Six minutes per game

There’s a theory out there – and it’s one I’m often reminded of by readers – that the ultimate fourth line in the NHL is a crash-and-bang group. The idea is to load it up with guys who can skate and hit (and ideally fight) and let them skate around for six minutes or so causing mayhem to help tilt the physical scale, and not have them worry so much about anything else.

Personally, I think it’s a terrible idea, but I’ve never really explained why.

The Trouble With Hitting

A hit statistic records more information than is always realized. Hits are generally seen as a measure of physical aggression, but they’re also a measure of puck possession – when a hit is thrown, it means that the player making the hit doesn’t have the puck. In other words, a team that hits a lot typically does so because a) they’re physical (which is good) but also b) they don’t have puck possession (which is bad, since having the puck is almost always better than not having the puck). Tyler Dellow talked about this in relation to the Boston Bruins the other day:

One of the things that we talked about was the idea that the Bruins are a big, bad team. I’m kind of skeptical. When I looked at hitting and getting out-hit earlier this year, the B’s weren’t a team that really tended to out-hit their opposition last year – if you don’t want to get hit a lot, play a really good team that has the puck more than you.

Of course, everybody is going to not have the puck for a portion of the game – and when the other team has the puck, hammering them is a good way to go. Boston’s good at it – but Boston only ranked 16th in road hits this season because they generally also have the puck a lot more than the other team does. So being a top team in hits, as a general rule, suggests the team probably isn’t very good.

The Fourth Line

When we take that information and apply it to the fourth line, the results are obvious: putting together a line composed entirely of players like Ben Eager and Mike Brown and Theo Peckham (when people suggest moving him to forward, they often have this concept in mind) and the like means ceding puck possession to the other team. There’s a reason that Zack Stortini’s best games in Edmonton generally happened when he was the least talented player on his line – there’s a place on almost any team for a guy that can hit and will fight as long as he can play a regular shift, but there aren’t generally places for three of them.

It’s a black and blue and red line: the other team’s fourth line and third defence pairing may be bruised and battered, but the goal light is only going to be triggered in the Oilers’ end of the ice. (Incidentally, that’s another problem with the concept: a player like Jonathan Toews doesn’t run scared from a physical fourth line because, if by some chance he happened to take the ice against them they’d spend the whole shift running around in their own end. Mostly though, the guys they’re hammering on the other team are guys that play on depth lines.)

The flip side is the ‘that’s why they only play six minutes a night’ argument. But there’s trouble there, too.


Six minutes represents 10 percent of the hockey game. Last year, the Oilers averaged 2.56 goals per game and 2.73 goals against per game. The two numbers aren’t directly comparable because special teams ice-time leads to more goals than even-strength ice-time, but what would a 10 percent boost in goal scoring done for the Oilers? Aside from the far ends of the NHL scale – the really good and the brutally bad – parity means there isn’t a lot of gap between the 20 or so teams in the middle. People like to say ‘if you’re trying to fix the fourth line, you probably have a pretty good team’ but it isn’t really true because at a team level winning or losing comes in the margins. Being just a little bit better matters a lot – and building a fourth line that bleeds goals and takes penalties, even only for six minutes per night means the team is just digging itself a hole they need to make up somewhere else.

That’s before even getting into other apsects of the idea – that you might need that fourth line to play hockey at some point. The idea that Boston has the best fourth line in hockey is often raised by hockey commentators, but when Jonathan Toews went down in game five of the Stanley Cup Final, look who Chicago had on the ice in the final minutes with a one goal lead on the line:

Fourth-liners like Michael Frolik and Viktor Stalberg and Marcus Kruger all played in the dying moments of one of the most important games of the year. Is it even possible to imagine a coach willingly plugging Mike Brown or Ben Eager in those minutes if injury intervened? It’s an extreme example, but that kind of depth can matter a lot at critical moments.

The point basically boils down to this: winning is very hard in the NHL, and it’s a foolish team that intentionally puts itself in a hole for the sake of adding toughness at the bottom end of the roster.

Recently around the Nation Network

The Toronto Maple Leafs are rumoured to be chasing Jonathan Bernier, and at Leafs Nation Cam Charron thinks that’s a bad idea:

That said, if the Leafs want him to be a starter and Bernier will only play if he’s a starter, that makes no sense. The Leafs have a guy who can capably start, and there’s no objective evidence that exists that suggests Bernier would be better at this point. He may be, but there is a long list of teams who made huge deals for a big-name goaltender and it came back to bite them down the road.

Click the link to read more, or alternately, feel free check out some of my other pieces here:

  • nuge2drai

    Oiler Domination To Follow

    Smith for Hemsky, Phaneuf for Gagner would instantly improve team toughness.

    Stafford, Phaneuf, Smith, Belov, and possibly Lindholm would make us big enough to compete in the new division next year.

    • Dockstaff

      Phaneuf for anything more than a bag of sticks and tickets to the Eskimos would be an error of grandiose proportions. He’s a poor leader, doesn’t score, telegraphs his big hits and is generally over-rated.

  • DSF

    Bob Stauffer ‏@Bob_Stauffer 2h

    Being asked about Hemsky to Ottawa rumours. At this time not a likely scenario. Hemsky’s value should increase a week into free agency

  • nuge2drai

    Oiler Domination To Follow

    2013 Oilers

    Hall Hopkins Eberle-
    Penner Lindholm Yakupov-
    Paarajvi Smith Stafford-
    Smyth Belanger Brown-

    Phaneuf Petry-
    J Shultz N Shultz-
    Smid Belov


    Defence looks bigger, stronger and more well balanced. Center position is weakened and I just put Penner on the second line lw slot for kicks. I’m sure it will get a reaction.

  • Interesting arguement, strong points in a non cap world. To win the fourth line has to play 10%ish of the game but be paid about 6% of the cap. The best teams seem to have top 6 forward or top 9 fowards playing powerplay and PK. So what is the role for the fourth line? Interesting argument on puck possession, but since it is easier to control the puck in non dangerous non scoring portions of the ice is this really good measurement. What is six minutes a game, about 7 or 8 shifts. What impact is a poor $1.2 M player going to make?

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Well, thank goodness those rumours turned out to be nothing but hot air. Let Hemskys deal wait till mid July and try and create multiple offers if possible, that is, if he’s still here and wasn’t used to move up in the draft.

    Rather odd to see these two long serving Oilers dumped this way. Their departures have a Souray Light tone to them.

  • nuge2drai

    Seamless offense from all 4 lines, and seamless defense from all 4 lines.

    There should be as much parity as possible system and execution-wise from all 4 lines.

    Or you can assign specific different System roles and execution to each of your 4 lines , or as Dallas seems to be hinting at doing you can teach all 4 lines multiple system tactics and adjust them all at once.

    Teaching multiple Systems as opposed to simply the singular NewAge Hockey System to achieve this Dynamic Adjustment ability is less than optimal .

    I dont believe this method and approach can be dominant consistantly and produce consistant winning results without a specific and concrete “single” System Template based on a very high degree of superior Intuitive input, or a pure and natural Intuit running the show.

    Trying to utilise a multiple System approach is not exactly a new concept. NHL teams have always searched for this Holy Grail dynamic, but it takes a New Age Hockey System to provide this influence on ONE System Template thereby reducing the cerebral volume the roster needs to absorb, manage, and execute. This inevitable player cerebral overload is the reason why this approach is basiclly ignored historiclly.

    Getting them in better shape so they can process MORE cerebrally late in games when they are tired so they can accomodate multiple System inputs from the bench is , ha ha ha, original, but it just moves the challenge around, camoflages the issue, if the players cant handle the cerebral volume required to execute this approach then the NHSs single low maintenance Template is still needed.

    If this new approach fails it will be strike three, first Darkhorse, then Krueger, and now we will see a “multiple system” approach, two of these attempts have not replicated the NHSs influences yet and I dont believe our latest ideology will do much better. LA has one Cup, Chicago has number 2 both using limited NHS data, what the hell is wrong here?

    Heres a taste of the NHS, all Boston needs to do is drive the puck all the way to the net instead of trying to finesse it.

    Make a slap pass from up high or whatever and have the first pass initiate the charge to the net, not a shot, a charge. Stop using your size in only a defensive manner and get some penaltys called for you, Chicago cannot stop the big bodies if they take it to the bucket but they can stop them using the boards and better system defense if you piss around at all, admit their system is sharper because it is an NHS influenced Adjusted-Hybrid and it is superior.

    Chicago is giving Boston the perimeter enough to draw the puck out of them quickly after a shot from up high.

    Get the bodies moving right to the net from everywhere, just keep a man back to cover deep, , it is the same idea as the Tactical Shooting Program, just take it in hard the same ways consistantly for 60 mins looking for and creating cracks and you will dominate, but dont waffle do it for 60 full mins.

    If Chicago is going to get possesion of the puck back it has to be after a charge to the net, NOT a perimeter shot, Boston MUST convert as many possesions into high % scoring chances instead of perimeter shots or they will be history. The outside shots give the Hawks puck possesion to fast, draw it out and hold onto the puck as long as you can on every shift.

    If the puck rusher charges then changes his mind and trys a pass he will screw the cover man because if the pass is deflected or bobbled the opponents transition to offense will be very fast it is designed that way and you will get nipped.

    I wanna see the Bruins making one fast lateral pass up high not off the rush but after the zone is gained and the Hawks start to set up, with the d-man recieving the puck charging in full speed over and over until the Hawks spread it out more and dont stop for 60 mins, make the Hawks drag the big men down as they pound to the net hard. Bring the rushing d-man in with an arm out inside and the puck outside so he can lean in and wont surrender it to the Hawks in the middle for a quick-strike transition, dont headman the puck or you will get stripped and defeat the purpose which is NOT to shoot but to take it right in every time.

    This is the NHS advice, without the explanation. I wanna see a 7th game. The more hockey the better.

    Game 6 for Boston is a game that must be won using the 6 minute, 4th line mentality of KISS and carry the mail in and hand-deliver it for 60 minutes from ALL lines.

    Watch for it.For 60 minutes. Just like my template says. More completed net charges, fewer perimeter and overall shots due to reduced rebounds as the tender covers up in close, and less hits because they will have the puck more, and more goals will show up on the stats sheet for the Bruins if they follow the NHS advice and win.