Lightning: When Will the Fourth Line Find Stability?

Heading into the 2019-20 season, the Tampa Bay Lightning saw a fair amount of roster overhaul that reshaped the team that won 62 games in 2018-19. While star forwards like Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov retained their top billing in the lineup, the Lightning’s fourth line saw massive changes.

Whether it was due to injury, trade or a combination of both, the Lightning began the 2019-20 season with an entirely new fourth line compared to 2018-19.

After playing with the Tampa Bay Lightning for five seasons, Ryan Callahan was effectively forced to retire after he was diagnosed with a degenerative back disordered. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In many ways, the hodgepodge of players that started was the perfect representation of the Lightning’s fourth line this season. That line included a Stanley Cup winner in Pat Maroon, a converted defenseman in Luke Witkowski and a backup center fighting for NHL ice time in Gemel Smith.

While these players received relatively little ice time when compared to the other Lightning players, they still found ways to contribute on the ice, both positively and negatively. Due to this, the fourth line has been in a bit of blender, spitting out new combinations of players on a nightly basis.

With so much change happening, when will the Lightning find stability on their fourth line?

Who’s Played on the Lightning’s 2019-20 Fourth Line?

Since the Lightning started the season with Maroon, Smith, and Witkowski, the team has seen four more players finding meaningful time on the fourth line. This includes rookies Carter Verhaeghe and Alex Volkov, along with veterans Cedric Paquette and Yanni Gourde.

Kyle Criscuolo Cedric Paquette
After missing the start of the 2019-20 season due to an injury, Cedric Paquette has worked to stabilize the Lightning’s fourth line with his strong play. (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite the near-constant changing of players, this line has contributed in key ways already this season. Most notably, in the Lightning’s second game in Stockholm, Sweden, the fourth-line totaled three goals and six points, carrying Tampa Bay to a 5-3 victory.

The Lightning’s Fourth-Line Has an Identity Crisis

One main reason for this carousel of players is the lack of identity. At the start of the season, the fourth line had one clear goal: provide size and grit to a traditionally small team. With heavyweight players like Maroon, Witkowski, and Smith, they were built to hit everything that moved.

Shortly after the start of the season, however, an issue came clear. While this was a tough line, it didn’t have the best defensive acumen. Players like Witkowski struggled in their own zone, eventually leading to his demotion to the AHL.

Boston Bruins left wing Matt Beleskey
While he added a needed sandpaper element to the Lightning’s roster, Luke Witkowski’s lacking defensive game eventually led to his demotion to the AHL. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

By the time that the Lightning left for Sweden, the fourth line had a new look and feel to it. With Gourde, the unit added a faster, more defensively-responsible scoring presence that could still play a tough game. This helped round out the lineup, giving needed contrast to the big bodies like Maroon and Paquette.

Future Is Still Uncertain on Lightning’s Fourth Line

Despite his success in Stockholm, it seems unlikely that Gourde will continue to play on the Lightning’s fourth line for long haul. As a player starting a $5.16 million contract this season, expectations are for him to be a top-six forward posting at least 20 goals.

Due to this, the fourth line will likely see another round of changes as new faces are plugged into the lineup. The good news is that Paquette and Maroon seem to be finding chemistry together, so as the season progresses, they should only get better.

If a rookie like Verhaeghe or Volkov finds consistent starting time on this line, it could provide the perfect transition point for these players to take on the NHL.

Related: Is Verhaeghe the Lightning’s Next Breakout Rookie?

If the Lightning can’t find a good partner for Maroon and Paquette, however, it may simply be best to keep Gourde on the fourth line. Sure, that is far from an ideal use of his cap hit, but if he continues to produce, then it shouldn’t really matter where he plays as long as he is scoring.

Lightning Need Consistency on Fourth-Line

No matter what, the Lightning have to find more consistency on their fourth line as the season progresses. Even if they aren’t franchise faces, these players will change the outcome of a playoff series if they can score while adding a tough-to-play element to the team.

Tampa Bay Lightning Pat Maroon
With the addition of Pat Maroon, the Lightning brought a needed Stanley Cup-winning presence to their fourth-line. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Lightning have plenty of time and enough good players to figure out their perfect fourth line, of course. Once they find that consistency, they should contribute on a nightly basis as they did in Sweden.