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.

Margins

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:

    • Edsez

      realistically Quick’s $5.8 mil contract meant they weren’t going to match the 2.5-3 mil offer sheets he was likely to receive

      they took the best of what they could get …… this trade is listed (with the draft pick being a third) in a trade-scenario article on bleacherreport from July 2012 ….. it’s been brewing for a while

    • John Chambers

      Also, good on Nonis for accomplishing that 3 for 1 swap that Oiler fans are eager to see.

      Unfortunaly though we get to hear TSN drone on about a goalie controversy from now until whenever James Reimer is traded – which hopefully happens this week to Philadelphia.

    • John Chambers

      Leafs overpaid as usual. The throw in of a 2nd round pick in addition to scrivens/frattin was overpay. He is Rfa too, not even signed to a contract extension yet. In my opinion, Scrivens + 4th round should be the going rate.

        • John Chambers

          I dunno. Would you trade Paajarvi, Bunz, and a 2nd for a young, cheap (probable) starter?

          Toronto trades piece parts and now has a trade chip, maybe selling high on Reimer to get a piece they need at C. Think Philly would trade Schenn and change for Reimer and Gardiner?

  • magisterrex

    Any team can put a 4th line together that would scare up other teams’ lines with issues of big hoits and fighting, etc, etc,…but…to what extent…are the Oilers wanting to keep going into next season (or more) with fishing pucks out their own net continuously while not scoring back once in awhile????

    The next chosen type Oilers’ 4th line needs to be a skating line, a tough hitting line…(that I completely agree on with the masses)…but I also say the Oilers need to have some offence on that type line as well…with decent puck possession abilities.

    Eager…for one…has to be a great soldier for Eakins/Oilers this year…and every game in and out…for me to be sold on him to stay.

    If not, and we can’t find the new big tough skating guys (????)this summer to come to the Oilers…then use a young Arcobello at center with Ryan Smyth and Rajala.

    I would rather see Oilers’ puck possession and scoring enough…….during those 6 to 8 to 10 minutes per game…than to always be scored on 1 to 3 times a game regularly.

    The Oiles do have quite a few girtty player type bigger kids coming into the future…Kelsy, Zarkov, Moroz, Ewanyk, Pitlick, Khaira, McCarron, etc… but…these kids are not here yet.

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    What we are looking for is upgrades, not more failed reruns . You can almost sense those we get to replace Hemsky and Horcoff are likely to be more downgrades or inferior fillins . We got to start winning trades by getting the best player , and that includes the fourth liners and specialists .I don’t see any indication of that as yet .

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    The same counter-intuitive truth about hitting applies to blocked shots at evens.

    If you are blocking a lot of shots at evens you don’t have possession of the puck and you aren’t attacking the offensive zone.

    A lot of the stats we use to describe “tough” “gritty” etc players actually just describe players who are at best limited in their play.

  • magisterrex

    I’d like to see the 4th line taken directly from the Oil Barons. Reward them for performance in the AHL by giving them 4th line duties in the NHL. Provides incentive and reward for everyone and I bet a line with Rajala and Arcobello would skate circles around a knuckle-dragger line…as well as being a constant threat to score. Good teams win by icing better players than they play against!

  • Edsez

    I think oilers fans always want the crash bang fourth line because they are hearkening back to the 97-98 oilers… We were one if the best hitting teams in hockey and all it got us was to the second round of the playoffs (and that was because of goaltending not hitting).

  • 106 and 106

    Johnathan,I am not sure to what level of hockey you played or coached but statistics are sometimes deceiving. Where are the stats on lost pucks due to looking over your shoulder in fear or the face off being won but possession lost due to the winger more worried about who is lined up beside him and what is being said to him. You need players on every line that can deliver a timely hit and will defend themselves or team mates. A good 4th line will get 8-10 minutes in the regular season and if they are good penalty killers possibly more.You have to get to the play offs and a bottom six and at least 2 defense men that can play physical smart hockey can be the difference in a hand full of games that get you into the playoffs,This is especially true with a young team.If you do not have a player or two that can play hockey and be a deterrent you may not make the playoffs.

    • Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty)

      YyyyyUuuuuuPppppp!!!

      I think Don Cherry (and the Sutter brothers) would rake JW over the coals on this one….

      Now….it may be that Cherry represents the past and JW represents the future…

      But give me Old Time Hockey over Euro Style every day of the week and twice on Sundays!…………( said the dinosaur to the caveman)….

      • Romulus' Apotheosis

        I think he said Eager should be given a shot to prove himself in TC and that if he makes the team the 4th line ought to only have one of his kind.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    See Ben more as a top 9 forward, than a 4th line Jack Reacher type. What we’ve seen from this relationship in this last year, is the result of the Oilers expecting too little from Eager. Letting him toil in the little to no impact zone 4th line.

    Hopefully Eakins has a closer look at him before they cut him loose. Hoping he’s one of a few players rejuvenated with this fresh start the players will have coming into this coming season.

    Don’t tase me bros….

  • Edsez

    Ben Eager, with his size and skating, should be the guy that that a hard-crashing, cycle the puck in their end, solid 6-minute 4th line is built around …….. it’s too bad he lacks the focus because he has all the skills.

    Who do we have in the system that can channel the George Laracque of old ? While his hands turned to stone at times, I can’t think of many that could keep the puck deep in the opposition end like he could (granted it mostly pinned against the endboards)

  • Concur

    I have always believed that if a player is not good enough to crack the top 6 then they should be able to change their game and play in the bottom 6. You don’t need to be 6’2″ to be able to hit somebody or be an energy guy, but it helps. I like MacT’s comment at the start of reign, “you have to be a threat to score.” A player like Marc Arcobello might not have what it takes to be a top 6 guy due to point production, but if he can become defensively aware while still being able to cash in on chances then he could be a bottom 6 forward. The Oilers should be looking for or developing those types of players