Feared Fourth Lines Do More than Fight


“With all due respect to James Sheppard and Matty Irwin, they can’t be your only goal scorers the last three games.”

That was San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson’s assessment after his club’s collapse against the Los Angeles Kings last spring. With all due respect to the Sharks organization, did they really expect to win the Stanley Cup with a fourth line of a hobbled Raffi Torres, Andrew Desjardins, and Mike Brown? In today’s NHL, it takes four competent forward lines to go deep into the postseason. The reason the Sharks, nor their division rival Anaheim Ducks, haven’t made deep playoff runs in recent years isn’t because other team’s top players are significantly better. No, no, it’s because other club’s depth players are far superior.

(Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)
(Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

When the second seeded Ducks lost in seven games to the seventh seeded Detroit Red Wings a couple years ago, it wasn’t because Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were vastly better than Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. It was because the Red Wings have this knack for finding solid bottom-six players from late in the draft and from overseas like Gustav Nyquist, Darren Helm, Drew Miller, and Damien Brunner. With the salary cap parity in the NHL, every decent team has top end talent. What separates the great teams from the good teams is the quality of forwards 7-12 and defenders 4-7.

Legit Fourth Lines

In last year’s Stanley Cup final, the fourth lines featured were Kyle Clifford, Mike Richards, and Trevor Lewis for Los Angeles, and Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore, and Derek Dorsett for the Rangers.

Cup winning teams in recent years have well known fourth line players. The 2013 Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks featured Marcus Kruger, Michael Frolik, and at times, Viktor Stalberg. In 2011 the Boston Bruins had Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille on their fourth line.

These are players who fans around the league were familiar with even before seeing them in the finals on a fourth line. However, teams like the Sharks and Ducks struggle because they often feature fourth lines that are hard to remember. Not likely anyone but Sharks fans can recall who San Jose’s fourth line was last playoffs. To jog your memory, scroll back up to the first full paragraph, it’s not a very memorable line. It’s also a consistent problem for San Jose. In 2012-13, their fourth line was Bracken Kearns, Desjardins, and Adam Burish. In 2011-12 their bottom-six consisted of players like Michal Handzus, T. J. Galiardi, and Torrey Mitchell, as well as rookie versions of Desjardins and Tommy Wingels. Simply not good enough.

Marcus Kruger Blackhawks
(Warren Wimmer/Icon SMI)

When teams go into play the Kings and the Hawks, they aren’t overly scared of their top stars. Every team has elite level talent, but those players more often than not cancel each other out. The reason teams are afraid of matching up with the winners of four of the last five Stanley Cups is because they have the deepest rosters in the league.

The Blackhawks fourth line in a 4-0 win over the Flyers a few nights ago was Kruger, Ben Smith, and Dan Carcillo. Kruger and Smith each had over 20 points last season and while a notorious goon, Carcillo can provide some offense on the rare occasion. Carcillo has 45 career NHL goals, certainly better than John Scott’s three.

San Jose’s Fourth Line

Speaking of Scott, the Sharks iced the following fourth line in a 5-3 loss to Boston a few games back.

John Scott—Adam Burish—Eriah Hayes

While the Sharks still had a couple of injuries up front, there is no reason they should be icing a fourth line as bad as this one. This line consists of a left wing nobody thought was going to be signed this year (it seriously baffles how Scott has a contract and Dustin Penner doesn’t), a center whom many thought would be San Jose’s second compliance buyout despite making under $2 million, and an undrafted 26-year-old winger that nobody claimed off waivers at the end of training camp.

These three players were in the lineup over 24-year-old Tye McGinn, who had 10 points in 38 games with the Flyers, and 20-year-old rookie center Chris Tierney. Both players have two assists so far this season in 13 total games (**as of Oct. 23**). Let’s add those four points over 13 games, to McGinn’s previous experience. That’s 14 points in 51 career NHL games between these two healthy scratches.

And what have the three men playing ahead of them done in the NHL the last two years? Burish has five points in 69 games since joining the Sharks in 2012-13. Scott has two points in 93 games since 2012-13. Hayes has one point in 19 career NHL games.

(Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

Combined this fourth line has eight points in 179 games since the start of 2012-13. That is a points per game rate of .04. That’s not just bad production, that’s practically zero offensive production. Let me put it this way, you would need to multiply the production of Scott, Burish, and Hayes SIX times to reach an equal points per game percentage (.25) as McGinn and Tierney.

Sure enough both young players have struggled at times early this year but they each have potential to turn in solid NHL careers. Scott, and Burish however are far closer to being out of the NHL than to seeing consistent third line minutes, and Hayes at the very best projects to a third line winger for a few seasons. Good teams have fourth lines with players who can move up to other lines and not look out of place. Colleague Anthony Tartamella talks about the Islanders possibly using Michael Grabner on the fourth line. Even the Islanders finally have some depth players that can score.

Head Scratcher

The Sharks however, continue to roll out a top heavy lineup that annually struggles to find secondary scoring. It is completely and utterly baffling why they scratch their talented role players in favor of players who are not just terrible, but play a style that is going extinct anyway. The only rationale behind scratching McGinn and Tierney is that Scott and Burish provide much better defensive play. However these two are a combined minus-25 over their last 161 games. Better defensively they are not.

In the Columbus loss Burish was inexplicably on the ice when the Blue Jackets scored the game winning goal with under one minute remaining. A make shift top line for Columbus scored the winning goal while a rested San Jose shut down line of Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Tommy Wingels sat on the bench.

**player stats through 10/23**