Hockey 2.0 is a series for FFH in which Paul Wheeler looks at how hockey thought is changing in the modern NHL, and how this is impacting the game both on and off the ice, both positively and negatively. For an intro to the series concept, click here.
With all the talk of new arrivals this offseason, exciting young stars and heading into free agency, we at FFH are like all Coyotes fans excitedly looking forward to a period of change for the better.
One of the key additions to the Coyotes roster next season, though, could be a player who's already here and has been for several years.
But he’s more than that this season.
In taking on the expected fourth-line C role, he’s the latest example of the way hockey thought is moving beyond the traditional pigeonholing of player roles and expecting their players to be all-around contributors, right on through the roster.
Big Horses And One-Trick Ponies
Traditionally, the fourth line in hockey had one job - go out and hit things. Whether you called it the “energy line”, the “grinding line” or even “the enforcing line” it’s a pretty one-dimensional job. Traditionally fourth-line players in the NHL or indeed hockey, in general, are big, not particularly skilled, and seek to prevent the opposition playing by checking the living crap out of them.
This view is one that’s archaic, but persists in today’s NHL to a large degree. Here is a graphical representation of the contribution made to their teams by two players who are considered “fourth liners” in today’s NHL. Luke Gazdic as the “traditional enforcer” archetype and Ryan Reaves, as one of the supposed “enforcer who can play” types that traditionalists like to claim as the “heart and soul guy” archetype of a fourth line player.
As you can see, scoring is not their strong point. In fact, in the case of “traditional enforcer” Gazdic, it’s not obvious there is a strong point at all-perhaps a reason why his NHL time has dropped sharply to nothing the past four seasons as a symptom of the death of the traditional enforcer. Reaves (a player considered worthy of a straight-up trade for a first round pick this summer, remember) is not massively better, but at least appears to be average defensively as a winger thanks to his shot suppression.
The thing is, Reaves is a massively overrated player, and him being traded for a first round pick, in 2017, is symptomatic of the value traditional hockey thinking in the NHL still places on “toughness” on its fourth line. The fact that Ryan Reaves was sixth amongst all forwards in the NHL for hits thrown and only took 58 shots all season tells you something very clear - this is not a player signed or traded for an offensive role as a forward in any way shape or form - but with shot suppression only slightly above average, he’s not a great defensive forward either. In short, what he provides is a wrecking ball to hit people with. A blunt instrument. A one-trick pony that is only truly effective when being given licence to collide with the opposition.
So far, so traditional hockey thinking.
Not Your Parents’ Fourth-Liner
But in Arizona, and indeed elsewhere in the NHL, the archetype set by players like Reaves is changing. I wrote in January for Stanley Cup of Chowder on how Boston were one of the leaders in this trend, and this summer we’re seeing a perfect example of it spread further in Arizona with Brad Richardson, and in training camp already with Montreal with Ales Hemsky (something we’ll come to in a little while.)
Having him back for the Coyotes this season is effectively like having a new player arrive - before his injury last season he’d started the year pretty well, scoring 9 points in 16 games. He was also landing hits at the rate of one per game...at a third of the rate of players like Reaves, despite being given 15 minutes of ice time a game on average.
This is actually up on his 2015/16, season, when he was landing less than a hit a game despite playing on the traditional lines where this is supposed to be the raison d’être.
More importantly, though, Richardson actually produces offensively. To return to the comparison with Reaves, over his NHL career Richardson has produced offensively at three times the rate that Reaves did. He’s also much more of an all-round player than Reaves-certainly more offensively creative, although his defense does suffer a little:
Old Markets, New Thinking
But perhaps an even clearer example of this swing away from “defensive”, “checking” fourth lines to ones with much more all-round creativity can be seen, ironically, in one of hockey’s oldest and most “traditional” markets.
In Montreal this offseason, we’re seeing Ales Hemsky being groomed for a fourth-line role on a team traditionally known for putting out speed on their fourth line - something which has often been criticized as a “negative”. Indeed the Penguins won two Cups in a row the past two years with a template moving more towards speed on all four lines than physicality and despite winning the cup this offseason they felt the need for “more toughness” in Reaves. So, let’s compare Pittsburgh’s “traditional” idea of a fourth line wing with Montreal’s:
Here are two philosophies that couldn’t be more different. Reaves (the “traditional” fourth line”) is expected to play only a quarter of the time Hemsky does, contribute half the points and provide eight times less creativity and offensive chances in the PIT system than Hemsky is in the MTL system. Crucially, though, if you were to replace Reaves with Hemsky your team’s defensive efforts wouldn’t noticeably suffer. But, crucially, you get eight times the amount of offensive chances when your fourth line is on the ice. Why wouldn’t you make that trade?
From Ponies To Swiss-Army Knives
What this means, then, in layman’s terms, is that the fourth line in Montreal (and Arizona, Columbus and an increasing number of other NHL cities, such as San Jose) is being set up with players who are expected to be much more multi-dimensional. The role of the fourth line is changing from a battering ram brought out once a period to a Swiss army knife capable of being used in any situation, for any purpose.
Psychological Warfare And The Fourth Line
However, this is not the case all over. With NHL thinking still in a state of change and old habits dying hard, the acceptance of this new trend isn’t universal - witness some Sharks beat writers (like Kevin Kurz) consistently riding Tierney for “not being physical enough”.
This thinking that the fourth line HAS to be physical can be exploited by teams with “forward-thinking” GMs as a weakness in their rivals and market inefficiencies created and ruthlessly used to their advantage. As I was writing this piece, the hockey gods decided to provide an absolutely perfect example of this from John Chayka, in his trading of Jamie McGinn (a surplus fourth-line winger) for Jason Demers (one of the better all-round defenders in the NHL and one of the most sought-after NHL FAs only two seasons ago).
Firstly, lets look at three charts and their associated facts about this trade, as ever with the aid of Dom Galamini and his excellent HERO chart comparisons:
FACT: The Coyotes are now better offensively
It seems counter-intuitive to say that by trading a winger for a defenseman, the Coyotes got better in attack, but here we are.
Jason Demers provides more in every category than McGinn - INCLUDING goals, assists, and offensive chart generation. He is better at driving the Yotes forward from the blue line than McGinn is up front.
That, alone, makes this trade a win - but wait, there’s more. You want to see how good this trade is? Here are two tweets that are all you need to show that John Chayka got a higher return for a fourth line forward than “traditional” hockey man (and EDM GM) Peter Chiarelli - a known valuer of the “traditional” fourth line approach, by the way...got for one of the league’s elite young talents.
No really. Look.
Consider this, then. According to the NHL trade market, the left-hand player will get you a better defenseman than the right-hand one pic.twitter.com/3keP77YxPV— Paul Wheeler (@fourthlinewing) September 17, 2017
And just in case you wanted a direct comparison:
Player on left trade price for AZ-Jamie McGinn. Player on right trade price for EDM-Taylor Hall.— Paul Wheeler (@fourthlinewing) September 17, 2017
Again. John Chayka is a stone-cold Jedi. pic.twitter.com/52gcSEYRBu
The circumstances that allow this state of affairs to happen are once again all linked to NHL thinking. Consider Dale Tallon’s comments on why he was willing to give up a defenseman better than one that fetched Taylor Hall for McGinn...(from the Panthers announcement of the trade...bolding mine)
"Jamie brings size, skill and grit to our lineup and makes us a tougher team to play against,"
Now, compare that with Jim Rutherford’s comments on Reaves when asked about the steep price they paid for him: “we’re tired of getting beat up”. Or indeed, CBS Pittsburgh’s Colin Dunlap’s outdated-yet-enthusiastic defence of why you pay a first-round-pick for an “enforcer”
“And you know what, as far as that side of hockey is concerned, if Jim Rutherford has decided — and I think it is long overdue — to get someone to protect Sidney Crosby, he might as well go out and get the guy best suited for the job. That guy who was attainable was Reaves.
And, make no mistake, Reaves isn’t just a man who deals in retribution; he’s also a man who serves as a deterrent.”
Stop The Pigeon(holing)
It’s this thinking - this pigeonholing of the need for a fourth line that’s “big and gritty”, that “protects” star players, and the overvaluing still of the players that fill them at the expense of skill and speed, that has created the market inefficiency exploited by John Chayka. These two trades are the best example yet of how “new” NHL thinking has exploited hockey biases and traditionalism for its own gain (in the case of Demers) or the return of it has led to a GM actually hurting their team (in the case of the Pens).
This season will see the clearest battle yet between the old and the new in the lower reaches of the NHL forward lines. It’ll also, by the end of it, see it made more and more obvious that the role of the fourth line and the players that staff it are forever changed, and anyone holding on to “traditional” ideas of what a fourth line should be, up to and including NHL GMs, are being left behind in the past. Outdated and fading just like the enforcer role in the NHL is itself.
The fourth lines in the NHL will always be expected to play defensively - always expected to add a little physicality, but increasingly, they’re now being expected and allowed to do so much more. And that, frankly, is a fine and needed change in thinking, whether the traditionalists among hockey will accept it or not.