Maple Leafs’ Fourth Line Is Key to Team’s Final Success

In yesterday’s review of where the Toronto Maple Leafs’ team stood this season as opposed to last season, we mentioned that the team’s fourth line was vastly improved. Heading into the 2022-23 season, it has a philosophy and a function – a personality, even. As the team prepares for tonight’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, the fourth line is made up of Zach Aston-Reese, David Kämpf, and Nicholas Aube-Kubel.

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The responses from several readers were along the lines of “Yeah, so what?” Their point was that, come playoff time, the fourth line would hardly matter because it never played much more than eight minutes. 

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That’s a point because that’s the way fourth lines have been seen to function for many years. In fact, even in Toronto as I’ve covered the team heading into my fifth season, that’s the way it used to be.

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However, this season seems different. Those who believe the fourth line won’t matter much are, I believe, thinking in some old ways. 

The Maple Leafs’ Fourth Line Has Undergone a Personality Change

I don’t know this for certain, because I’m not part of the inner sanctum of decision-making for the Maple Leafs. However, using my own logic to deconstruct and make sense of what I’m seeing suggests to me that what’s happening with this team represents a newer way of thinking. 

Nicolas Aube-Kubel Colorado Avalanche
Nicolas Aube-Kubel brings playoff experience with the Colorado Avalanche to the team’s forth line.
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The old way of thinking was to send out the fourth line as a “rest stop” for the top six during the game. Its job was to give the top-six players a breather so they could come out and press the game to the opposition. 

As long as nothing bad happened when the fourth line was on the ice – all well and good. One commenter paraphrased this old way of thinking succinctly by saying that “We’re looking to have them (the fourth line) not cost us.” 

The Maple Leafs’ Fourth Line Is Strategically Different

Over the seasons, the Maple Leafs have expanded their strategies. Last season, it was the successful transition of the team’s third line. It worked. This season, it’s the team’s fourth line that has transitioned.

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Obviously, I’m guessing. However, I believe that the organization believed that an inexpensive improvement for its fourth line was to assemble a group of physical, hard-to-play-against players who would beat on the opposition relentlessly all game long. That would be their personality – to hit, to disrupt, to beat on, to overwhelm, and to win battles. Their job? To make the other team hurt, hiccup, and move them off their game.

The Fourth Line Won’t Help the Team Win By Scoring Goals, But …

During the fourth line’s 10-12 minutes or so, they would hit and beat on the team’s top lines giving them a reason to look over their collective shoulders all game long and soften them up so the team’s top six could have an easier time with its work.

The fourth line would not be counted on to score the goals that would win a playoff series, but it would be counted on to make the game exceedingly tough for the other team’s elite players. 

Zach Aston-Reese Anaheim Ducks
Zach Aston-Reese with the Anaheim Ducks. Aston-Reese is a punishing hitter.
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The one knock against the Maple Leafs’ team is its playoff toughness. The fourth line helps in that respect. Playoff toughness means more than just being physical and muscular. Playoff toughness is the mental and psychological strength to play tough hockey without taking penalties. It includes the players simply refusing to quit playing hard. It’s exemplified in the resolve that “We will not be beaten by this team.”

This Season’s Maple Leafs’ Fourth Line Knows Its Role

I see the fourth line as a great improvement over the past few seasons fourth lines because they are all younger players who know and who seem, by their collective NHL experience, to have embraced their roles fully. They are no longer former top-six players who are in the last few seasons of their careers.

This team’s fourth line is still skilled players as most NHL players are; however, they are younger, career bottom-six players who have the right mindset for their jobs. They know that if they don’t play in a particular way they won’t have a job.

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It isn’t as if Zach Aston-Reese and Nicolas Aube-Kubel can’t score, they have been scorers in other circumstances of their hockey careers. It’s that they know their jobs are something different. They’ve embraced their places on the team.

I loved Ilya Mikheyev as a player and a personality. However, he wasn’t the kind of player I’m talking about. In his own mind, I believed he defined himself as an elite scorer. That put him outside the Maple Leafs’ priority of needs at the salary he desired. 

This Maple Leafs Fourth Line Is Different From the Past

This season’s fourth line is different than any during the seasons I’ve covered the Maple Leafs. I believe it was an ingenious move that was possible under the salary-cap issues the team faced. 

Obviously, that’s only my guess as to the philosophy of its construction. It’s also my guess that it will work. Who knows at this point? 

Nicolas Aube-Kubel Philadelphia Flyers
Nicolas Aube-Kubel with the Philadelphia Flyers. Aube-Kubel is a physical force on the ice.
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As a writer, my thesis is that this season’s Maple Leafs’ fourth line has changed in philosophy and construction from fourth lines from seasons past. The fourth line will matter during the regular season and, especially, during the postseason. Those who say they can’t be counted on to win playoff games are probably right if they believe that they need to score goals to do it.

A Team Is Constructed by Players with Different Roles

A team is a team. It is made up of players with different skills, roles, and functions. The fourth line’s role and function is different from the top-six, but they are still part of the makeup of the team. 

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I believe this fourth line will matter this season and might become the tipping point for the team’s overall success when all is said and done.

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