CalClutterbuckNYI by Lisa Gansky. Licensed under Creative Commons via Commons.
I was listening to this great episode of the PDOCast in which the guys discussed the recently waived Alex Semin and had a couple of additional thoughts on evaluating fourth liners, and on how the mold of the bottom-six forward has evolved over the years.
First of all, I don’t believe in ever dismissing conventional hockey wisdom. There is wisdom in experience, and guys who have been around hockey for a long time have deep insight that can shed a lot of light on the game. Let’s take fighting for example. A former player might tell you that a good fight can swing momentum, and a quant might (very many have) dismissively wave them aside.
“There is no proof of that. Run along now.”
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.