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The fourth line is a hill I refuse to die on

Tonight’s roster seems like it’s setting up to be bottom of the roster battle ground, if not completely a cut day preview. With the top three lines sitting out this game, as well as the top two defensive pairings, it seems like this is an opportunity for some players to make their final cases to continue with the Leafs.

Tonight’s game is critically important for Nic Petan, Nick Shore, Kenny Agostino, Pontus Aberg, and Matt Read, although this can’t be looking too good for Pontus Aberg. The same holds true of the defense as they are likely competing for the 7th D position, but for now we’ll focus on the forwards.

In contrast to tonight’s roster, the practice lines like they could be an opening night roster. The Timashov, Gauthier, Spezza, and Moore pieces may still be shuffled to some degree, but that looks like something we can all be at least 80% happy with, and that’s pretty good by Leafs standards.

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That brings me to the fourth line battleground…

A couple of upfront thoughts that will immediately alienate every reader of this website:

  1. I’m not the biggest fan of Mike Babcock. While I think he was largely responsible for quickly pulling the Leafs out of their darkest timeline and helped turn the team around by providing needed structure, I sincerely have doubts whether his approach can take the Leafs beyond the threshold they’ve seemingly been stuck at for the past three seasons. He is a good coach, but his strengths aren’t compatible with what the Leafs have to be going forward. I’m sorry if this offends, but I’m also positive I’m not alone on this.
  2. I’m not willing to die on the hill of what Mike Babcock does with the 4th There are plenty of things that leave me wanting about him, but I’m not ready to fly off the handle over the makeup of the fourth line.

That being said, let’s discuss the 4th line.

The future Mike Babcock wants…

It seems that wingers are still very much up in the air at this point in Mike Babcock’s world. Trevor Moore would seemingly be a lock for one of the positions, likely on the left side, and rightfully so. Trevor Moore is very good and seems to be universally loved in this role by all. He provides a good balance of offensive pressure with strong level headed defensive zone play which will likely have him take up residency on the penalty kill as well. He’s a Connor Brown, but potentially one who actually does the things people believed that Connor Brown did.

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The other side of the wing seems to be a bit more open. The fact that the Leafs need to temporarily backfill the third line right wing spot makes it a bit more challenging to determine, because until Hyman returns and bumps Kapanen to the 3RW position, we have no way of knowing Spezza, Aberg, Agostino, Petan, or mystery box will be the temp.

That being said, Jason Spezza is going to fit in somewhere, whether it’s the 3rd or 4th line, and Mike Babcock doesn’t seem to see him as a center any longer, and that’s fine. No matter how good Spezza was, there’s going to be a need to consistently reassess where he is now. Spezza provides a bit of a center experience safety net to the third line while Kerfoot figures out his role, and that’s where I can see Babcock starting him.

As for who fits into Babcock’s world view of the fourth line right wing, your guess is as good as mine, even if it seems the spot will eventually be Spezza’s after Hyman’s return. None of these decisions really seem like they should upset too many people.

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That brings us to the contentious point, the center. Mike Babcock seems hellbent on sticking with Frederik Gauthier this season.

Gauthier seems to carry a lot of the same characteristics of Martin Marincin. He’s big, he’s lanky, he’s not physical, he’s a defense first player, and despite not being particularly appealing on the eye test, his shot differential numbers are decent. The differences being that Marincin still has good numbers against tougher competition, and that Babcock seems to like Gauthier.

So what if Babcock likes Gauthier?

That’s a good question. It really doesn’t seem like it matters a whole bunch. This is the fourth line and they are really only trot themselves out on the ice a handful of times per game. Gauthier will lumber around the neutral zone against the opposition’s fourth line and eventually one of the better lines will be feeling fresh enough to relieve him. There’s a real risk of putting Gauthier on the penalty kill, but arguably Gauthier can ice the puck as well as anyone else, and telephone poles can certainly impede cross ice passes well.

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I’ve been pretty vocal about Gauthier not being a great fit for the Leafs going forward, but this isn’t a hill worth dying on. I like Nick Shore better. I like guys like Agostino and Aberg better, but I don’t like any of the bottom line bubble players so much that I can confidently say they deserve to be on the fourth line. If we give Mike Babcock one piece of comfort food, let’s give him the piece that even he doesn’t want to play too often.

What other options are there?

Well, moving Spezza to the 4th line center role seems like it would open up a couple of wing opportunities instead of going with Gauthier down the middle. Spezza still provides some non-physical size, but also some muscle memory from being a premiere center in the league. This seems like a rare instance where Babcock is going with tie goes to the incumbent rather than tie goes to the veteran.

Spezza at center opens up interesting options including Dmytro Timashov, who has been a Babcock favourite at camp, and is probably a player that both Dubas and Babcock can get behind. That leaves an additional battle between Aberg, Agostino, and Petan for the remaining wing position.

Nick Shore and the other centers, Kalle Kossila and Nic Petan are also potentially center options, although Nic Petan seems to be completely out of the center equation. There seems to be some level of interest in finding out what Kossila can do, and so far at camp he hasn’t had a chance to show what it is. If he’s healed and ready to go, maybe he can set into the 4C role, although I’m not sure how well that would be perceived either. That might be the strongest case for us not weighing into fourth line arguments.

Nick Shore was a bit of bottom six forward statistical darling before he went to the KHL, and because of that, myself and many others seem to be rooting for him having a spot. As camp progresses, the more comfortable I feel about moving away from this mentality though, and while I’d personally select him, I can’t help but think I don’t feel so strongly that I can assert he’s better than Gauthier, who doesn’t have bad numbers either.

Lastly, I will continue to float my unpopular idea that Gauthier might ultimately be better suited as a winger at the NHL level. He doesn’t have the speed of an effective center, but he’s smart defensively, and that adds some value. There’s also no doubt that his size can serve a purpose in the lineup, and ultimately if he figures out how to be an effective net presence, he might be a good fit beyond the confines of his current role.

Acceptance

I can’t state it enough that this isn’t the hill to die on. Have your opinions on fourth liners, but for the love of god be able to walk away from them before spittle forms in the corner of your mouth. This is an argument over different shades of replacement players.

It’s also entirely likely that Mike Babcock knows about, and has many of the same reservations about a player like Frederik Gauthier that you do, but he’s considered that things that Gauthier does well cannot be found in abundance in other roster players, and he’s willing to trade off some skill for some less flashy skills like defensive zone position, or yes, that his wing span can takeaway passing lanes marginally better than a smaller forward.

I’m sure there will be arguments made about potentially losing some of these players on waivers. Think about that for second. You are worried about losing Kenny Agostino on waivers. Or Pontus Aberg. Or any other one of these players that failed to exist in our world last season, but we now think have the potential to spark the greatest fourth line in NHL history. They are all replacement level and while some may potentially perform beyond what we’ve seen so far of them in their careers, every last one of them is a gamble. And every last one of them could potentially be replaced by someone placed on waivers by another team. Embrace the endless cycle of replacement level hockey!

For now we could chose to be mad about who is getting a shot on the fourth line, or we could breathe a sigh of relief that a strong camp from Rasmus Sandin seems to be yielding him a spot on the Leafs roster and that’s going to have a much bigger impact than whether it’s Gauthier or Shore playing eight minutes against the other team’s fourth line. Save the fourth line arguments for the playoffs when it may matter more. The regular season is a marathon, and the fourth line is primarily exists to help you recompose yourself. If it’s Gauthier or someone else that is upsetting you, you might need to take a step back. I’m choosing to enjoy the one good decision that seems to be made and that’s the Sandin/Marincin bottom pairing.