) 210:20:00 9 10 2.57 2.85 47.4 26 56.7 28.9 4.3
TOR (Martin-Gauthier-Soshnikov) 31:42:00 1 1 1.89 1.89 26.7 39.5 44.7 15.8 6.4
VAN (Gaunce-Chaput-Skille) 117:47:00 5 2 2.55 1.02 58.9 40.4 32.1 27.5 3.8
WSH (Winnik-Beagle-Wilson) 160:36:00 7 2 2.62 0.75 51 41.4 37.9 20.7 3.6

The two lines that need highlighting here in particular are in Columbus and Boston. The line we've recently seen put together by the Bruins, of Riley Nash, Dominic Moore and Tim Schaller is arguably among the best fourth lines in the NHL. The early stats bear this out. Whilst they're not the most productive offensively compared to some other lines, they're on a CF of 66% (for comparison, most stats people argue that if that figure is above 55%, you can be considered an elite player.

Note that they're producing this percentage despite over half of their starts being defensive zone starts. What they're doing here is the template for a fourth line in the new NHL - being a productive offensive line while also managing to be an incredibly effective shutdown line.

And they're shutting down teams without hitting. On average, each player on Boston's fourth line throws less than one hit while they're together. Compare that with Toronto's fourth line, or the NYI fourth line, which between them throw over twice the amount per player and six and seven TIMES the number of hits as a line on average a game.

Then there are the league-leading Blue Jackets. Their fourth line of Scott Hartnell, Lukas Sedlak and Sam Gagner has 8 goals while playing together, with two assists, and a CF& of 51%. They're also used in all zones - which means that John Tortorella is comfortable having them anywhere on the ice. Like Boston, they rarely hit-in fact, the line as a whole only throws 2.3 hits a game-the least in the league.

That flies in the face of the claim that the best teams have a fourth line that can hit, doesn't it? A line that can play all over the ice, score and defend - that's something most teams would kill for on their first, never mind their fourth.

Compare these two to Colorado, who have only been trusted to take FO's in the defensive zone in 18% of their time on the ice. That's what you call (sheltering). Coincidentally, they're bang on the average of hits for the group, at 4.2.

There is an argument that teams that hit a lot are often worse - because there's no need to hit while you have the puck. The Bruins and Jackets fourth lines are fine examples of this - they are first and third in the league for GF/60 (the team in between them, incidentally, are the Islanders, doing their bit for old-time hockey, mainly thanks to the efforts of Nikolai Kulemin. They appear to be an outlier given that the next-most-hitting team fourth-line in the league, Toronto, have the worst CF% in the league by a long, long way. Perhaps because they're concentrating on hitting the opposition when they have the puck rather than using it for themselves.

Whilst it can't be said that the Blue Jackets, Bruins and teams like them have taken over the NHL - after all, they're still in the minority - a possession-based fourth line approach - one that focuses on shutting down the opposition by not letting them play with the puck in the first place rather than by attempting to separate them from it with maximum prejudice - is something we're beginning to see more and more in the NHL.

That can only be a good thing for the progression of hockey away from thuggery and towards skill and speed.