In Praise of a Cheap Fourth Line

62-Pakarinen-1

The real importance of a good fourth line is debatable. This is particularly true on a team coached by Todd McLellan, who at times has shown a tendency to lean heavily on three sets of forwards.

What everyone can agree on, though, is that a cheap fourth line is preferable to an expensive one. Given the thin margins that teams operate under, being able to save money on depth pieces can be extremely important.

That takes us to the subjects of this piece: Mark Letestu, Lauri Korpikoski, Anton Lander and Iiro Pakarinen.

Peter Chiarelli2

Peter Chiarelli wasn’t shy about making changes this past summer. Although he did avoid making final decisions on core members of the Oilers he didn’t hesitate to shore up weaknesses he perceived on the roster.

Two of those moves in particular were aimed at improving forward depth. First, Chiarelli traded defensive specialist Boyd Gordon, who had centered an effective but expensive fourth line to the Arizona Coyotes, bringing back Korpikoski. Then, on July 1, Chiarelli signed Letestu, most recently of the Columbus Blue Jackets, to a three-year contract, with the obvious objective of filling the hole created by Gordon’s departure.

Both Korpikoski and Letestu have deals which extend beyond this season, whereas Gordon would have been a free agent on July 1. Was the duo a wise investment?

To answer that question, we’re going to compare the work of Letestu/Korpikoski as linemates to those of cheaper players that Chiarelli inherited: Lander and Pakarinen.

The Expensive Fourth Line

55-Letestu-3

Using Puckalytics.com’s excellent SuperWOWY feature, we can see how given players performed with a mix of linemates. For this run, I looked at all the minutes that Letestu and Korpikoski had played together without either Lander or Pakarinen on the ice. Here’s what I ended up with:

  • Minutes: 232 played together
  • Goal Differential: 7 goals for, 6 against (plus-1, or 53.8 percent)
  • Corsi Differential: 174 for, 221 against (minus-47, or 44.1 percent)
  • Percentages and Zone Start: 7.7 on-ice shooting percentage, 0.950 save percentage, 39.3 zone start percentage

We can say two pretty good things about this line. The first is that Edmonton has scored more goals than the other team when it’s out there. The other is that McLellan has been trusting them in the defensive zone.

The bad news is that the only reason this tandem is doing so well is because the goalies are stopping almost everything they see. Only one in 20 opposition shots are turning into goals. Neither Letestu nor Korpikoski has any prolonged history of this kind of goaltending run, so we can reasonably assume that it won’t last. At some point, this duo getting caved in on the shot clock was going to cost the Oilers.

Letestu has been better away from Korpikoski (45.6 percent Corsi), while Korpikoski has been a disaster away from Letestu (40.7 percent Corsi).

Average hour together: 45 shot attempts for the Oilers, 57 for the opposition.

The Cheap Fourth Line

51-Lander-9

  • Minutes: 106 played together
  • Goal Differential: 3 goals for, 3 goals against (even, or 50.0 percent)
  • Corsi Differential: 89 for, 85 against (plus-4, or 51.1 percent)
  • Percentages and Zone Start: 10.5 shooting percentage, 0.900 save percentage, 43.5 zone start percentage

These guys actually worked really well together.

The percentages are probably bound to fall off; neither of these guys is exactly a goal-scorer and even with improved goaltending numbers they aren’t likely to break even in the goals department even if they are even in terms of shots. The curse of fourth line players is that pretty much everybody is better at finishing off chances than they are.

But even with that caveat, we see a line fighting to an even draw on the shot clock while taking on similar defensive responsibility to the Letestu/Korpikoski duo above.

Neither player has been as good apart—I’m inclined to say in large part because each has been stuck playing most of his minutes with Korpikoski—but both compare reasonably well to Letestu. Lander’s Corsi percentage in other situations is 45.3 percent while Pakarinen’s 44.6 percent.

Average hour together: 50 shot attempts for the Oilers, 48 for the opposition.

Money Money Money

Lauri Korpikoski has a $2.5 million cap hit, and his contract is back-loaded; he’s actually drawing $2.7 million in salary this year and will make $3.0 million next season. The latter two numbers only really matter if the Oilers want to buy him out/trade him to a budget team, otherwise we’re looking at cap hit.

Mark Letestu has a $1.8 million cap hit for this season and two more following.

Anton Lander and Iiro Pakarinen combined have a cap hit of $1.81 million this season. Pakarinen could climb slightly higher if he hits hiss entry-level bonuses, but even so the two combined come in well under Korpikoski’s contract alone and don’t make much more than Letestu.

We’ve seen there really isn’t any real performance at even-strength for Letestu/Korpikoski. Lander’s faceoff percentage is better than Letestu’s and all four forwards kill penalties, so the only thing that the more expensive duo really brings that the cheaper one doesn’t is Letestu’s power play time.

Performance isn’t a wash, but even if it was the money clinches this. Edmonton would have been better off if Chiarelli had made neither move in the summer and instead had leaned on his cheap incumbents to fill fourth-line minutes. The ex-Boston general manager came in and tried to shore up the Oilers’ bottom-six; all he managed to do was spend $4.3 million in cap space on two players who don’t really make a difference. 

28-Korpikoski-3

If Chiarelli can convince a playoff team that either Letestu or Korpikoski would be useful depth pieces for a playoff run, he should do it and not worry too much about the return. Both players are replaceable for less than their current salaries.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • T.J.F.M.

    Letestu has played way better than Lander this year. Korp has been a disaster. I would trade either/both as they are replaceable, but even considering contracts, i would keep Letestu over Lander. I believe Letestu would garner interest from other teams, but Lander has zero value and Korp has negative value. He isn’t an NHL calibre player.

    • The difference between Letestu and Lander at evens is almost nothing; if Lander had two more points they’d be scoring at exactly the same rate. It seems bigger because Letestu keeps getting used on the power play, where honestly neither he nor Lander should be playing.

      Lander costs half as much and the Oilers do a better job on the shot clock when he’s out there.

      To me, it’s less a matter of preferring Lander to Letestu to thinking that nothing Letestu brings is worth the extra ~$800K.

      • ziyan94

        Better on the shot clock does not win games.

        Your evlauation of Lander vs. Letestu is based on absolutely nothing save Corsi which is a flawed stat. Your blog (and all internet discussion about hockey it seems) is fixated on fancy stats which have limited value for judging hockey players. These stats should never be used the way you use them…in isolation from observation. Hockey is different from baseball where the “Moneyball” fad originated. Baseball is essentially a number of individual contests which seems like a team sport, but isn’t for th emost part. In hockey it is impossible to isolate a player’s impact on a given play and shot attmpts are not a terribly good way to judge 5 players effectiveness.

        • toprightcorner

          I didn’t like the Gordon trade since he has value to a playoff team at the deadline and they traded him for a bad contract. Overpaid guys on expiring contracts have value if they have skills that can help a team win the cup. The Oilers once again fail in the proscouting department and picked up a veteran that doesn’t help.

    • For Pete's Sake!

      Coppernblue has done an analysis comparing Lander and Letestu. Letestu has been better, but only marginally.

      If you had to move Lander or Letestu, would you rather have Lander for one more year at 987,500 cap hit (1.05 actual) or Letestu for two years at 1.8m? If you’re basing it on statistical analysis and the cost-benefit of either player, then Lander is preferable.

      If you’re basing it on how the coach uses the players (which admittedly doesn’t jive with the fancy stats), then Letestu is your guy. Lander has been healthy scratched a bunch and Letestu is a TM favorite.

    • For Pete's Sake!

      If lander had letetus playing time it most likely would be much different using last year as a prime example but of.course charelli brought in letestu he’s the guy who gets the minutes personally. I’d get rid of the whole third line ! Use the young guys on the third and fourth bring up kaira and fill in the blanks with all the available FA’s that ended up jobless or signing for about a million a year and at the same time add a little much needed veteran presence to a young team is look at how.hard the same players played for other teams let alone the ones that still had game left.that didn’t even get a contract just saying we should have done a much better job on contracts and term honestly disgusted with korpotski’s performance what a waste of money ! Now it’s going to be harder to fit.stamco’s in when he’s traded for Hall not to mention our defensive issues nuff said !! Oh ya Toronto is going to be pissed !

  • For Pete's Sake!

    My question is, why did we even need Korpikoski? Might it have been better to play a kid like Bogdan Yakimov this year instead of Korpikoski?

    I can’t see how he could have done any worse than Korpikoski. Now he may be gone for good. And we still would have had Gordon to win faceoffs so they could have saved the money on Letestu.

    Sometimes I think we should just go with youth on our 4th line. Let the kids learn how to play in the NHL and quit signing all these overpriced bottom feeding veterans that were castaways from other teams.

    Those other teams cast them off for a reason.

    • Mike Krushelnyski

      I think it was a reasonable gamble. Boyd Gordon’s contract was an anchor – he is Lander making $3M a year, and Korpikosi was presumably a guy who could forecheck, play special teams and move up the lineup as necessary.

      Sure as hell didn’t pay off though.

      • Jay (not J)

        Yeah, can’t hit the ball with the bat on your shoulder. Chiarelli has some work to do to break even this season though. Sekera, Gryba, Talbot/ Nillson vs Korp, Letestu, Reinhart. I think you can put Kassian on the left side of the equasion, but I’m not sure about Clendening (Jultz at the right price is kind of a soft sell isn’t it?). This season’s sewered already but it would be nice to see moves at the deadline that give a hint about the look for next season’s team.

        • toprightcorner

          It’s even worse when you look at it from the perspective of two roster spots.

          Gordon (3) + Khaira (0.875) is cheaper than Letestu (1.8) + Korpikoski (2.75). There were UFAs that could have signed a one-year deal.

          Gordon (3) + UFA (1.5) is also cheaper than Letestu/Korpikoski.

          Come the deadline, you could move Gordon and the UFA for picks.

          Instead of being stuck paying Korpikoski and Letestu $4.8m next season, you’d have $4.5m in cap space and two picks for PC to shape the team how he wants.

          If it was just a re-building/evaluation year where they did not expect to make the playoffs, why was PC so anxious to get rid of Gordon?

          • For Pete's Sake!

            Do you have a source for that?

            I read the hockey news every day and I never saw that when the trade was made. I was looking forward to him playing for the Oil until the deadline and then watch him get traded for picks or prospects. All they reported was PC and didn’t want to pay $3m for a fourth-line C, and that TM doesn’t really use defensive zone experts like Gordon (though that’s how he has deployed Letestu most of the season).

            It’s really only been the past few months when people are openly criticizing this trade that people started saying Gordon wanted to go back to Phoenix. If there’s a legitimate source for that, fine. Otherwise I’d consider PC spin because he looks terrible making that trade.

  • For Pete's Sake!

    Once again, we find ourselves debating which fourth line plugs can make the difference. WHO CARES!? The problems on the team have nothing to do with the fourth line. I very much doubt Pete Chiarelli is sitting in his office thinking: “Boy, we really gotta make some changes to that bottom 6 group, then we can compete!”

    No, the changes he’s thinking of making are much bigger than just changing out one plug for another. If thus team is going to gain some traction, it’s the top 6 that needs significant changes. I start with moving Eberle and go from there, but that’s just me.

    • I think you’re missing the point. It’s not that making changes in the bottom six would help directly. It’s that making changes in the bottom six that would get the same or similar results, but save millions of dollars in cap space, would be worthwhile. This would potentially give them the flexibility to trade for or sign a better top 6 player or defenceman.

      • .

        No. I got the point. And I’m sure PC will be getting cheaper help in the bottom 6 moving forward, but let’s take a look at the albatross contract they have with Jordan Eberle. They’re paying 6M for a soft, defensively uncommitted winger. Had they signed a better deal there, maybe they would have an easier time moving him for the defensive help they need. Korpikoski only has one year left on his contract, but Eberle has 3 years left. Not easy to convince someone to move a legit top 4 dman for that contract.

        My point is that improvibg this team will come from moving value to get value back. But hastily offered long term deals are seriously handicapping Chiarelli’s ability to change the situation.

        • toprightcorner

          This is the crap I don’t get. Ebs has been amongst the highest scoring wingers in the league over the last 5 years and you think he’s an albatross. Two weeks ago everyone in ON was loving the guy because he scored a bunch of goals. There are many many much worse contracts in the NHL. Ebs is a soft player no doubt, but he’s paid to score goals and that he does exceptionally well. On a different team, with stronger forwards around him, no one would be talking about how soft he is. Our core players are very good players. It’s the mix, and the total lack of defence, that makes the Oil a bad team. Having said that, we need to trade Ebs to plug our holes on defence.

          • For Pete's Sake!

            And that’s the crap I don’t get. How many flybys does he have to do in the defensive zone before fans like you get it? He’s the most expendable too six player they have, but his contract is too much.

            And for the record, I’m not an Eberle fan. Never have been and never will be.

      • #1 overall waivers pick

        100% correct we need to correct the money problems for a fourth line we can do without a couple of those contracts and fill in the third with some cheaper FA for the third opening a ton of extra $ for what we really need ! Defense and grit hell might as well through some heart in there too think of the free agents that were still productive hungry and cheap that needed and in most cases did produce much more than what we have now for.a.ridiculous price

    • Jaxon

      I think you missed the point. Paying your 4th liners 6.15 million (Hendricks included with Letestu and Korpikoski) instead of 3 million (let’s say Khaira, Lander and Pakarinen) makes it that much harder to go after someone like Byfuglien who just got 7.6 million. Instead you have to settle for the 4.5 million right handed D, which is your Anton Stralman type players.

  • ziyan94

    Bottom line, Letestu has proven to be steady at both ends of the ice.

    I understand saving money on the 4th line, but Letestu will probably be the 3C when McLellan puts Drai and Nuge on the same line in the top 6.
    We’ll get a cheap checker 4C in the summer UFA pool, since Lander hasn’t proven himself.

  • ziyan94

    Your Corsis and WOWYs and the other fancy stats leave much to be desired. If you actually watch the games you will see the value of a Mark Letestu. Not only does he play pp and pk, but he is THE rh faceoff guy on the team. AND he has been playing on 3rd line for most of the past 3 months. His versatility means he is worth spending a bit of cash…he turned down offers elsewhere to play close to his hometown.

    Not only that but he is great in the room, a calm influence and a student of the game who leads by example.

    The contracts weighing down the team are the big overpays on Nikitin (which was a head shaker right from day one), Schultz and to a lesser degree Mark Fayne. Korpikoski was not a good return for Boyd Gordon I will grant you but not because of Corsis or WOWYs. (whatever the Heck that is)

  • toprightcorner

    Looking at these deals and the rest of Chiarelli’s work so far it’s interesting that the majority of fans have a great deal of faith he can turn this around but if MacT had remained GM, made the same moves and we sat where we currently sit he would be getting roasted hard and all fans would demand he speak publicly about the debacle. I don’t recall anyone demanding Chiarelli have a “sorry about the bad team everybody” press conference.

    I know everyone will say “give him a pass he’s new” but don’t forget MacT didn’t get a lot of time before we starting holding his feet to the fire.

    I just don’t like the fact that changing coach and GM has allowed the organization to press the reset button on accountability. We’re 30th place. Again. No improvement. And we can’t get mad because every Oilers employee made available to the media has a “be patient I’m training” sticker on their shirt.

    • toprightcorner

      It was MacT’s comments and assessments that had to have him come out and speak publicly.

      First order of business MacT threw Dubnyk under the bus with the “If you have to ask the question”

      He also wanted Petry to prove it and refused to re-sign him while stating that Schultz has Norris Potential.

      MacT then gave up a draft pick just to reserve Nikitin’s rights and then overpaid him immensely thinking he is a legit top 4 Dman.

      MacT also signed Scrivens, Ference, Gordon, and you can even make a case Pouliot was a slight overpay.

      This summer will be when Chiarelli can start taking responsibility for the state of the Oilers as he has some big decisions to make. But until then I’m giving him a pass this season as he inherited a lot of MacT’s mess.

      • toprightcorner

        I agree with everything you said. I just feel like if MacT made all the moves Chiarelli made last summer he’d be getting killed on it.

        Also MacT against his will was forced to give a state of the franchise address half way through both his seasons as GM because the team was losing a bunch. We’re in the same place now and Chiarelli isn’t feeling the heat to explain why we find ourselves once again in 30th.

        I know MacT came in talking “bold moves” and “I’m an impatient man” but that was the most bizarre press conference in Oilers history. Kevin Lowe permanently damaged his reputation with the most ridiculous comments imaginable and MacT tried to change the subject to save his old buddy.

        • toprightcorner

          Chiarelli only has made minor moves so far as he is waiting this season out to shed MacTs bad signings ie. Nikitin, Purcell, Schultz and a possible Ference buyout.

          The Gryba pickup looks good, Sekera is our best Dman. Talbot is coming into his own. He re-signed Klefbom to an excellent extension and trading Scrivens for Kassian was another positive.

          Letestu is in question but he signed him for a RH face off guy. The Reinhart trade was an overpayment but I think Bob Green has a lot to do with that.

          If you ask me the only bad move that really burned us was Korpikoski but he’s gone next season anyway.

          As for MacT and his mid season press conference has a lot to do with him firing Krueger for no apparent reason after the Oilers seemingly took a step forward as the head coach.

          The Dallas Eakins era has to be the 2 worst seasons in Oilers history and MacT is the direct cause for that.

  • For Pete's Sake!

    Another useful set of factoids to confirm the obvious,
    Chiarelli is total incompetent.
    He has made things worse.
    And he is still in charge.
    As i have said repeatedly this is an outrage to the Oiler fanbase.

  • CanaDave

    I think that there is a bit of a benefit to having brought in veterans like Letestu and Korpikoski just for the sake of having brought more of a professional attitude into the locker room, since both guys are established NHL players who are probably being overpaid to be in Edmonton for the roles they should be playing, but are low maintenance players (as far as I know) who will give the coaching staff few headaches and possibly give Connor, Leon, and Darryl a couple of examples to look towards outside of the core that Chiarelli and McLellan inherited.

    Since neither contract will interfere with McDavid or anything more than 2 years into the future, as long as they aren’t directly responsible for losses it’s fine to be overpaying these guys now but I completely agree that as Leon then Connor see pay increases those are spots where the Oilers will have to be paying much less if they hope to succeed.

    • #1 overall waivers pick

      I’d respectfully disagree.

      If they left Gordon, and added a UFA vet for a year, you could still get that veteran experience in the locker room, and have cap space and picks this summer to make the team his own this summer. That’s been the sale pitch hasn’t it? PC could not re-build the team in one summer with all of the bad contracts.

      Nikitin, Jultz, Klinkhammer, Purcell, Scrivens. The Ference deal is easier to buy out this summer (2 years instead of 4). If you had Gordon and a vet on a one-year deal, then those are also off.

      Now they’re stuck with two more years of Letestu at $1.8m and Korpikoski at $3m ($2.5 AAV).

  • #1 overall waivers pick

    I think the over pay contracts may be the fault of the owner. Sather was a real scrooge when he was accountable to Pocklington but Slats overpaid players after becoming gm of the Rangers.

    It may not matter who the gm of the Oilers is… until Katz holds him accountable, we will continue to have overpay contracts on the bottom and top 6.

    • toprightcorner

      not a chance for 3rd liners, nobody in the league averages under $2 mill per player on the 3rd line.

      4th line wingers can be at $1 mill avg but even that is tough.

      4C rarely make under $1 unless on ELC, veterans make $1.5-$2.

      4C on top teams

      Chi – Kruger – $1.5 was his bridge, RFA and will get a raise.

      LA – Lewis – $1.5 – UFA

      NYR – Moore – $1.5 – UFA

      WSH – LAICH – $4.5 (4C line last 2 years)

      BOS – Kelly – $3

      DAL – Fiddler $1.5

      DET – Helm $2.2

      NSH – Gaustad – $3.25

      ANA – Thompson – $1.6

      SAN – Wingles – $2.4

      PIT – Bonino – $1.9

      TAM – Boyle – $2

      Letestu is in that ball park and is better than most.

  • #1 overall waivers pick

    Chiarelli will figure out the screwups Lowe MacT and Tambellini made.You dont win a stanley Cup and go the finals being inept.People that think a team that has been sewered by previous management wont take time to rebuild are delusional and need their brains examined.
    When the eig was in charge and slats was in control we made the playoffs quite frequently.When Katz came in and hired Bozo the clown we new it would be a rough ride.Also Chiarelli has to revamp the scouting staff.

  • CanaDave

    This is what? The 5th article you’ve written on how bad korpokoski is for the team? Jeebus we get it and I agree with you, I’d be more inclined to see you talk about options available via free agency this summer to replace the two if we get rid of them.

  • toprightcorner

    Korkiposki was a horrible addition, I like the idea of a more veteran player in the bottom 6 but there are better players at half the cost.

    I am completely fine with Letestu. he was almost half the cost of Gordon with triple to offensive ability.

    He is a great 4C and can play 3C if required. Unfortunately he has been playing 3C most of the season and gets PP time cause he is the only center that can win a draw and we all know the benefits of winning draws on special teams.

    I would take Letestu over Lander as 4C, more offence and the veteran leadership is a big advantage.

    Maybe Arizona misses Laurie and will take him back at the deadline.

  • toprightcorner

    I go out of my mind, when I see Letusless on ice for power plays and McDavid is on the bench.

    The excuse [not reason] he’s there for the face off. He looses 80% of the F.O on the power play because he is up against the other teams specialist to win the draw and not some 3 or 4 th liner he wins against running up his stat.

    Runs around, cant win puck battles on the boards and wont go infront of the net…. my advise
    ” get off f ice”.

    I could never see this extended contract when Pete
    Chia singed him….. dumb dumb.

    Don’t get started on ” I died last week” Lander.

    This is not the veteran help this team needs, the parade of these guys has been going on too long.

  • toprightcorner

    The real problem is that the Oilers insist on continuing MacTavish’s flawed ideal of 3 scoring lines and none of them help out on defense enough, with the fourth overburdened on the PK.

    I’d prefer we spend what what we do on the 3rd and 4th lines and bring in a Boaton-like defense first, two-way checking line that can handle the tougher sorties better than Gordon’s line last season, can pitch in on offense and make us harder to play against.

    Then maybe we can go cheaper with the 4th line, but a good two-way center is still essential on that line, and if we dump Letestu, we don’t have anyone in the system that can replace him.

  • .

    I would have signed Letestu. I would have kept Gordon and dealt him at the deadline. I would not have taken Korpikoski. Very expensive for 8 goals…Oilers could have signed a Brodziak or Greg Campbell or picked up something off waivers for super cheap in comparison and played the kids in other positions.

    Also would have dealt one of the core for dman and a cheap winger.