Two weeks ago I took a look at blocked shots and hits as it may relate to team success. Fans, media, and broadcasters alike frequently cite either statistic as an indication of a player performing well. I wanted to see if those statistics, at the team level, had any correlation with team success. The short answer is that I saw no obvious correlation.
This week I wanted to take the topic a bit further and see how teams employ their fourth lines. Blocked shots and hits are statistics many people would typically want to see out of their fourth liners, players that, tradtionally, are less likely to put up points, so you’d like to see them contribute in other ways. One could argue fighting could be included in this measurement, as teams that dress an enforcer would most likely do so on the fourth line.
In recent years, with the debate over fighting, the league’s concussion problem, and the instigator rule rendering enforcers pretty much useless, the topic of how to deploy that fourth line is a popular topic of debate. Should it be made up of defensive specialists, grinders, energy players, and/or enforcers as many traditionalists tend to believe? Or with the aforementioned topics at the forefront of the league, should teams be taking a more skilled approach by dressing the more skilled players over the muckers and grinders.
I decided to take a look at how NHL teams are deploying their fourth lines in the 2013-2014 season. I initially intended to simply look at each team based upon average time on ice and infer the fourth liners based upon that. However, it’s possible that inference may have been incorrect based strictly on ice time. Instead, I opted to track down the projected lineups of each team over the past three to five games from various blog’s/site’s game day posts/threads. I felt this was more indicative of what was actually occurring.
I listed any player that was projected to play on the fourth line in recent games. Some teams appear to be pretty consistent with only three players over that time frame. Others seemed to juggle the roster a bit more with several different players filling the role. Or if you’re the Ottawa Senators you apparently will dress anyone and everyone on your fourth line, regardless of role/skillset.
From there I jumped to some conclusions and classified players into roles. I use those words because I won’t pretend as if I’ve watched thousands of minutes of every player listed. In some cases I had to resort to peripheral statistics and even draft profiles.
Players highlighted in green you could consider to be skilled players. They either: have put up significant points/goals in the past, were highly drafted players, or their prospect profiles show them to be offensively skilled players. From the list below, think Magnus Paajarvi. There’s no question he’s a skilled player.
For any player that may be a skilled player but also fit into one of the other buckets below, I chose to default to listing them as a skilled player. My reason being since the debate frequently resorts to “can they play hockey or are they a liability on skates”, I figured, if you put up points it doesn’t matter what else you do. For example, Brendan Morrow could easily fit into several categories but his long career has indicated he has quite a bit of talent. He gets listed as a skilled player.
Players highlighted in red are your classic enforcers/fighters/goons/choose your favorite term. They typically bring little to the table other than their ability to punch faces and bring some effort and energy. More often than not their point totals are in the single digits. Think Jay Rosehill.
Players highlighted in yellow would be your middleweights or more specialized players that aren’t afraid to drop the gloves. They would typically be more skilled than your enforcer types, perhaps even playing highly defensive roles, but with the requirement that they will, and do, fight. Think Zac Rinaldo.
Players not highlighted at all simply don’t fit into any of the previously mentioned buckets. They aren’t particularly offensively gifted and they don’t fight (and if they do, it’s once in a blue moon). They more than likely slot in as defensively responsible players, or specialists of some kind that fill a specific role. Think Adam Hall (faceoff/defensive/penalty kill specialist).
So let’s take a look…
Of the ten best teams in the league, only two don’t dress what I’ve deemed to be a skilled player: Los Angeles, and Colorado. Truthfully, you could easily make the case that Los Angeles’ fourth line is skilled. Clifford, Fraser, and Nolan make up a tough fourth line that isn’t a liability.
Of the ten worst teams in the league, seven teams dress enforcers. However, Kevin Westgarth does rarely play for Carolina.
Of the ten worst teams in the league, only one, Nashville, doesn’t dress a typical skilled player.
Collectively, the top ten teams have fought 153 times this season, while the bottom ten have fought 167 times; a pretty meaningless difference.
It actually appears like the bottom ten teams may be deploying more traditionally skilled players than the top ten. However, they also appear to more regularly use an enforcer.
Truthfully, I’m not sure how revealing any of this information is (or at least as revealing as looking at half of a season, can be anyway). I expected to see the league’s better teams steering away from dressing goon-types and more towards skilled players, but the difference between the league’s best and worst teams appears pretty negligible at least with respect to the “type” of players they are using in those roles.
With respect to the Flyers, we can say that they aren’t dressing a skilled player of any kind in a fourth line role. Of late, we’ve had a line of Hall, Vandevelde, and Rinaldo. That would seem to put them in the minority, as most teams (be it good or bad), use a skilled player of some kind on their fourth line.
Personally, I love the idea of Rinaldo on the fourth line. I think he is capable of being a very effective fourth liner, but he has regressed after a strong 2013 season. Adam Hall is an ideal fourth liner. I also greatly prefer Vandevelde to Jay Rosehill. I’m very curious how the fourth line will shake out once Steve Downie returns. Michael Raffl has been too good to bump from the top line, so who else in the top-nine will get shifted down?