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What can you realistically expect from a fourth liner?

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How much added value can you get in less than 10 minutes a game?

Washington Capitals v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

One thing that is not going to change about hockey fans is that they pay very outsized attention to the depth players on the team. This seems to be a particular-to-Toronto disease, where even the media will tell you more than you really need to know about whoever never leaves the press box, but it is true of all fans. Of their own team that is. No one has a clue who plays depth on the other 30 NHL teams.

While we’re all enjoying seeing Trevor Moore play a little, we can intellectually accept that the fourth liners on a team have very little impact. But, we always feel like ours should be contributing more or are disappointed that the team doesn’t just play prospects like Moore all the time.

The cause of both of those things — low impact, no prospects — is, for the Leafs at least, the less than 10 minutes a night they play. But even just saying that doesn’t really convey the truth about the fourth line. So I decided to look at it seriously and see just what can you reasonably expect out of a fourth liner who is truly the best in the NHL, forget league average. What heights can they reach?

Now, bear in mind, if a player is really good at less than 10 minutes a night on one team, chances are he’ll be a third-liner on some other team soon. Expansion has seen to that, as had the change in team construction that has resulted in all the old-style fourth liners eased out of the game. As some point, good depth players might suddenly be in a surplus, and teams will stop struggling to find fourth-line centres who are at all capable, but for now the shortage is fairly real, and not just because some teams have a stockpile in the AHL.

To get a feel for what the very best fourth-liners deliver, I used Offside Review to gather up all the forward stats from the last three years. Then I winnowed it down to players who had played at least 20 games in a season but were less than 10 minutes of five-on-five play per game. That left me with 239 player seasons. Some players show up over and over, so it’s not that many unique players.

I started out just looking at the simplest possible stats and finding the best results in each category to get a feel for what an elite fourth-liner looks like.

Goals scored in a season:

  1. Sonny Milano, CBJ 2017: 13
  2. Joel Armia, WPG 2017: 10
  3. Austin Watson, NSH 2017; Adam Cracknell, DAL 2016; Derek Grant, ANA 2017: 9
  4. William Carrier, VGK 2018; Kyle Brodziak, STL 2016; Scott Laughton, PHI 2017; Tyler Pitlick, EDM 2016: 8

And we’ve learned our first lesson. If you’re lucky, you get 10 goals out of your fourth liner. And you don’t get it more than once either. Cracknell’s 9 came in 2016 in Dallas, and he has never played enough games to duplicate it again. Armia is the example of a guy who had drifted down the lineup on one team and ended up higher up on a new one. In Montréal this year, he has six goals in 24 games played. Milano can’t bust out of the AHL and crack Columbus’s lineup, but he is a very, very interesting-looking player some team should try to snap up.

Raw goals depend on opportunity though, so a look at Goals per 60 should reveal some less-obvious lower-minute successes:

  1. Tyler Pitlick, EDM 2016: 1.61
  2. Tyler Ennis, TOR 2018: 1.52
  3. Sonny Milano, CBJ 2017: 1.45
  4. Brendan Lemieux, WPG 2018: 1.45
  5. David Booth, DET 2017: 1.27
  6. Oskar Sundqvist, STL 2018: 1.15
  7. William Carrier, VGK 2018: 1.12
  8. Chris Wagner, ANA 2016: 1.07
  9. Cory Conacher, TB 2017: 1.05
  10. Kyle Clifford, LA 2018: 1.03

Sundqvist is an interesting person to show up here. He had been a disappointing tweener for Pittsburgh, and now he’s had multiple injuries this year, but he’s been a good player for the Blues and outshines most of their third liners.

A couple of players who just missed the top 10 teach some lessons about usage and perception. Kasperi Kapanen had 0.96 G60 in 38 games played largely on the fourth line last year. And Cody McLeod had exactly the same result in 2017 in 31 games in Nashville. The players you think of as just facepunchers are, these days, pretty good hockey players, or they’d be out of the league already.

Points per 60 should capture the good players who haven’t merely riden their own shooting percentage spike, so let’s see those:

  1. Travis Boyd, WSH 2018: 2.64
  2. Carter Rowney, ANA 2018: 2.37
  3. Adam Erne, TB 2018: 2.24
  4. Tyler Pitlick, EDM 2016: 2.22
  5. Nic Dowd, WSH 2018: 2.2
  6. Brendan Lemieux, WPC 2018: 2.03
  7. Austin Wagner, LA 2018: 2.02
  8. Jordan Schroeder, MIN 2016: 2
  9. Oskar Sundqvist, STL 2018: 1.97
  10. Jiri Hudler, DAL 2016: 1.96

Tyler Ennis is 11th with 1.95 P60. And Matt Martin’s last Toronto year comes in 17th with 1.82. There’s a couple of reasons why players in the current season are dominating the points lists, and that’s because scoring is up, but also, these guys have all only played half a season and it’s easier to get anomalous results in fewer games.

So how about Expected Goals then? Who is actually good at getting off quality shots in quantity on less than 10 minutes a game? I used individual xG60:

  1. William Carrier, VGK 2018: 1.34
  2. William Carrier, VGK 2017: 1.08
  3. Frank Vatrano, BOS 2017: 1.08
  4. Tyler Ennis, TOR 2018: 1.06
  5. Lukas Sedlak, CBJ 2018: 1.03
  6. Jean-Sebastien Dea, NJ 2018: 1.02
  7. Curtis McKenzie, DAL 2016: 1
  8. Kyle Clifford, LA 2018: 1
  9. Tyler Motte, CBJ 2017: .99
  10. Daniel Carr, MTL 2016: .98

Kapanen’s 2017 season is at .89 and the next best Toronto result is Ben Smith is 2016 at 0.8. Smith, of course, was famous for excellent shot location and no ability to get it past NHL goalies, so some of those other guys on the list likely have similar profiles. But many of these players who show well here are already seeing some movement up the lineup on their teams.

What I’d really love to be able to have is zone exit data. That is: Who exits the ice leaving his team in the offensive zone the most? Because that is how I’d like to judge a low-minute fourth line. If you’re excited by the prospect of an 8-10 goal player, that’s good, but I’d rather he just leaves the situation on the ice in the optimal state for the better players. I can’t have the kind of zone data I want, but I calculated the penalties drawn minus those taken to at least get the power play creators:

  1. William Carrier, VGK 2017: 12
  2. Jared Boll, ANA 2016: 10
  3. Adam Cracknell, DAL 2016: 9
  4. Steve Ott, DET 2016: 9
  5. Joel Armia, WPC 2017: 8
  6. Brandon Tanev, WPG 2016: 8
  7. Denis Malgin, FLA 2016: 8

Are you starting to wonder if Vegas isn’t playing Carrier too low? Because I am. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare shows up well in some categories too, so they just have a really good fourth line. Possibly the best in the NHL. Carrier, however, has a third season on the long list that does not show up in any top-10s. He played in Buffalo in 2016, scored five goals, shot the puck much less from poor locations, had half the expected goals rate, and spent more time in the penalty box than you’d like to see. It’s entirely possible that “energy guy” was his job description there, and “play hockey” is what he’s required to do in Vegas.

Do the Leafs have a good fourth line?

Well. Maybe. Neither Par Lindholm nor Connor Brown make the long list because they’ve played too many minutes on other lines, but their numbers rank them fairly poorly, so I’d call them medium quality, nothing like Carrier or Armia or Adam Cracknell’s one glorious year in Dallas.

Josh Leivo and Frederik Gauthier are bottom half of the draw in almost every category I looked at, and both are beaten out by Matt Martin and Dom Moore last year as well as Nikita Soshnikov in 2016. The worst fourth liner by these criteria on the Leafs the last three years is Brian Boyle, though. No points, and a really bad expected goals ranking, and yet people remember him very fondly. Obviously, his playoff performance helps with that.

The best on the Leafs-only list is Tyler Ennis, without question, and even if you take into account he played some top-line minutes, he’s at least as good as the second best Leafs fourth-liner in the last three years, Kasperi Kapanen.

Gauthier is a placeholder centre only, the proof of concept of the rarity of fourth-line centres, and all claims to his greatness rest on his shot share, and you might notice I’ve ignored that entirely. There’s a good reason for that. Very low minute players’ Corsi data is so dependant on what the coach wants them to accomplish: take defensive draws, fill time, finish in the offensive zone, block a lot of shots, get in fights, whatever. I’m just not willing to hang it on any of them as individuals. The smaller the sample of time you’re looking at, the bigger the effect random chance has on their results. Put those two things together, and taking Corsi data on depth players too seriously is how you make paper heroes out of goats.

The Leafs use a deployment that does seem aimed at finishing in the offensive zone, and I’ll grant Gauthier some demonstrated skill at that, along with Lindholm and Brown. No one should discount their collective forechecking prowess.

We have our answer, though. If all goes really well, the best fourth liner on the Leafs might finish up like Dom Moore did last year with 11 points. Ennis only needs two more, and he’s the most likely suspect to crack that number. If you’ve got a really hot fourth line that’s tasked with playing some offensive zone time, you might get a dozen goals out of the best shooter, but there’s usually only one or two of those in the NHL a year, so don’t count on it.

Now, who is Tyler Pitlick ... oh, never mind, Dallas already got him, they’re playing him 12 minutes a game, and the Oilers have lost another player they didn’t know was good.