For most NHL teams, the fourth line is an afterthought until it’s needed. Then, those players come under intense scrutiny and are forced to deliver big results in short bursts. Fourth liners that succeed often become beloved players and may even move up the lineup. Fourth liners that fail often return to the American Hockey League and may not see the NHL stage again.
The Blues lost several fourth-line options this summer, with Tyler Bozak likely at the end of his career and Dakota Joshua joining the Vancouver Canucks as a free agent. To make matters worse, Alexey Toropchenko, who rose from AHL prospect to everyday NHL player, required an offseason shoulder surgery and will likely miss several months at the start of the season. General manager Doug Armstrong knew he had to find space in his limited salary cap room to add to his depth. And he did that by signing Noel Acciari and Josh Leivo on the first two days of free agency.
Acciari Buries the Hatchet
Acciari is a 30-year-old forward who has spent time in his career with the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers. The veteran missed most of last season with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers due to a freak shoulder injury that kept him out of the lineup. Unfortunately for him, his absence also allowed the Panthers to identify the players who could replace him, and he hit free agency. But the injury was not enough to scare off Armstrong, who signed him for one year at $1.25 million. Many Blues fans were quick to point out the irony of the Blues signing Acciari, who last came into contact with the team when he was tripped on a play that led to a critical Blues goal in the Stanley Cup Final against his Bruins.
Ironically, the two players featured heavily in that play, Bozak and Perron, are leaving, and Acciari is taking one of their places on the roster. One has to assume he’s buried the hatchet and is ready to go to work for the team that kept him from a possible Stanley Cup, who hope to be competing for one again this season.
Acciari is a solid contributor and a decent bottom-six option with some scoring upside. He wins faceoffs at an okay clip, over 50 percent in his last two seasons. He even received one second-place vote for the Selke Trophy during his first season in Florida, though he does not grade out well metrically on defense. Still, he is a solid replacement for Bozak, who had a similar skill set during his final seasons, and is a popular player around the league who should fit in well with the team culture and be a presence in the Blues locker room.
AHL Playoffs MVP Joins the Blues
On the second day of free agency, Armstrong made a minor splash by adding Leivo, fresh off a terrific AHL season that saw him carry his Chicago Wolves to the Calder Cup and win the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the league’s Playoff MVP. Leivo put up 22 goals and 46 points during 54 regular season games and a whopping 29 points with 15 goals in 18 playoff games. The Blues likely got a good opportunity to scout him as their AHL affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds, were the team Leivo and the Wolves defeated in the final.
Despite his past scoring prowess, Leivo has terrific defensive statistics, grading out well in both expected goals against (xGA) and Corsi against (CA). He’s also got some scoring upside, as evidenced in the playoffs and in his 2018-19 season, in which he scored 14 goals with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks. Despite bringing a package of great skills, the 29-year-old has played for four teams in the last four seasons, with the Calgary Flames and Carolina Hurricanes joining the Canucks and Maple Leafs.
Maybe Leivo will finally find a permanent home in St. Louis. The team has not been hesitant to re-sign depth players they like — they just signed Nathan Walker to a contract extension after a fantastic 2021-22 season. Leivo will now join Walker, Acciari, and others as options for the Blues’ bottom-six and fourth line. Head coach Craig Berube loves his grind line players, so any player who wins his way into the coach’s heart could have a bright future in St. Louis.
A Tough Competition in Camp
The Blues have always tended to want a stacked group of forwards to compete for spots in training camp. Leivo, Acciari, and Walker will join the likes of Logan Brown, Klim Kostin (if he can safely return from Russia), Jake Neighbours, and other young prospects and AHL forwards for spots on the roster. And that list could get longer if Armstrong makes further signings or brings in any players on a professional tryout, as he did with James Neal last season. The Blues want that competition and believe it brings the best out of their players. Leivo and Acciari bring a lot to that group, but as with so many fourth-liners, they will fight for their job from the moment camp starts.