The death of truculence: A look at the Leafs' fourth line

Cam Charron
October 31 2012 11:14AM

There's been a lot of discussion on various blogs lately, predominantly the Backhand Shelf and our sister site NHL Numbers, on how fourth lines are composed. I thought it might be interesting to look at the composition of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it appears to be that the thought process behind the team's fourth line has become more clearly a line where the Leafs want to put good players instead of bad players.

The addition of David Steckel last season showed a clear leap on the part of the Leafs towards making their fourth line more serviceable and less dependent on the grinders and fighters Brian Burke supposedly loves. Just a general look at the Leafs that got the ice-time in years from 2009 through the present shows this shift.

Last season, Mike Brown was the 12th highest forward for the Leafs in ice time, playing 463:50 of ice-time. In 2009, Brad May, the 10th highest forward on the team in ice time, the most of all fourth liners, played 421:02. The Leafs are finding more situations to play their fourth line players in, because they've been getting better over a period of a few years.

I broke it down. This counts the average ice time per game of Leaf players who ranged 10th to 12th on the team in that category, making up the fourth line. I also included penalty minutes per 60 among those players:

Year Avg. TOI PIM/60
2012 12:10 3.2
2011 11:28 4.6
2010 9:53 11.2
2009 9:41 6.1

(via NHL.com)

As you can see, the group is not only playing in more situations, but they're also taking fewer penalties. Last year in all situations, the group included Matthew Lombardi, Matt Frattin and Mike Brown. I would say Frattin and Brown are both replacement-level players, but they aren't "below" replacement. Lombardi should still have some trade value, and he was an excellent little hockey player before running into a slew of concussions prior to signing with the Nashville Predators and subsequently traded to the Maple Leafs. 

So the Leafs fourth liners are playing more. Are they necessarily getting better? When I took the 10th through 12th forwards by even strength ice time alone (this dipped Steckel into this year's group. He played a lot of shorthanded minutes but not an awful lot at even strength) while also factoring in games played, I decidedly to simply average out advanced measures such as relative Corsi, Quality of Competition, and Offensive Zone Start %. I also averaged out "penalties taken per 60 minutes":

Year TOI/60 Corsi Rel QoC Off Zone Start % Corsi Relative Pens Taken/60
2012 10.15 0.032 43.9 -6.2 0.5
2011 8.88 0.318 43.0 -14.7 0.7
2010 8.47 -0.026 52.3 -12.6 1.4
2009 7.61 -0.494 60.0 -13.8 1.9

(via Behind the Net - a FAQ for the advanced numbers can be found here)

This is optimistic to me. The fourth line is playing more at even strength and are playing tougher minutes. In the last two seasons, the fourth liners played more time against players with a positive relative Corsi than a negative, and also started far more shifts in the defensive end, working as protection for the first and second lines. 

Last season, thanks to the addition of Steckel, the group jumped up from being possession slugs to closer to treading water. The other thing to really notice is how the penalties taken meter has dropped. It's fewer fighters on that line, fewer hackers and slashers and grinders subject to roughing penalties, and hockey players who are closer to hockey players.

Jay McClement and Леонид Комаров

What does this mean going forward? I've been in favour of a fourth line that brings out two Toronto centremen, the other being Jay McClement, onto the unit with Steckel and possibly playing Leo Komarov who was a top-six player in Dynamo Moscow during their Gargarin Cup campaign last season. He scored 11 goals, second on the club, and was recognized as a pest by teammates, opponents and KHL managers alike.

One thing he'd have to do is cut down on the number of penalties he takes to work in this line. Currently, the lockout gives Komarov an opportunity to adjust to the North American ice surface. Despite this, our pal Gus Katsaros has already made a Darcy Tucker comparison, although isn't sure if Komarov is more than a replacement-level player at this point.

Still, there's that log jam in the forward unit, particularly with the addition of James van Riemsdyk and the presumed NHL jump of Nazem Kadri that's going to knock some guys back in the depth chart. Steckel and McClement are good enough NHL players to play on a third line somewhere, but if the Leafs can exploit their vast resources up front, I think they can create four solid lines here if they properly use Nik Kulemin and van Riemsdyk in the lineup.

The funny thing is that the best thing for the Leafs third and fourth lines won't be the addition of a fourth liner in the offseason, but that it'll come from additions higher up on the depth chart, that knocks everybody back. Sure, Matt Frattin isn't an NHL top-six player, but you could do a whole lot worse with him flanking Steckel on your fourth line. We know you can do a whole lot worse: The three years before Steckel, they were.

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Cam Charron is a BC hockey fan that writes about hockey on many different websites including this one.
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#1 Kent Wilson
October 31 2012, 03:07PM
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Really good stuff Cam.

I noted in my article that the replacement of a single ruffian, below replacement level player with another more marginally talented guy probably isn't worth a whole lot in isolation - maybe a win or less.

However, what if teams started to employ a whole line of fringe top-9 guys rather than goons? The incremental improvement you show here is pretty substantial it seems.

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#2 JP Nikota
October 31 2012, 03:43PM
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Nice work, Cameron.

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#3 Vic
October 31 2012, 03:49PM
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One question I have is how does Toronto's 4th line compare to 4th lines on teams that did better in the regular season? Perhaps Toronto's 4th line was comparable to Toronto's 3rd or even 2nd lines, but the overall talent was still weaker than a team that had a more defined split between top 6/bottom 6 or top 9/bottom 3. For instance are you better off rolling 4 lines, but weaker overall or are you better off rolling 3 lines, but stronger overall, and spotting a 4th line here or there?

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#5 Matt
October 31 2012, 04:14PM
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Good read...

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#6 DP
October 31 2012, 10:26PM
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I think Frattin probably has more offensive upside than a 4th liner. He seems more suited to a third line role.

Steckel only has this year on his contract, so he probably isn't here after this year. I actually think Jay McClement is Steckel's replacement.

If you have been watching Marlie games, you can see Leo Komarov is the real deal. He started off slow but he is becoming one of most noticeable Marlies on the ice. He seems idea for the third or fourth line.

In the future, the fourth line might be Brown, McClement and Komarov. That line could have some speed and would be difficult to play against.

Perhaps Kadri, Colborne and Frattin blossom into the third line or get mixed across the bottom two lines.

Either way it's so much better than the past...and if we want some muscle Devane and Broll might be better hockey players than Orr and Rosehill. I would like to see Devane get some icetime with the Marlies. Broll has 10 points in 16 games in the OHL.

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#7 hendy
November 01 2012, 10:06AM
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Frattin is a replacement level player, is he? Lol.

You know little about hockey. Stick to numbers.

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