On Team Building and the Fourth Line

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 03:  Sami Lepisto #18 of the Phoenix Coyotes is checked by Nigel Dawes #15 of the Calgary Flames during the NHL game at Jobing.com Arena on December 3, 2009 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Flames 2-1. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)


For a long time now – certainly since the league expanded to 30 teams – the fourth forward unit has been the place to ditch the least capable even strength players on the roster. Usually that means checkers and goons, although the odd doddering vet and fresh faced rookie makes an appearance occassionally. This was mostly pragamatics: a combination of dilution of player talent, a need to budget and the recoginition that playing the worst guys the least is a good thing.

At some point in recent history, the fourth line became the "energy unit". With the change in nomenclature came the explicit definition of that unit’s responsibilities (crash and bang!) as well as resultant rigidity of the class of players that can therefore carry out those duties. More to the point, the energy unit is for big guys, mean guys and guys who can body check.

This strikes me as an inversion of cause-and-effect, one created by the conditioning of constantly seeing certain players (the goons and such) take on a certain role. Initinally, the fourth line was where you stashed the minimum wage players on the club simply because you couldn’t afford any more high priced guya or there really wasn’t a lot of skill left to choose from anyways. Out of necessity, coaches and GM’s went with the one area that almost all hockey decision makers will default to: size/agression. If a guy only has one note to his game, it might as well be that note. So, initially, big guys who weren’t real good played on the fourth line out of necessity. Now they are considered to be essential to that portion of the roster.

Darryl Sutter went about creating a classically conventional fourth line for the Flames this season, signing Tim Jackman and Raitis Ivanans as soon as they became available (to two year contracts to boot). There’s ample evidence out there that neither guy does much to help his club win (quite the contrary), but Darryl has been consistent in his insistence that the Flames have a rough and tumble bottom-end. The value created by the big guys playing 5 minutes a night is either so diffuse or intangible that it isn’t captured by counting numbers or any of the new-fangled. If there’s a psychological edge granted by punching guys in the face, it’s one coaches tend to give short shrift to in the playoffs given the rarity with which enforcers dress in the post-season.

As well all know, Sutter bought out Nigel Dawes this summer despite his taking a pretty solid step forward for Calgary last year. Dawes finished amongst the team leaders in goals scored and power play production efficiency (and it’s not like he played against nobodies at ES). At 25 years old and 850k, Dawes was a solid bet to outperform his contract where ever he landed in the line-up. But with the Tanguay acquisition, the Flames top 3 lines filled up with more established guys and all that was left for Dawes on the opening night roster was the fourth unit. The energy line. The territory of goons and musclemen, enforcers and checkers. So now Dawes and his 14 goals are little more than a memory and a small amount of dead cap space for the next couple seasons.

Sutter’s fidelity to this vision of an "energy line" isn’t unique to him. Despite Dawes’ decent season, young age and dirt cheap price-tag, he was passed over on waivers and has yet to be re-inked by anyone. I would hazard a guess that if he had the exact same performance and results last year but was 6’3", he’d be employed today. And Dawes isn’t the only victim of the rigid classification of player type and role going on in GM’s and coaches heads. There are a number of similar players currently standing in the unemployment line: guys without a recent history of being true "top 6" forwards and don’t have the build to be considered checkers, but who nonetheless are more skilled than your average bottom-ender. Mike Comrie and Robert Nilsson come to mind. Tim Kennedy, Miro Satan, etc. If a GM was so inclined this summer, he could probably build a fourth line scoring unit on the cheap, something so rare as to be considered mythical these days. A potential rebuttal to this strategy is a fourth line of danglers and pip-squeaks would get killed. They’d face the other team’s tough guys and be run out of the building. 

And maybe that’s true. We haven’t seen such an experiment at this level before, so maybe our hypothetical Dawes et al line would would be intimidated into obsolesence. What’s not theoretical though is the fact that, at some point, a large enough delta between skill and toughness renders physical intimidation moot. Which is why no coach in the league would dream of skating the Jackmans and Ivanans of the world against Pavel Datsyuk or Sidney Crosby: the former are no doubt tougher, but they would be humiliated by the latter nonetheless. Because, in the end, the game is about goals for and against and if Ivanans could skate with Crosby, he would be making a living with more than his fists. I assume that NHL decision makers are at least subconciously aware of this and the deciding factor is the perceived threshold between skill and toughness. Maybe a guy like Dawes doesn’t cross that threshold in many minds.

I think the fourth line scoring unit would be a worthy experiment though, if only because I lean towards building a team by having the best players available. The opportunity costs for investigating such a strategy would be remarkably low this year as well: there’s lots of plentiful, cheap, "skilled" players in the market who could be had for peanuts and the risk of them being a bust and harming the club from the energ…err…fourth line is minimal. In addition, low-end tough guys are a dime a dozen and can be acquired at just about any time. If a team found that they indeed needed a nuclear deterent patrolling the ice for 5 minutes a night, they could add likely add him for nothing at any point in the year.

  • Gange

    Very interesting. What would happen if you had a small, fast and somewhat skilled 4th line? As you mentioned, the 4th line is usually out there as a “deterent” against the oppositions 1st or 2nd line. What would happen if that 1st or 2nd line, having grown accustomed to battling big bruisers, find themselves matched against a line that can actually skate with them…and even move the puck against them?

    What type of “energy” would you get from that group that is battling for ice time and the chance to show they can be offensively productive? Does it lend credibility to the theory that the best defense is a good offense? Could you imagine if it caught on and you had a majority of teams this year putting out 4 lines that can skate and be offensive threats?

    I’m sorry Kent, but the more I think about it the more I have to admit it just won’t happen. Why? Because it makes too much sense!

  • What would happen if you had a small, fast and somewhat skilled 4th line? As you mentioned, the 4th line is usually out there as a “deterent” against the oppositions 1st or 2nd line.

    Actually, Bob, 4th lines almost never play directly against other teams first or second lines. “shut-down” third lines might, but that’s a different breed of player altogether.

    Mostly, 4th lines play against other 3rd and 4th lines. By and large in the NHL, coaches match 1st and 2nd lines against each other and hope to keep their goons and such out of trouble. That’s why I think a skilled 4th unit could actually be of some utility: mostly, they’d be playing against the dregs.

  • Gange

    You tell ’em brother (from another mother).

    I’ve never understood the Goon mindset. I’m not one for abolishing fighting but to dress a whole line of goons just seems a waste of resources.

    Maybe I’m out to lunch though.

  • Gange

    And another thought, if you had 3 solid lines that could be explosive then how does the opposing team counter that if they have a goon line? They’d end up having to double shift?

    The downside I see is that the opposing 4th line theoretically could take liberties and there wouldn’t be much reprisal and I’m not sure teams would find much protection in refereeing.

  • Matty Franchise Jr

    I agree, too. It’s an experiment I’d like to see.

    I’m not for abolishing fighting either but I fail to see the point (or deterent) when one 4th line, low minutes, no points, inconsequential, cheese-cutter skates goon chucks ‘nucks with another just like him.

    Did Dion ever think “It’s OK for me to hit an Oiler with his head down because McGratton can beat up Stortini at will”?

    Top 6 forwards, or top 4 d-men aren’t detered from anything by goons because they don’t play against them, let alone fight them.

    Goons (guys whose only value to the team are their fists, not their hands) are a waste of a roster spot, especially in a free agent market like this one.

  • Yeah I don’t see the point of goons in today’s NHL. Detroit does the best job of filling their roster with decently skilled guys.

    It’d be great to have a guy on our squad like Milan Lucic who brings toughness and skill all at once, cause as much as it’d be nice for us to not have Ivanans or Jackman I’d hate to see Jarome having to stick up for everyone all year.

  • Matty Franchise Jr

    We haven’t seen such an experiment at this level before, so maybe our hypothetical Dawes et al line would would be intimidated into obsolesence

    Detroit had Larionov and Robitaille on their fourth line for a couple years, which seems to have worked out alright.

  • Matty Franchise Jr

    If Herb Brooks were alive, he would run with this idea, which is a very good one, especially for a marginal and aging team that needs to take a chance if it hopes to make the playoffs, the Flames, for instance.

    • Gange

      Your view on hockey, although popular, is archaic. There is really no benefit to having two lines of goons on the ice accomplishing nothing other than bodychecks and fights. You can always go watch old brosdstreet bully games if you want. That hockey is all but gone.

      I assume that “if you don’t fighting” is meant to read “if you don’t LIKE fighting”. In that case I don’t have a problem fighting except when it’s for nothing. It was great to see Iggy fight Hatcher. More recently Iggy fighting Souray. Of course that comes with risk, as Souray found out. However a fight between say Boogard and Brashear is really pointless and doesn’t have the emotional effect that fighting is meant to have.

      If you’re going to fight, make it worth something.

    • Let’s see. Mindless conformity to convention. A knee jerk reaction to a talking point that doesn’t even exist in the article (“fighting is bad”). Implicit xenophobia.

      Congrats, you bring nothing to the discussion.

  • dustin642

    Now to escape that awkward situation in the last couple comments…. Who would you like to see on this “skilled” 4th line? Would this be a good place for Backlund? Or even Wahl? Personally I would trade for Patric Kaleta. He is young, decent speed, aggressive and has a great ability to draw penalties. So something like Dawes/Backlund/Kaleta to me would be a great “skilled” 4th line. Capable scorers that can fill in on the top 9 during injuries and someone who can get our PP out much more often and frustrate the other team. Makes me sad to know it will not happen

  • “I think the fourth line scoring unit would be a worthy experiment though, if only because I lean towards building a team by having the best players available.”

    Gee Kent, you just don’t understand hockey. You must be a casual fan.

  • Great Post.

    This could work if your 3RD liners were monster trucks. THEN…. Your 4th line can be where your skilled inexperienced guys could develop…

    More skilled players who get cast away in the minors would have a better opportunity, and maybe more Euros would make the puddle jump.

    Only thing is Darryl has some pretty good offensive depth trickling down to the third line this year so….

  • I love the idea Kent. At the very least, stock the 4th line with guys who have potential and dress a goon as one of them if needed.

    It kills me that Sutter not only let Dawes go, but had to buy him out, and then SIGNED Jackman and Ivanans. What a waste of cap space and a jettison of talent, it makes no sense.

  • MC Hockey

    I think the “4th-liner-skilled line idea” has merit. Do you remember Buffalo Sabres about 4-5 years ago before Drury and Briere left…they could score with any line! Too bad it was before Ryan Miller was a superstar…they could have been a “dynasty” with better defencse…OK well maybe not. But hey, why could Flames not take a chance on “career minor league scorer” and sign someone like the Oilers did in Washington farmhand Alexander (103 points in AHL) Giroux. I hate to say this may have been brilliant move and with all the super rookies the Oilers may finish much higher than the “agreed upon 15th in the West” by all the “so called experts”. And, no, I am not an Oilers fan, I truly despise them. P.S. Do I have enough “quotes” in my comment…LOL.

  • Gange

    The prototypical fourth line always confounds me as well. As best as I can understand it, the theory is based off of a couple of assumptions:

    A. During a season, fans want to see a good scrap, so you put a goon on your team so your actual players won’t get hurt doing it. Once the playoffs start, this entertainment factor drops to nil.

    B. There are a few limited situations during a game where a visiting team is clearly going to have to run a fourth line out on the ice (I am thinking like after a powerplay where the top lines may be tired) and the home team puts its fourth line out as a break for its top lines knowing the other team can do little damage. This is mostly supposition as I can’t understand why a home team wouldn’t run out its top talent against the other teams 4th line every time.

    C. If you had a “skill” fourth line on the ice, the other team would respond by running out either a checking/third line or a top 6 line. While the “skill” fourth line might be able to hold their own once they have the puck, as soon as they lose it they bleed chances against, which is why they are on the fourth line and not a top 6 line. Coaches don’t want to take that chance.

  • Matty Franchise Jr

    The article just posted about Gio is a great example of what a 4th line goon is good for: getting a penalty.

    If you watch the Gio hits package video, you’ll see that after Gio hits Brown 4 times, LA puts out a goon to deal with the situation. What happens then? The goon bumps into Gio at the boards, then a pile on happens that means the goon can’t assault Gio. The result of this is that the goon gets a minor penalty, Gio is unharmed and likely undetered.

    As an aside, the goon who contributed nothing other than a penalty:

    Ivanans. Super.

  • icedawg_42

    To put in my two cents here:

    i like the idea of a semi-skilled scoring line, but only when your the home team, thus getting last change, this way you can match up against the other teams goons, and have a distinct advantage.

    Having a good squad however, especially on the road keeps the other teams top lines off the ice, which gives them less chances to score. As for the discussion of why not play your top lines against goons… Can you imagine if Boogard or McGratten could get one clean shot at a sedin, or crosby, crumpling them into the boards, all it would take would be one good shot, regardless of scoring chances, the risk of injury would be too great to have a goon take a shot at your star players.