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With the Trade Deadline Near, Maple Leafs Focus on the 4th Line

Wait, what?

NHL: DEC 01 Avalanche at Maple Leafs Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The most recent 32 Thoughts has a lot to digest, a lot about the Leafs, and you should read the entire original, not just whatever someone else excerpts out for you.

It’s not mind-numbing, but it is the sort of thing that can be rapidly irrelevant as trades are made and everything changes. The one thing that never changes in Toronto is that the fourth line is an unfinished project. And here we are again, with the Leafs having legitimate needs, not for optional extras, but for day-to-day players at sub-10 minutes per night.

6. Toronto is also looking at fourth-line changes. They were committed to getting Simmonds to 1,000 games and, as a long-time Spezza fan, I’d love to see him get the 10 points he needs for 1,000. But they’ve quietly looked into bolstering that trio. They’ve talked to Vancouver about Tyler Motte. As per Irfaan Gaffar, Tampa Bay’s been on Motte, too. Prospects Nick Abruzzese and Matthew Knies are possibilities after their NCAA seasons are over.

None of this should be a surprise, and yet I think it is. Jason Spezza hasn’t got it anymore. And yet every time attention turns to how to scramble the Leafs lines, someone puts him on the first or second line. The illusion he casts with his power play abilities is powerful, but his five-on-five play has faded into the West.

He was scratched for a couple of games, and I noted in a recap that the Toronto tradition of needing a 4C was alive and well. And it is, but it’s more than just a centre they need. Wayne Simmonds still shows flashes of valuable skills on the ice, but he was also scratched, and will likely be so in the playoffs. By the numbers, he brings more at five-on-five than Spezza, but it’s not enough.

Now, what numbers, though. Not points or goals. Expectations of fourth-line goal scoring are always unreasonable. The benchmark 10-goal guy, 20-goal guy thinking that’s popular leads people into the trap of only understanding the impact of power-play forwards. This is one reason why gifted penalty killers are less popular with fans and also cheaper.

A quick calculation to illustrate. Joe Average is your 4C. He plays exactly 10 minutes a night (so we know he’s not on the Leafs, they don’t play this much) and he plays 82 games. That’s 820 minutes. I’ve got the Evolving Hockey list of all Forwards who have 400 or more minutes in the NHL this year at five-on-five, which is 368 players, and to fill 12 forward positions on each team, you need 384, so close enough. Guy 100 from the bottom in Goals per 60 Minutes is Blake Wheeler which is reasonable, there are a lot of power play guys at the bottom of the list. Number 99 is Barrett Hayton, a centre for the Coyotes, who likely would be a fourth liner on most teams. He has .51 G/60. David Kämpf, 96th on this list has .5. That’s a fourth-liner pace. If you can’t get power play goals and you aren’t an assist guy, this is the level that makes you very good as depth.

That’s seven goals a season, rounding up. Any fourth line centre who gets even close to that is going to be so valuable, particularly if they PK, that someone who needs a cheap 3C is going to find the right wings to paste onto this 4C and make him their 3C.

Arizona Coyotes v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/NHLI via Getty Images

That’s why this quest is never ending, and here we are deep into this season, looking at the bottom of the roster. I don’t think Kyle Dubas was expecting Michael Amadio to end up a career Vegas Golden Knight, or Adam Brooks to vanish back to Winnipeg. Alex Steeves, Joey Anderson and Nick Robertson have all had tryouts on the Leafs, and only Robertson looks like he really adds value. But does he add the right thing for a fourth line?

There’s a very large segment of hockey fans who want a fun player on the fourth line. Play the Kidz, all that nonsense. They want high-risk, high-reward, and yet, you simply can’t get high rewards in that role. Every coach wants low-risk, clock-eating, no goals against, and the coach is right and you are wrong. “Roll four lines” is the most foolish use of ice time ever thought up. If you’re playing Jason Spezza or Wayne Simmonds or Zippy Prospect instead of Auston Matthews, you are really very obviously doing it wrong.

The fourth line doesn’t just play low minutes, they play short shifts. If they have a faceoff guy, they go out for D-zone draws and then leave. The Leafs use Kämpf for that, however. If they get an O-zone draw, they leave. This is likely the best possible fourth line for the Leafs — three guys who can move the puck up ice reliably and then go sit down.

Pierre Engvall is a pretty good guy for this role, and Spezza and Simmonds really aren’t. They’re too slow, and too easily taken advantage of defensively. They are vying for the worst forwards on the team at five-on-five, which is to be expected, but their negative impact overall makes playing them in a tight game really difficult. They add a little offence, and nothing else, which is not the thing the Leafs are short of. They are very scary to watch caught in the defensive zone.

Motte’s an interesting guy. He’s young-ish at 27, but not so young he hasn’t stopped doing dumb things. He gets a few goals, not enough to really matter, but he’s got some offensive skills, but his defensive game is where he excels. He’s an above replacement-level player who isn’t expecting a top-six role. His cap hit is right on the nose for his contributions at $1.225 million, and if you had to play him on the third line, it would be fine.

Motte is also American, but he, like Jack Campbell, is from Port Huron, and no one knows Canada like people from Port Huron, which might be a good or bad thing, come to think of it.

Freidman’s other suggestions, which are speculation, not insider rumours, are also interesting. Nick Abruzzese and Matt Knies played on a line together at the Olympics. They were the de facto first line most of the time, and Aburzzese looked exactly like Alex Kerfoot — quietly unnoticeable most of the time while passing the puck into the slot at very handy moments. Knies is aggressive and loud and clearly thinks forechecking is the point of hockey. I can buy Knies, much younger at only 19, making the NHL in a depth role now. I’m not sure about Abruzzese. But there’s every reason to try it. The biggest barrier would be Sheldon Keefe who never seems to want to play the players Kyle Dubas gets for this purpose.

There’s one other pool to draw from that the Leafs could try. As mentioned by Chris Johnston, players who were in the KHL this year and formally terminated their contracts in recent days can be signed now. They have to clear entry waivers, and that’s where Florida got Petteri Lindbohm as defence depth.

The possibilities from this source are not superstars in the making, but many of them are KHL stars. Top liners like Teemu Hartikainen, Miro Aaltonen, Sakari Manninen and Eric O’Dell might be depth players in the NHL. Might being the operative word. O’Dell is almost certainly going to get some attention because on Team Canada at the Olympics he hit hard, hit often and also scored two goals.

The draw of taking a chance on this kind of signing is that the asset cost is zero, the risk is zero and the worst that can possibly happen is that he doesn’t clear waivers. There’s a few very, very interesting Finnish goalies suddenly out of work too. In case anyone is shopping for another Erik Källgren while they’re at it.

This is the easy stuff for Kyle Dubas to sort out. But it should be sorted out. Some value has to come from that fourth line, and right now, there isn’t much beyond a parking spot for the second unit power play extras. The hard part is trying to figure out the defence, the goalie, the gaping hole for a top-six forward that’s still there even if we’ve just got used to it. And the harder part is deciding, maybe with his own job on the line, if the Leafs can be fixed by deadline deals at all:

There are also teams that feel plugging in a goalie this late in the season is too risky. In Edmonton’s case, GM Ken Holland felt it didn’t make sense as the Oilers slipped toward the playoff cutline. You’re not, he said, going to trade your best picks or prospects if not good enough to contend for the Stanley Cup. I wondered if Toronto would feel the same way as Boston closed in, but the Maple Leafs are far from conceding, even though some private models are less kind to their overall defensive play than public ones. The win over Dallas tied them for fifth in the NHL with a .675 points percentage, and they believe that is a true representation of who they are.

It all comes down to that belief in the points percentage.