The Modern 4th Line in the NHL: More than just treading water
Taking a more detailed look at the 4th liners of the Eastern Conference playoff teams.
The recent discussion around the Montreal Canadiens has centered upon the resigned Andreas Martinsen and rumours swirling around a new contract for Brian Flynn, to the point where the noise has exceeded the actual on-ice impacts of these two players.
But the tumult around Flynn and Martinsen raises an interesting question. In the modern NHL, we’ve seen we’ve seen the gap between the best and the worst player in the league shrink considerably.
So then: what, today, is your average NHL 4th liner?
The foremost obstacle to answering this question was defining the three players comprising the 4th line. Many teams rotated 4, 5, and even 6 players in those spots during the regular season and even in the playoffs. Others moved their “4th” line wingers up and down the lineup on a routine basis. For example, any winger on the Pittsburgh Penguins not named Phil Kessel could find themselves on the 4th line one night and next to Sidney Crosby the next.
To define the 4th line, I selected the 10th, 11th, and 12th forwards by even-strength time-on-ice (ES TOI) per playoff game for each of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams. After removing clear outliers (e.g., Flynn was 4th in playoff ES TOI but only played 1 game, while David Krejci was 12th but was injured mid-game), I had the following list:
Of course, hockey is a game subject to the eye-test as well as the stats sheet, so using some personal discretion, I added the following names for the following reasons:
- Tom Wilson (WSH) - 9th in TOI, but was used as a 4th liner during the regular season.
- Carl Hagelin and Tom Kuhnhackl (PIT) - 13th and 14th in TOI respectively, but each played in over 50 regular season games and 10 playoff games this season.
- Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg (NYR) - 9th and 13th by TOI respectively, but each played in every playoff game this year for the Rangers, and formed two-thirds of the 4th line against the Canadiens.
- Frank Vatrano (BOS) - 13th by TOI, but unlike Sean Kuraly and Ryan Spooner, played in all 6 of the Bruins’ playoff games.
- Tommy Wingels (OTT) - 13th by TOI, but played 36 regular season games and was a 4th line candidate for the Senators prior to the trade deadline.
- Andreas Martinsen, Brian Flynn, and Michael McCarron (MTL) - no explanation should be necessary here./
Thus giving me a final player pool of:
Parameters and rationale
With the player pool established, I looked at regular season points production and puck possession for each player while they were playing with their playoff teams.
Why filter using playoff TOI but look at regular season stats? I wanted to establish who coaches trusted to see the ice during the most important games, and what regular season track-record allowed these players to establish that trust.
Why look at stats accrued only with a player’s current team? A player’s role can change significantly from team to team. By looking at players with their current teams, I can assess the current 4th line statuses of the closest immediate competition of the Montreal Canadiens. Understandably, this leads to some small sample sizes, especially for trade-deadline acquisitions. However, the Habs, for example, likely care more about Dwight King’s 23 games with the Habs than his 63 games with the Kings when making a decision on the forward’s future.
The Average Eastern Conference playoff team 4th liner
The average 4th liner for an Eastern Conference playoff team is not a green rookie fresh from the AHL nor a long-toothed veteran just trying to stay in the NHL. The average age was 28.17 years, indicating that most players had a few years (but not too many) of professional experience under their belts, whether in the NHL, the AHL, or overseas. A few aging veterans (Matt Cullen, Alexandre Burrows) balanced out a few skilled rookies (Kasperi Kapanen, Pavel Buchnevich) fairly well, and the age distribution was not too different across the eight teams.
The players examined here averaged 0.30 PPG, which pro-rates to 24.6 points over 82 games. These numbers aligned relatively well with a raw analysis of NHL scoring: the forwards ranking between 271st and 360th in the regular season points standings averaged 0.26 PPG (21.3 points over 82).
Looking at the distribution:
- The bottom 25% produced between 0.00 and 0.19 PPG (0 to 15.6 points over 82)
- 26-50% produced between 0.20 and 0.28 PPG (16.4 to 23.0 points over 82)
- 51-75% produced between 0.29 and 0.42 PPG (23.8 to 34.4 points over 82)
- The top 25% were between 0.43 and 0.62 PPG (35.3 to 51.7 points over 82)/
When separated by team though, we see a more diverse distribution.
Columbus leads the pack by some distance (0.54 PPG), getting great production from Sam Gagner, Scott Hartnell, and Oliver Bjorkstrand. Boston (0.45), the Rangers (0.39), and Pittsburgh (0.35) also received above average scoring from their 4th liners.
Surprisingly, the offensive juggernauts that were the Washington Capitals only received average 4th line production, although average in this case is quite good given the heavily defensive-oriented nature and deployment of that trio.
The picture for Montreal is decidedly subpar. When Steve Ott, Torrey Mitchell, King, Martinsen, Flynn, and McCarron are all included, the Habs averaged 0.17 PPG per 4th liner, which is ahead of only the Toronto Maple Leafs (first chart in the gallery). When the sample size is reduced to Ott, King, and Martinsen - the three players in this group that started the Rangers series - that number falls to 0.05 PPG (second chart). Alternatively, the 4th line prior to the trade deadline of Mitchell, Flynn, and McCarron averaged 0.20 PPG - nothing spectacular, but closer to respectability (third chart).
One of the biggest arguments for maintaining a “grinder” 4th line is that it gives balance to the team, providing stability, physicality, and defensive-zone specialists capable of a shut-down shift or an energy shift. The Capitals are clear advocates of this stance, Toronto and Pittsburgh balance skill and sandpaper, while Columbus leans more towards the other end of the spectrum. There is a perception that an offense-oriented 4th line would be a defensive liability, allowing more goals than they would score.
The 4th liners of the Eastern Conference playoff teams appear to defy this perception.
In general, higher point production coincides with better possession statistics.
Of the 18 players above the 50th percentile for point production, only two were below 50% in goals for (Cullen and Vatrano) and only six were below 50% in Corsi for. Of those, five played for either Ottawa (team average: 48.5%) or the New York Rangers (team average: 47.9%).
Conversely, of the 16 players below the 50th percentile for point production, eleven were below 50% in goals for, and twelve were below 50% in Corsi for.
Where do the Canadiens stack up? Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn, the best of the bunch, find themselves barely above the 25th percentile. Michael McCarron is in the bottom quartile when it comes to points and goals for, but has a Corsi for value on par with Mitchell and Flynn.
As for Marc Bergevin’s trade deadline acquisitions, they find themselves at the bottom of the list as three of the only four players (the other is Tommy Wingels) to rank in the lowest quartile for points, GF%, and CF%.
Good teams find offense from their 4th lines
Some of the players listed in this study may not be typically thought of as 4th liners. However, that speaks to the depth present on a contending team. Any day a coach has the option to play 2nd or 3rd liners on the 4th line and not weaken his top 9 is a good day. Should any of the top 9 falter, suitable replacements are waiting in the wings.
The take home message from this is that 4th lines can no longer afford to be one-dimensional. Regardless of whether the team opts for a defensive (Cullen, Beagle), aggressive (T. Wilson, Winnik), speed (Hagelin, Grabner), skill (Gagner, Spooner), youth (Buchnevich, Bjorkstrand), or veteran (Burrows, Hartnell) approach, good teams expect - and get - point production from their 4th lines, and to construct a 4th line with no offensive intentions is to place the team at a handicap.
In a league where the gap between top to bottom continues to shrink year by year, any self-imposed handicap, no matter how apparently small, is a problem.