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.