If the Montreal Canadiens continue to experiment with a younger lineup that includes Sven Andrighetto and Michaël Bournival on the fourth line, they may be re-creating the mismatch abilities of last season's line when Daniel Brière was playing there. Although significantly younger, a fourth line that features skilled players versus grinders creates a tough match up for other teams who ice a traditional, gritty bottom three.
It may seem counter-productive to give limited ice-time to a young line comprised of skilled players instead of having those players play more minutes in the AHL. A team can choose to break in skilled players in a position where the expectation to score isn't there. If young players are able to break into the NHL in a role that doesn't place much pressure on their shoulders to produce offence and instead simply requires outplaying bad players, the young players are put in a position to succeed.
Playing skilled players on lower lines is not a new idea. In 2008-09 when the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup they played notable skilled players Miroslav Satan and Petr Sykora on their bottom trio. Though both players were not able to keep up in the top-nine, they were perfect in a role where they were required to play on the fourth line: low minutes against low-end skill. Creating the mismatch allowed the Pittsburgh Penguins to win with middling possession numbers against a superior Detroit Red Wings team.
The usage of Brière during his lone year with the Montreal Canadiens illustrates how most NHL teams use their bottom line: as a scrap heap for players who are under-performing or on contracts that they really do not deserve. NHL teams should start seeing the fourth line as a place to gain a distinct advantage over other teams. Instead it usually turns into a repository of has-beens and bad players. Simply changing up how lines are used and having all lines based on skill versus some lines having the ability to grind may be enough to help an NHL team gain an advantage on the opposition.
Redefining the usage of lines may be the next step for teams looking for an edge. With more and more teams paying proper attention to not only the acquisition of fancy stats, but properly applying them with analytics, teams need to continue to evolve how they set up their teams to get ahead of the game. It should not be far-fetched for a team that overloads on skill to win a match-up versus one using toughness to create energy. Instead of energizing their team by hitting guys and chasing the puck for a minute or longer, a skilled fourth line would be able to create energy through scoring chances and goals.
To pull off this entirely skilled lineup, a team would have to move beyond the traditional numbered lines and instead look at lines as fillers of roles. There should be a front-line offensive line, a line that can eat defensive zone starts, and one or two lines that are capable of beating the line they are matched up against. In essence, a team would be running a top-three and bottom-nine versus the slightly more common top-nine and bottom-three. It would be a radical shift that would eliminate the fourth line entirely in a lot of ways and instead create roles best suited for the players that play them. The lineup would be more susceptible when an injury occurs, but shifting players around and even changing to the more traditional top-nine, bottom-three setup if a centre gets injured may be a sound option.
Using entry-level contracts in the NHL as opposed to the AHL and allowing players to make mistakes in the safer environment of the fourth line will also give teams more opportunity to see how the player handles the rigours of the NHL on and off the ice. The second part is key in cities like Montreal where the city and the pressure can eat a player up and spit them out at an impressive rate. Giving young players a slightly more insulated way to learn how to play in the NHL may be one way to avoid some of these pitfalls. Of course, it could fail and blow up in everyone's face, but it would most likely allow for the Montreal Canadiens to swiftly evaluate how young players handle living in a big city and playing under the pressure of being a member of the organization.
If the Canadiens continue with a more skilled fourth line, they will be going back to their roots when they were kings of the league. In The Game by Ken Dryden and The Greatest Game by Todd Denault, there is talk about the fourth line and how it was used by the Montreal Canadiens. It was a line for young, skilled players to cut their teeth on and prove they were capable NHLers.
For some reason, the NHL has lost this strategy. Instead of allowing young players to break into the league in the safe confines of the fourth line, free of expectations to score, they have to stay in the AHL until they are ready to fulfill the scoring roles to their potential. This may have to do with the influx of teams since the era in which those books were written. It may also be a reflection of the impact of the Broad Street Bullies (a discussion to have at another time).
What is evident is that young players should be prioritized over old players. Skill should be prioritized over physicality and grinding ability. Teams should utilize entry-level contracts to help combat the salary cap and build skilled fourth lines. Creating a lineup that emphasizes skill could involve the inclusion of players that are in the AHL and near their scoring prime as opposed to older players that are on the decline from their peak production. If Montreal tries this, they may get more value out of ELCs and create line match-ups that constantly favour them at the same time. It would be innovative ... and old school at once.