Why Detroit’s Fourth Line May Be Their Undoing

Yesterday, my fellow Detroit Red Wings contributor Tom Mitsos discussed how Detroit’s fourth line has been the an integral part of the Red Wings’ success thus far. However, I’ve carried an opposite opinion for most of the season and decided that it would be an opportune time to illustrate why I believe that Detroit’s fourth line may ultimately be their undoing.

Detroit Red Wings right wing Luke Glendening (Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr)
Detroit Red Wings right wing Luke Glendening centers Detroit’s fourth line (Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr)

The Role of the Fourth Line

When talking about Detroit’s fourth line, I’m focusing on center Luke Glendening and wingers Joakim Andersson and Drew Miller. This season, Mike Babcock has utilized the fourth line in a variety of ways, but most prominently, he has utilized them as a defensive unit tasked with stopping the opposition’s top scoring line. Theoretically, there are pros to this strategy, most notably the fact that the Wings are able to shelter superstars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg by providing them more ice time against a lower quality of competition. On the surface this strategy has worked, as Glendening’s line has faced the highest quality of competition, but is yielding only 1.77 goals against/60 minutes at 5-on-5. You also see Glendening’s faceoff percentage at 55.4% and your opinion is swayed to believe that this fourth line is effective.

The Fourth Line Reality

While everyone focuses on the goals against for the fourth line, very few are talking about the other side of the puck and that’s where the issue exists. For the season, Glendening has been on the ice for just 17 5v5 goals despite playing more than 500 minutes at 5v5. If he was able to play the entire 60 minutes, the Wings would average a paltry 2.01 goals at 5v5. However the problem runs even deeper than just the goals scored versus goals allowed – the Wings become one of the worst puck possession teams as defined by Corsi when the fourth line receives too much ice time.

I decided to identify the total time the Red Wings have spent at 5v5 this season, followed by the total time Luke Glendening has spent on the ice at 5v5. I then calculated the percentage of total even strength minutes available that he plays. I then stratified his data into games where he played >25% of the total even strength minutes against games where he played <25% of the available even strength minutes. I then decided to take a look and see how the Red Wings overall stats were affected by the amount of ice time Glendening received. The Corsi and TOI numbers reported are for the team and not Glendening’s on-ice Corsi and TOI numbers.

 Games where Glendening played >25% of available 5v5 minutes

Games w/ >25% TOI Total 5v5 TOI in those games Wings 5v5 CF/60 Wings 5v5 CA/60 5v5 GF/60 5v5 GA/60
10 468.68 41.8 63.2 2.69 1.79

Games where Glendening played <25% of available 5v5 minutes

Games w/ <25% TOI Total 5v5 TOI in those games Wings 5v5 CF/60 Wings 5v5 CA/60 5v5 GF/60 5v5 GA/60
38 1769.63 54.5 38.4 2.03 1.90

 

Obviously we are looking at very small sample sizes here, but the Corsi numbers are extremely troubling. In games where Glendening plays <25% of available 5v5 minutes, the Wings average 16 more shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5v5 play than their opposition. Once Glendening crosses that 25% TOI threshold, all of a sudden the Wings offense dries up. They average 13 fewer shot attempts and opponents average a whopping 63.2 attempts per 60 minutes. The 63.2 attempts against would rank the Wings 2nd to last in the NHL, with only the Buffalo Sabres allowing more attempts.

Essentially, Glendening’s line is a bend-but-don’t-break line. Babcock throws them out there, they get dominated, but they don’t give up goals. Glendening’s 5v5 PDO right now, a metric that measures on-ice save percentage + on-ice shot percentage, is sitting at 102.8, buoyed by a fantastic on-ice save percentage of 94.35%. If that save percentage in any way regresses, all of a sudden you’ll start to see the goals end up in the back of the net and the domination of the fourth line will become more apparent.

Think about it logically. You are throwing your worst puck possession line out on the ice against the best line of the opposition, and asking them to bend-but-not-break. You are allowing the best players on the other team to have the puck a majority of the time and dominate the offensive chances. Right now the issues haven’t manifested because the goaltending has been superb when the fourth line is on the ice, but it’s only a matter of time before this regresses.

My Suggestion for the Fourth Line

Kyle from Winging It In Motown addressed this topic a couple of months back and suggested that the Wings try to shelter Glendening and his linemates from the top competition a bit more and play strength-on-strength. I’ve been a staunch advocate of this idea, specifically using Detroit’s “Kid Line” of Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar, and Gustav Nyquist against the best opposition line. For me, there’s the theoretical benefit of that line possessing so much speed that they will be able to forecheck and backcheck aggressively, taking away time and space from the opponents. Statistically speaking, the “Kid Line” has been Detroit’s best line in terms of puck possession over the last two seasons. Granted, those numbers have come against a weaker competition, but they have at least earned the opportunity to be challenged with stiffer competition.

In the playoffs, every mistake is heightened. The checking intensifies, the goaltending rises to another level, and scoring chances are at a premium. If Detroit wants to be successful, they would be wise to not utilize their current bend-but-don’t-break strategy with the fourth line. Detroit’s at its best when the fourth line plays “fourth-line minutes” and the Wings give more time to their top three lines. Babcock would be smart to adopt this strategy, otherwise the Wings may be faced with another early playoff exit.

 

Data from War-On-Ice