When looking forward to next season, one of the big question marks for Bruins fans (and really, for the Bruins themselves) is what the fourth line will look like.
While one change is certain after Joakim Nordstrom signed with the Flames on Monday, the makeup of the Bruins' fourth line next season is as clear as mud at this point. One thing that cannot be argued about the Boston Bruins right now is their depth in the bottom three...which, sadly, is probably nothing to brag about.
With the recent signings of Karson Kuhlman and Greg McKegg, the Bruins have legitimately 8 or 9 guys (if you include up-and-down guys like Anders Bjork) who could play on their fourth line.
But before delving into who should play on the Bruins’ bottom line, a question that should be examined first is: what does the ideal fourth line look like in today's NHL? Or better yet, what do teams want from a fourth line?
For the longest time in hockey, a team’s fourth line was better known as the “checking line,” as their role was to bring energy, grit, and physicality every time they stepped on the ice. Until fairly recently, this line often featured the team’s goon, whose central role was to punch the opponents in the face. Occasionally, however, some of the better fourth lines were given the role of shutting down the other team’s best line(s).
And then the game got fast...really fast.
Skill has become much more of a commodity than size and strength. The enforcer has all but disappeared from the NHL, with a few exceptions, and fourth lines have slowly started to take on a different image.
Teams like the Avalanche, Blues, Canucks, Lightning, and Flyers have started to dress fourth lines with (relatively) skilled forwards that can bang and crash, but are more than capable of chipping in offensively.
Perhaps the antithesis to this trend, however, is the Islanders’ fourth line of Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, and Matt Martin, which has been referred to by some as the best fourth line in hockey. This line still brings physicality and energy to the max, and Martin is your prototypical enforcer. Whether or not it actually works is up for debate, but it’s still a viable strategy until proven otherwise.
So what do they Bruins want to do with their fourth line? They certainly have players capable of delivering grit and bone-rattling hits, but they also have some talented players that could help provide scoring depth.
Here’s a look at some candidates to fill those spots on the fourth line:
If there’s a guy who’s a lock for the fourth line next season, it’s Sean Kuraly.
Whether you’re a fan or not, there’s no denying that Kuraly brings it every night. Kuraly is a nightmare for opponents on the forecheck.
In the past, he was normally defensively sound in his own end; however, his possession metrics and advanced stats suggest last year may have been his worst defensive season to date, which isn’t encouraging.
However, Kuraly had a career year on offense last year (6 goals, 17 assists in 69 games), despite his line mates having sub-par seasons.
In addition, Kuraly has been known to score some very timely goals thus far in a Bruins’ uniform, so if nothing else, the clutch factor is a powerful additive.
After being given the 7th Player Award in the 2018-2019 season for performing well beyond everyone’s expectations, last year saw Wagner struggle both offensively and defensively.
Perhaps Wagner really just overachieved on offense the previous year, and last year represented him returning to career averages.
More troubling, however, is the fact that defensively, Wagner’s numbers were some of the worst of his career.
Wagner was on the ice for 31 even-strength goals against, compared to 21 for the Bruins, and had a CF% of 45.2 and a slight better FF% of 46.0.
A couple of important notes on Wagner though: he did just sign a new three-year contract, so management doesn’t seem to be too worried about an off-year.
Additionally, he did experience a health scare with atrial fibrillation in the second round of the playoffs, but hopefully that’s well and fully behind him.
While Lindholm played well in the playoffs this past season when given the chance, you have to wonder how much he has to offer the Bruins going forward, especially since they just signed another possible fourth-line center in Greg McKegg.
Lindholm appeared in 40 games last season, recording just three goals and three assists during that time.
Lindholm is a solid defensive option for Boston, as he’s capable of playing penalty killing minutes, though he’s curiously never been chosen for that role recently.
Interestingly enough, Lindholm was the last Bruin to get scored on at 5-on-5 and was only on the ice for five even-strength goals against all last season.
Where does Ritchie fit in the Bruins lineup next season, if at all?
Ritchie was brought in to toughen up the Bruins, and there’s certainly no doubt he tried to do that...but unfortunately, it was often in an undisciplined and ineffective manner that cost the Bruins big-time.
While Ritchie displayed some offensive potential early in his career with the Anaheim Ducks, you have to worry if the game has gotten too fast for Ritchie, which has accounted for his decline in offensive production.
Ritchie will probably get his opportunities next season on the third and fourth lines (hopefully not the second line), but if he’s unable to improve on his performance from last season, he may find himself following in the footsteps of his brother Brett and heading to the AHL.
The great news for Kuhlman is that he just signed a brand-spanking-new two-year deal with the Bruins. The bad news is there may be no room for him in the Bruins lineup next season.
Kuhlman, at 5’11”, 185lbs, and gifted with great speed, is not your typical fourth liner. However, at the same time, he hasn’t shown the consistent finish required to play a more prominent role offensively.
Expect Kuhlman to be given the platoon role next year, filling in for injured players when necessary.
The Bruins’ top prospect is potentially facing a problem in making the next step to the NHL: there’s no room for him in the line-up. The wrinkle, at least to start the season, is that injuries to Marchand and Pastrnak could temporarily open the door for Studnicka.
Studnicka is definitely not what you expect from a fourth-line player, but that may represent a good chance for him to get his start in the NHL. Studnicka had a fantastic rookie year in the AHL last season, putting up 23 goals and 49 points in 60 games, and didn’t seem out of place when given the chance to play in these last playoffs.
The Bruins, who to this point haven’t completely addressed their lack of secondary scoring, may need to have players like Studnicka in the line-up, even if it’s a bit further down to start.
If the Bruins are looking to inject energy, tenacity, and physicality into their lineup, then Trent Frederic may get the call this season.
Since demolishing Brandon Tanev in his NHL debut and fighting his way through the AHL last season, fans have been consistently yelling for the Bruins to bring Frederic up.
And while Frederic does have a lot to offer in a fourth-line role, there are still some areas in his game that need to be improved before he becomes an NHL regular.
He’ll have to reign in the undisciplined penalties as well.
Expect Frederic to get a call-up or two next season, but to play the majority of the year with the P-Bruins.
Recent addition Greg McKegg played last year with the Rangers, and took to the ice in 53 games, putting up 5 goals and 4 assists.
While serviceable in a fourth-line center role, you can probably expect McKegg to start in Providence (if they play at all), given the fact he signed a two-way contract and the Bruins have better options at 4C.
Basically, if he plays, you should start getting worried.
As you can see, there is no shortage of options for Boston next season on the fourth line.
As mentioned earlier, the Bruins will have decide what they want to do with their fourth line: perhaps the Bruins will decide to go with a more skilled line, or maybe they’ll use the fourth line to give some younger players that chance to develop at the NHL level.
Obviously, either of those options would cause a significant shake-up to the line Boston iced last season. Then there are factors that are the never-ending list of questions that are completely out of the Bruins’ control, like...
- What happens to a Bruins lineup that could be potentially without Marchand and Pastrnak for a considerable period of time?
- What happens if the league has to compress the schedule next year, forcing teams to play more often than usual?
- Will teams have expanded rosters to deal with potential COVID-19 flare-ups?
- Will there even be an AHL season next year?
- The list of questions goes on and on.
There is still a lot to sort out with the fourth line, and realistically, we may not know what this line will ultimately look like until the team starts playing again.
But, let’s say it was up to you: who would you put on the Bruins 4th line, and why?