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I don’t care about the fourth line

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Please tell me again, though, what percentage of time in a game they are on the ice.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens
Carey Price making a rare save this October.
Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

I really, really don’t care about the fourth line. Not the Leafs’, not the Flyers’, not the Kings’ or any other team that comes calling. I haven’t once given a thought to Matt Martin “taking a roster spot”. I didn’t care that Ben Smith (OMG!) was the four C for half of last year, and while I can tell you who I think between Dominic Moore, Eric Fehr and Miro Aaltonen is best right now (that’s the order), I don’t care who plays there.

If you press me, I’ll tell you that Moore is better than Fehr on the PK, and that is important enough to worry over. I really don’t hold with the amazing line of reasoning that the fourth line is just so super important and is the difference between winning and losing, but whatever, who cares on who is on the PK.

I don’t care even more now who the Leafs play on the fourth line, even though Kasperi Kapanen is a personal favourite of mine and I absolutely believe he is NHL capable right now. The reason it’s even less interesting to me now is that the Leafs have finally amassed enough genuinely good players for the top nine, that the bulk of replacement-level or slightly over that — good enough for the NHL guys — could be put together in an infinite series of fourth lines that would offer enough to the special teams to work. They’d all be able to handle the job.

The job is not to roll out there as a line just exactly like the top nine on the Leafs. If you really want to see a team roll four lines, watch the Marlies. The AHL is where you can do that for real if you have enough of the right kinds of players on your roster and you overbalance the competition in skill because you have more money to spend on AHLers than every other team in the league. The NHL is a different beast.

The fourth line in the NHL is there to eat minutes in low leverage situations. What that means is that they play a lot when the score difference is more than one or two, and one goal for or against is much less important. Martin and Moore get more ice time in blowouts and when the Leafs have managed to build up a big lead (three or more goals). When the Leafs trail by one or two goals, Martin doesn’t play at all. This is useful for ice time management for the top nine over a long season, but it also points out that not all five-on-five minutes are equally important.

Score state deployment is a part of coach’s usage that can give you a lot more insight into what they think of a player than what some reporter slices out of their media scrum and chooses to put on Twitter. This is also a hell of a lot more meaningful than if a player is “sheltered” or not. I despise that term, and if someone uses it as an insult to a player — oh, he has to be sheltered — as if that’s a knock against his manhood or his asset value, depending on where they are on the old skool to nerd spectrum, then I immediately stop taking that person seriously.

Most people think of “sheltering” as a zone start percentage skewed to the offensive zone. The idea is that the poor pathetic lesser player can’t handle the tough minutes. Zone starts are nonsense numbers. Except for when you want another hint about how a coach sees a player. Zone starts are calculated by who is on the ice for a faceoff that starts a shift. So if a player has a lot of offensive starts (which is going to be a tiny number compared to their never-discussed neutral zone starts) what that should tell you is that the coach thinks that guy can best participate in goal scoring type activities. Eww, gross. Get him off my team.

This is, in my experience, often more revealing of how much a coach is comfortable with his defencemen in the defensive zone than his forwards.

The other thing people sometimes mean when they talk about “sheltering” is quality of competition. This is a measure that fans overrate the importance of too much, rely on the eyetest for, and will tell you with confidence there just isn’t a “good stat” for it. Which I think means there isn’t a stat that weights QOC the way they like. There’s too main methods to measure the QOC: Ice time of opposing players or Corsi of opposing players. I like ice time, because coaches match lines based on if it’s the top line or not, usually, and the ice time tells you that with more certainty than the CF%.

The fourth line is not going to be on the ice against top lines very often. They are the least capable players on the team, so that seems like a sensible thing to me. If you want to say that the fourth line is “sheltered”, well okay.

But, you’re dying to say, but, but, but, what about all those Kids™ who just need to be Given a Chance™ and are great top line players the coach is holding back. Just look at Josh Leivo’s P60!!! Play them on the fourth line, and the fourth line will be great.

So like Connor Brown, then? Or Mitch Marner? Well, okay, not like Mitch Marner. That wasn’t a thing that was going to last, because you don’t drop the ice time of a guy that good so you can play Connor Brown more. Josh Leivo is not, and don’t shout his P60 at me, I actually have looked that up, a top line player. He’s fine as a fourth liner. That’s how he was used most of the time last year when he seemed plausible on NHL ice. He can play there. Or Martin. I don’t care.

But if you fill the fourth line up with players who really do need to be used carefully and only in the offensive zone to get value from them, you’ve just taken one of your better top three lines out of the offensive zone some more of the time. How is that efficient? Same result if you want to play the fourth line more minutes or more meaningful minutes because you like them now. Why are you playing a better top line less?

People like to tell me that more and more teams are moving away from the old style of hockey where the fourth line was where you parked your goons. And since I’m new to watching hockey, I find that helpful. Ray Ferraro told a story on his podcast the other day about playing against a team back when he was a top-line guy on the Thrashers. The other team put a line of goons on the ice in OT after they’d been sitting half the game and they could barely move. It was a funny story, but here’s the thing: No one does this. No one has done this for years. Teams have fully left the old days behind; it’s fans who can’t tell the difference between a goon from back then and guys like Matt Martin. Some days I wonder if fans can tell the difference between Colton Orr and any player who bodychecks well. You should want the best fourth line the team can afford, for varying values of afford, but the Leafs aren’t going to stock it with goal-scoring dynamo little wingers who are young and green and played a lot of power play in the AHL.

Kapanen, who we ranked in our T25U25 as essentially tied with Connor Brown, is borderline too good for a fourth liner like Brown is. But he’s not top line material either. Both of those guys are more than just slightly better than replacement level, but not a lot better. They can play support roles on your middle six and are good value there while also having useful special teams skills for utility players. You don’t very often get to put a guy like that on the fourth line where he gets to feast on easier competition unless he’s totally green and just starting in the NHL.

There are two reasons it’s rare that they play there for long. The salary cap is the obvious one, and if the Leafs were spending the $5.6 million in LTIR salary pool they have available on a better top four defender or another top forward, there would likely be a lot of pressure to play someone cheaper than Brown or Martin there. Which means that you need the perfect storm of a low enough salary, good enough skills to be better than average for the fourth line and enough experience and special teams skills to not cause problems elsewhere. Every Kid™ in the AHL does not meet that standard, no matter how many neato goal videos they star in. There are more who might meet the Leivo standard, however.

The other reason you don’t get an extremely good player on the fourth line permanently, like the Bozak as 4C scenarios I refuse to take seriously, is an asset value reason and a human reason mixed in together. Why is that player okay with playing less than ten minutes a night? Because it suits your lineup chart? I don’t think that’s how the real world works. And if the player doesn’t smarten you up by demanding a trade, then maybe the guy running your cap department will and point out that overpaying a fourth liner who could be traded now for assets to keep your team good in the future is really stupid.

“We’re so good, we have this hot player on the fourth line,” is equivalent to, “We’re so dumb, we haven’t traded anyone to make room for that hot player on the top nine.” Is it a temporary thing between now and the deadline? Fine. But in a cap league where the quest is for efficiency all over the lineup — you play the guys who score the most for the most minutes — it’s not a viable long term tactic.

You know who Plays the Kids™ on the fourth line? The New Jersey Devils and the Colorado Avalanche. Rebuilding teams do that. And “rebuilding” is the polite form for the word bad.

So if you really care who is on the fourth line but becoming a Devils fan just isn’t for you, then enjoy this brief period where you get to watch Brown or Kapanen or Marner playing too few minutes a night, so you can see the kinds of players you like on the ice all the time. Because when it’s time to leave rebuilding behind for good and be fully in the business of maintaining excellence with some star-class salaries on the team, the fourth line is not where the priority should fall. There might be a progression of Leivos there, but there won’t be many Browns or Kapanens. There may well be three Dominic Moores once the prospect pool gets harder to keep full.

Meanwhile, here’s a thing I am interested in and do care about: Patrick Marleau with Bozak and Marner. Will that work better than JvR there? And last year’s checking line is back just in time for a fairly top-heavy opponent, Is that the way it should stay? Is Komarov - Kadri - Brown the right mix of defence and offence? Because so far the Kadri line has been good offensively, but they’ve been caved in few times. Brown is a good zone exit guy, this might help that.

How will the power play look without JvR? How is this window into a possible future without him going to make me feel about the idea of re-signing him? My kneejerk reaction is a very loud no to that idea, but I’m also laughing pretty hard at the idea that this Leafs lineup is better than the one that played in the last game. Given that, is it Bozak who needs to be replaced sooner? The yes knee jerks on this one.

So I don’t care about the fourth line, or who is on or off it right now. I do care rather a lot about lines one, two and three.

You, however, are a free person who may carefully watch every second the fourth line plays with heightened interest. I mean, it’s not like I’m not going to notice when Kappy is on the ice. And I am a tiny bit curious how Babcock will use them.

Oh, just beat the Flyers, that’s all that really matters.