The new fourth line

Jonathan Willis
January 07 2009 10:38AM

From what I’ve seen, the Oilers new fourth line of Stortini, Brodziak and Strudwick has looked much better than any previous combination. They’ve played eight games as a unit so far, going back to the 3-2 shootout loss against Anaheim. Let’s look at their performance statistically (at even strength) over that time frame, using Vic Ferrari’s Time On Ice tool.

  • Goals For/Against: 4/1 = +3
  • Corsi: 31/31 = 0
  • On-Ice Save Percentage: 0.952
  • On-Ice Shooting Percentage: 22.2%
  • Face-offs Start (Off/Neu/Def): 13/13/11
  • Face-offs End (Off/Neu/Def): 12/8/11

I’m going to interpret these results in two ways; a long way and a short way. First, the short way: this line has been good, and this line has been lucky. For those of you who want to know why I’ve concluded that, the long way follows.

They’ve Been Lucky

This line is not going to continue to outscore their opposition by a 4:1 margin. They’ve been incredibly lucky to have things go their way, and things could easily have gone in exactly the opposite direction, because sometimes that’s just how the puck bounces.

For starters, a forward line has very little impact on the save percentage of their own goaltender. Vic Ferrari did a study in December of 2007 (found here) which looked at the on-ice save percentage behind each team’s first line, second line, third line and fourth line. The difference between a league-average first line and a league-average fourth line was 0.000%. In other words, forwards have very little effect on how many pucks their goaltender stops. Thus, we can safely conclude that the outrageously high .952 SV% posted behind these three is a combination of a) luck, and b) the opposing forwards' lower skill level.

The second number that I look at and think luck/chance/randomness is their on-ice shooting percentage. 22.2% is the cumulative shooting percentage of this group as a whole. We could look at the individual goals, conclude that the bounces off skates aren’t going to continue and write it off, but instead let’s look at the individual shooting percentages these players have put up over different seasons since the lockout.

  • Stortini: 5.9%, 7.9%, 11.1% (current season)
  • Brodziak: 0.0%, 9.1%, 11.2%, 14.9% (current season)
  • Strudwick: 9.7%, 0.0%, 4.8%, 8.3% (current season)

In a word: luck. 22.2% is not going to continue for these guys.

They’ve Been Good

By now, you’ve likely concluded that I don’t like this combination, but nothing could be further from the truth. The face-off numbers tell us that MacTavish is using them all over the ice, both in the defensive and offensive zones. This is a rarity for an NHL fourth line; most fourth lines seem to end up with more offensive zone than defensive zone starts (especially under MacTavish; it was a big factor in the success of the unit last season). Despite that, most fourth lines end up well in the red (as shown in the Ferrari study linked to above).

Jason Strudwick, who was easily the worst defenceman on the team, looks like a different player as a forward. He plays a safe, effective game and adds a physical presence. Much the same can be said about Zack Stortini, the Oilers’ most consistently physical player, while Kyle Brodziak is simply better than an average fourth line player.

Just for reference, here are Brodziak and Stortini’s numbers from before they were put on a line with Strudwick:

  • Brodziak: 6GF/10GA, Corsi: 213/276 = -63
  • Stortini: 2GF/5GA, Corsi: 67/99 = -32

This is a good line; I hope it stays together.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Steele
January 07 2009, 10:47AM
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Sad to see that we Oilers fans have all stooped so low as to start aggrandizing a fourth line. Thanks Oilers for setting the bar so high this year only to kick us in the nuts - AGAIN, or should I say STILL.

Go (rip my heart out AGAIN) Oilers!!

~Steele

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#2 Wanye Gretz
January 07 2009, 10:49AM
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Steele wrote:

Sad to see that we Oilers fans have all stooped so low as to start aggrandizing a fourth line.

I disagree. Silver linings are fun to note and clearly this 4th line is actually doing quite well.

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#3 swany
January 07 2009, 10:53AM
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What happens when Mac is Back? Will Storts or Struds come out, Mac said he would be ready by the 15th of Jan.

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#4 RBK
January 07 2009, 11:11AM
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I wonder what the big difference is for Strudwick to be so effective on forward and so ineffective on D?

Strange.

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#5 Dennis Castro
January 07 2009, 11:28AM
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You leave this line together as long as it keeps working good and go back to Smackintyre when he is needed such as against Calgary or Minnesota. In other words, go back to the plan you used before Mac got hurt.

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#6 Jonathan Willis
January 07 2009, 11:34AM
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@ RBK:

Well, I'm not a coach, but I know from playing that I've always found forward to be a much simpler position than defense, especially for a north-south player. Besides, Brodziak's generally the high man (actually the centre has generally been the high man for the majority of MacT's tenure, IIRC) so if Strudwick can play a strong north-south game (which he does) he can be effective.

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#7 Ender the Dragon
January 07 2009, 12:06PM
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Dennis Castro wrote:

You leave this line together as long as it keeps working good and go back to Smackintyre when he is needed such as against Calgary or Minnesota.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I'm going to miss referring to Huggy-Bear, now that he's learned to spread love in a new way, but the fact that he's chuckin' leather now means that rushing the SMacAttack back into the fray is not as critical as it once was. When the current trio falters maybe SMac draws back in, but MacT would be foolish to bring him in 'just because'.

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#8 topshelf
January 07 2009, 12:10PM
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@ Ender the Dragon:

Agreed.

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#9 shakey
January 07 2009, 12:35PM
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Stortini is throwing them now but does he instill fear into outher teams like SMac? Look at how invisible Reger (SP?) from the Flames was after SMac beat Vandermeer into the ice. Stortini has done a good job and has become a better player but is he a real deterrent to the shots Hemsky and others take? We should be able to rotate guys in and out of the 4th line without it having a drastic effect on the team. There's issues if your game suffers when you break up a 4th line.

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#10 raged
January 07 2009, 12:59PM
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@ shakey: I just hope Mac plays in the next Nashville game, other than that i`d stick with the current three.

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#11 shakey
January 07 2009, 01:25PM
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raged; I worry what a broken face has done to the mind of SMac. I couldn't imagine leaning into a punch knowing the last one you took put you out for months. He'll need to get a fight in early on after he's back just to get over the worry. Obviously this is just my take on it because I'm not a hockey fighter and I don't know what their mindset is. If Mac can't/won't fight then he shouldn't be in the line-up because his skills are limited.

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#12 Cam
January 07 2009, 01:47PM
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shakey wrote:

If Mac can’t/won’t fight then he shouldn’t be in the line-up because his skills are limited.

He does a have ahrd shot though - I was sure surprised at the skills competition.

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#13 Dennis
January 07 2009, 02:47PM
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I'd say the best 4th line I've seen in recent Oilers memory was Horcoff-Murray-Laraque in '01; coming a close second was Devereaux-Dowd-Laraque in '00.

The current line doesn't come close - though Glencross plus Brodz/Storts last year was damn good - but it might be better if that dummy Moreau was moved down there in 43's stead.

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#14 Chris
January 07 2009, 03:28PM
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@ shakey: I U-tubed a bunch of MacIntyre fights when Tambo first claimed him off waivers. MacIntyre always seems willing to take or trade punches as he works his opponent around into a position where he can finish him. Strong defence is not his style... he prefers strong lefts.

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#15 misfit
January 07 2009, 03:48PM
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As a line they probably have more goals than completed passes, but boy have they been fun to watch.

Looking at the underlying numbers, you'd probably expect them to break even on the GF/GA front over the long haul, and frankly, that's all a guy can ask for from the 4th line. Especially when you know you can count on them to finish every one of their checks, and to put a little life into the game when they're out on the ice.

Personally I like this trio, and it was probably wise to stop playing Strudwick as a defenceman (you don't have to play him as much, and he's far easier to shelter as a forward).

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#16 Chris
January 07 2009, 04:04PM
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@ Jonathan Willis: I thought statisticians didn't believe in luck. On a long enough time line that shooting percentage will drop, but it won't be because the guys become "unlucky", it will be because of the law of averages. A puck thrown at the net will go in 5-10% of the time in the NHL... It could be off a skate, or a defender, or go straight in... good things happen when you attack the net.

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#17 Jonathan Willis
January 07 2009, 04:09PM
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@ Chris:

Luck/chance/randomness/law of averages; it all boils down to the same thing.

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#18 Chris
January 07 2009, 04:15PM
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@ Jonathan Willis: I don't like the word "luck" in reference to the Brodziak/ Strudwick goals... This word implies these goals weren't earned. Winning the lottery is "lucky" because the odds against this happening are astronomical. The odds of scoring an ugly goal (or two) by attacking the front of the net are considerably higher...

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#19 Jonathan Willis
January 07 2009, 04:31PM
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@ Chris:

The odds of the fourth line maintaining a .952 SV% and 22.2 SH% are pretty unlikely too. The goals themselves were earned, but the percentages their posting are unlikely to reamin.

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#20 MikeP
January 07 2009, 04:38PM
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Jonathan, you say: The difference between a league-average first line and a league-average fourth line was 0.000%. In other words, forwards have very little effect on how many pucks their goaltender stops. Thus, we can safely conclude that the outrageously high .952 SV% posted behind these three is a combination of a) luck, and b) the opposing forwards’ lower skill level. ----

I'm not sure how conclusion part b follows from the (lack of) effect of forwards you note. Shirley if there was no difference between 1st and 4th lines on save percentage behind them, the quality of the opposing forwards similarly has no effect? I mean, most coaches aren't going to run the Strudwicks and Stortinis of the world out against the Wolskis and Crosbys, no?

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#21 MikeP
January 07 2009, 04:48PM
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Cam wrote: He does a have ahrd shot though - I was sure surprised at the skills competition.

Being able to shoot the puck really hard isn't a skill unless you combine it with other things: being able to get into the right position a lot (Brett Hull) or being able to get it away really quickly. MacIntyre, bless his heart, definitely lacks the former and doesn't seem to have the latter either.

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#22 Jonathan Willis
January 07 2009, 07:23PM
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@ MikeP:

Take a look at the link; the difference between the first line and the fourth line on an opposing goalie's save percentage was .022.

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#23 MikeP
January 08 2009, 04:18AM
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Jonathan, sure. I'm not disputing the numbers, I'm wondering how you can conclude, based on those numbers, that the save percentage behind Stortini, Strudwick, and Brodziak has anything to do with the quality of the forwards opposing them. They're getting lucky with Roli lately (or Roli's getting lucky with them, and dear lord what have I just said). You said that in part a of your conclusion. But I don't see how part b follows from those numbers at all.

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