The Deployment Dilemma: How Fourth Lines Can Maximize Team Output

The season is finally here, which is great for most of us. But for some young up-and-coming players, it means getting cut from NHL rosters (whether now or following brief tryouts) while players who nobody would argue possess equal skill occupy the league’s fourth line spots. It’s an interesting dilemma, and one that until now nobody has to my knowledge managed to quantify. I’m only going to take the first step here, and speak in very broad generalities, but I hope that this piece will frame the debate over the use of the fourth line a little better, and present some evidence that maybe it’s time for change.

But first, a little perspective. Hockey wasn’t always about toughness or grit. In Canada, hockey’s roots lie in lacrosse, where early Canadians sought to find a winter alternative to their favored summer pastime. They implemented elements of rugby (like the no-forward pass), which certainly brought an element of ruggedness to the idea, but keeping the puck – or in the earliest days, ball – was basically as important as it’s seen to be by analytic types today. In Russia, meanwhile, hockey developed from soccer. Possession there was also critical, and simply speaking the best players played. There wasn’t much need for pests, or rats, or whatever you want to call them. It would have been out of character considering the sport’s origins.

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Controlled Situation Corsi: Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and the Set Play

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I wrote last week about the Bruins’ struggles following offensive zone faceoff losses. Obviously, Shawn Thornton played a part in that, but a fourth line can only get so much ice time, and obviously there was a bigger issue. When I looked over the numbers from the past few years, it became clear that David Krejci and his linemates, who received a large portion of the offensive zone starts, were hurting the team the most in those situations. Considering Krejci’s new 6 year, $43.5 million contract, and the ongoing debate over whether he or Patrice Bergeron is truly Boston’s number one center, I decided to look briefly (update: not so briefly) at the breakdown of their numbers and where such struggles might be coming from. First of all, here are the numbers.

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Controlled Situation Corsi: Shawn Thornton and the Boston Bruins

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More arguments over the role of character in team sports have been waged than Simpsons episodes watched this past week. Well, maybe not. But every day it seems, a main stream media member churns out a piece on the value that a fourth liner brings to an organization, one supposedly well beyond their pay grade and ice time. Inevitably, bloggers and analysts shoot back about the lack of correlation between toughness and victory, or the impossibility of measuring something like leadership in the grand scheme of the game.

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