Calgary Flames

Breaking down the effectiveness of fourth line philosophies in the NHL

What makes for an effective fourth line in the NHL?

Some teams choose to make their fourth line a heavy, bruising group, capable of wearing down an opponent. Some look for a shutdown trio, not necessarily big and bruising, but effective at shutting down opponents’ threats. These lines tend to have penalty killers, who spend little time on ice at even strength but make up for it shorthanded.

Others elect to use those roster spots for more skilled players, looking to run four lines who can be an offensive threat. Clearly, no team has yet proven beyond any doubt that their way is the best, or every team would be doing it.

NHL team fourth line philosophies

Using lineup data from the 2022-23 season, I fit bottom lines into these categories. With injuries and young guns forcing teams to abort their initial fourth line plans, I’ve only included teams who had fourth lines who played significant time together, and clearly fit into a category.

Big and ToughShutdown/Penalty KillersSkilled

With these teams as case studies, let’s look at the performance of each team’s bottom group. Data was taken at 5v5, score- and venue-adjusted, from Evolving-Hockey and NaturalStatTrick. Contract data is from CapFriendly.

The big-body bottom lines

Our first category is the big bodies. These teams’ lines weigh in over 200 pounds per player on average! The results, as you can see, are mixed.

These lines include players like Zack Kassian, Ryan Reaves, Austin Watson, and other noted pests.

TeamxGF%GF%Off. Zone Start %Combined Salary

None of the big-body lines are breaking even in goal differential, and only one is better than just treading water in terms of expected goals.

Based on zone starts, the Ottawa Senators and Minnesota Wild are almost always thrown out into their own end to start. The other teams are more balanced, but still don’t have much better results.

Now, fourth lines aren’t expected to dominate by any means. But it’s a reasonable expectation to ask your least-played players to not actively be a detriment to winning hockey games.

The bottom line? These lines are cheap, but also fairly ineffective.

Shutdown crews and role players

The shutdown crews are tough to evaluate. Buried with defensive zone starts, the Toronto Maple Leafs post-trade deadline fourth line of Sam Lafferty, David Kampf, and Zach Aston-Reese was the only true shutdown line to outscore their opponents.

TeamxGF%GF%Off. Zone Start %Combined Salary

Perhaps most interestingly, these groups cost more than the big-body lines. The results, however, are not much different.

The key difference is zone starts. While these lines also struggle to control play, at least they have the excuse of zone starts. Not one line started more than a third of their shifts in the offensive zone. To an extent, that shows these lines are doing what’s asked of them.

The fast and the furious

Our final group is the skilled bottom lines. These aren’t filled with the Connor McDavids or Mitch Marners of the world, for obvious reasons. But, they are still made up of players known less for size and shutdown ability, and more for skill or speed.

TeamxGF%GF%Off. Zone Start %Combined Salary

This quick summary shows they have in general stronger results than the first two groups. It comes with a caveat however—these lines generally received more favourable zone starts, based on the sample we have.

The key point with these groups is that in comparison, they are more likely to outscore their expected goals. They may not really control play at a high level, like their counterparts in the shutdown and big-body lines, but they make more out of the chances they do get.

Group-by-group comparison

Now, the important part. The side-by-side comparison between each group. The stats in the table below are averages from each of the groups broken down.

Team points were included to provide more context on which fourth line structure leads to the most success. Based on salary, team results, and line results, it appears a solid shutdown line is the most effective way to organize the bottom group.

GroupxGF%GF%Off Zone Start %Average Salary/LineTeam Points
Big Bodies43.935.044.2$3,452,00085.2

The margin between skilled and shutdown lines is slim. Deeper analysis of team playstyle could reveal that certain teams are better off with certain arrangements, and there’s no one best solution. However, based on last year’s fourth lines, a strong shutdown line provides the best bang for your buck,

Another important takeaway is that you can’t replace skill with size. Even if it saves some money, the results are fairly disastrous. As a group, these lines are outscored substantially, without starting in their own end nearly as often as the true shutdown lines. The perfect fourth line strategy may be elusive, but it seems clear the age of the big and mean bottom line is in the past—if it was ever an effective tactic.

At the end of the day, most teams are so tight to the cap, their fourth line is made up of whoever they can fit under the cap. But each year, dozens of shutdown and skilled players who could be signed for league-minimum salaries are passed over for intimidation and tough hockey. General managers with plans to enter the 2023–24 season with huge, relatively unskilled bottom lines, would be wise to re-consider how they allocate their last few million dollars for the fourth line.

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