The fourth line on a hockey team typically isn’t known to be incredibly productive from a points-scoring standard. What fourth-liners often lack in points, they make up in physicality. These “energy lines” may not be flashy, but a solid fourth line is an underrated tool for success in the NHL.
While the Boston Bruins’ middle six has been inconsistent and seen lots of mixups over the past few seasons, the fourth-line has been fairly consistent. Even though some of the pieces have changed, the energy has remained. Chris Wagner and Sean Kuraly have been stalwarts with Noel Acciari, Joakim Nordstrom, and the latest to join the line-up, Trent Frederic, rounding out the line.
After taking a dip last season, the fourth line should be looking for a bounce-back in 2020-21. While Kuraly and Wagner are pointless through the first five games, they have found other ways to contribute to the team.
Emergence of Kuraly and Wagner
As mentioned above, Kuraly and Wagner have been consistent presences on the fourth line since finding their way into the Boston lineup. The 28-year-old Kuraly was originally a 2011 fifth-round draft pick by the San Jose Sharks. He spent four years at Miami University Ohio before signing a two-way contract with the Bruins in 2016. After spending most of the 2016-17 season in Providence, he cracked the NHL lineup in the 2017-18 season.
Wagner, originally from Walpole, Massachusetts, was another fifth-round selection, taken by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2010 Entry Level Draft. He found his way back East via a trade to the New York Islanders in 2018 and then signed with the Bruins as a free agent that summer.
The two, along with Acciari, were great together in the 2018-19 season. Kuraly was a plus-6 with 21 points and Wagner was a plus-3 with a career-high 19 points. Both players saw over 65% of their zone starts in their own zone, and were often given the task of shutting down the other team’s offensive attacks. Wagner led the team with 247 hits, finishing in the top 10 of the NHL.
Coach Bruce Cassidy wasn’t afraid to match their line against the top talent on teams across the NHL. While they may not have scored a ton of goals, they could be relied on to make the big play when it was needed. Sometimes it was a goal, other times it was a big hit or a shot block. They not only caused issues for other teams but found ways to fire up their own teammates.
At the end of the 2018-19 season, Wagner received the 7th Player Award, a fan-voted award given to the player who exceeded expectations that year. Past winners of the award include Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Charlie McAvoy.
In the 2019-20 season, Kuraly and Wagner were joined by Nordstrom. They weren’t the same constant, in your face line that they were the previous season. Some nights, they still found ways to cause issues for opponents. But overall, all three members of the fourth line were negative players in the plus/minus metrics and Wagner had the worst defensive numbers of his career.
Still, even with the dip in play last season, Wagner was awarded a contract extension on Nov. 27, 2019. The contract is for three-years, $4.05 million. Kuraly has one more year at $1.275 million and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him receive an extension this season. Given the constant flux of the middle six in recent years, keeping some consistency in the line-up would be in the team’s best interest.
On to 2021
For the first four games this season, Wagner and Kuraly have been joined by the 22-year-old, 2016 draft pick, Trent Frederic. He got bumped up to the third line in the most recent game against the Philadelphia Flyers and is predicted to play with them again tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has found ways to make an impact since the very beginning. In his NHL debut back in 2019, he fought Brandon Tanev, then on the Winnipeg Jets. In the few games so far this season, his physicality has drawn attention in his direction.
One of the great things about team sports like hockey is that you need many pieces to come together to make a championship team. As we’ve seen in the past few seasons, just having a couple of superstars who can score 30+ goals doesn’t necessarily mean that the team will achieve the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup. In the last couple of playoffs, some of the most impressive and most impactful players have been the “grinders”, the momentum changers.
Kuraly, Wagner, and whoever joins them, whether it’s Frederic or Anders Bjork or someone else, don’t need to score tons of goals. But when they’re on the ice, they need to bring the high-energy, up-tempo game that they are capable of. They need to be strong on the forecheck and make the clutch plays, things they have done before.
A good fourth line has the potential to be a game-changer in this league. The top teams all have top talent. When it comes to the playoffs, it’s the team that can bring the physicality that makes it to the top. Last season, the Bruins did not have that. Wagner, who is one of the most physical players on the team, was out with injury, and his presence was definitely missed.
There are several things the Bruins need to improve on from last season in order to have a shot at the Stanley Cup this year. One of the things they need is a return to form of the fourth line. So far, they look good. They’ve largely played in the defensive zone and have found ways to shut down the top lines of their opponents, as well as been impressive on the forecheck. With scoring picking up amongst the top of the depth chart, things are looking up as the month of January comes to a close.