Before the season started and before the Toronto Maple Leafs were 2-2, they had a plan. It was Joffrey Lupul who revealed that plan to media in Toronto and the relief fans felt was instantaneous. The Maple Leafs would roll out four lines this season.
What a concept.
When the team decided to rid themselves of their "fourth line" from last season, it was a step in the right direction. For a minute, let's talk about the two enforcers that comprised the line and their contributions.
Colton Orr spent five seasons with the Maple Leafs appearing in 231 games for 13 points. He has never, in his 11-year career, scored more than six points a season. Frazer McLaren, who scored a career-high six points with the San Jose Sharks in 2009-10, played 62 games for the Maple Leafs scoring five points over two seasons. Both Orr and McLaren averaged between four and six minutes ice time per game. They combined for 816 penalty minutes and they didn't make the team.
Rejoice, only if for a second.
The most successful NHL teams have fourth lines that contribute positively. Last season the Maple Leafs would roll out their fourth line only to protect or send a message. The proverbial idea that a fight changes the momentum and in turn helps you win games was the rationale Randy Carlyle lived by. When you're consistently running three lines into the ground while your fourth line plays four minutes, you're doing more damage than good.
Chicago Blackhawks fourth-liner Ben Smith enjoyed a nice season, 26 points in 75 games, while playing a productive average of almost 13 minutes per game. Marcus Kruger, who jumped around on the bottom two lines, averaged the same amount of ice time and scored 28 points in 81 games. There is such a thing as a fourth line that produces more than penalty minutes.
The Boston Bruins also enjoyed a nice run with their fourth line last season consisting of Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell, and Shawn Thornton. They didn't produce as much as the Blackhawks, but they ate up consistent minutes and didn't just fight.
It's clear the Maple Leafs realize paying McLaren $1.4 million over two years wasn't worth it. They didn't get nearly enough out of Orr for a combined seven years, $5.85 million he was signed for.
Instead of having Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, and James van Riemsdyk play 20 minutes a night tired, with the addition of a fourth line that can play regular full shifts, they would have longevity through the season. That's a much more valuable asset to the Maple Leafs than two bruising fourth-liners.
Bozak's last 20 games last season saw him score 13 points compared to his previous 20 games where he scored 20. Kessel's last 20 games rewarded him with 11 points, in his previous 20 games like Bozak, he scored 31. The last to struggle was van Riemsdyk. Nine points in his last 20 games, 22 points in his previous 20. The top line, although facing teams fighting and gearing up for playoff spots, was tired above all else.
Everyone gets tired, everyone gets banged up. For the Maple Leafs to get back to the playoffs, they'll have to rely on their bottom six forwards to help bear the weight the top six do. Using four lines, well, that's a half-step forward. Richard Panik, Daniel Winnik, and Peter Holland are a drastic improvement. Trusting the players to do their jobs, that's another thing.