"It's just the fourth line."
It's a phrase that's been thrown around for years in hockey circles. Usually, the comment is reserved for a team's use of enforces, hired guns paid to sit on the bench, play five minutes a night and throw a few punches when needed.
See, not that long ago, there was a use for an enforcer in the NHL. The game wasn't as fast as it is now, players got away with a hell of a lot more and opposing teams were generally intimidated by an enforcer if they didn't have one of their own. Hired guns were almost coveted, and the fact that you might not be able to believe that shows just how far the NHL has come since those days.
The game has changed.
Today, enforcers are a dying breed. Very few rosters house a true hired gun anymore. The San Jose Sharks have John Scott and Raffi Torres. Shawn Thornton currently resides in Florida with the Panthers. Matt Carkner suits up for the Islanders.
Many enforcers are currently finding themselves out of work. George Parros and Mike Rupp (just to name a few) currently don't have NHL teams. Even the Toronto Maple Leafs -- the longstanding enforcer hotbed -- have demoted Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren in favor of younger, more skilled talent. It's the direction the NHL is moving and smart teams are adapting to the change.
The Rangers are currently employing Tanner Glass, who resides on their fourth line. To this point in the season, Glass has not missed a single game. That's an important note to make, for a few different reasons.
When John Tortorella was the coach of the New York Rangers he loved having toughness on the fourth line but not playing them. We were routinely accustomed to boxscores showing two or three players with less than double-digit ice time figures. It was a "run my top guns" strategy that wore out the team's best players and left the Rangers an exhausted heap come time for the playoffs.
Alain Vigneault's arrival promised to change that. A subscriber to his own advanced stats; Vigneault employed a more balanced system, trying to make sure everyone who made the team had a role. Last year, the Rangers only had one player average less than 11 minutes a night (minimum 10 games played) and that was Dan Carcillo -- who joined the team towards the end of the year.
That balance of power helped the Rangers stay fresh through their deep playoff run, something that probably never would have happened under Tortorella.
This year, Glass is averaging the least amount of ice time for the Rangers, coming in at 10:29 a night. That's below recent call up Chris Mueller (10:45) and long term hopeful Ryan Malone (10:30). If you extrapolate those three (and J.T. Miller) and focus on the "regulars," only one player (Kevin Hayes) has played less than 13 minutes a night and he's currently averaging 12:59.
Why does any of this matter? The New York Rangers came three goals away from winning the Stanley Cup last year because their fourth line was able to handle brutal defensive assignments and still come away with the puck. This year's fourth line of Glass Malone and Dominic Moore only has one player (spoiler, it's Moore) who is capable of such a role.
What seems to get overlooked about last year's fourth line, is how their defensive assignments helped the rest of the team. Because that line was deployed in the defensive zone so much, it allowed more offensive players to get easier matchups in the offensive zone.
This year, Vigneault hasn't been able to deploy the fourth line in a similar way, mainly because he keeps penciling Glass into the lineup every night. And that's hurt the team. Not only because Vigneault doesn't have a four line he can rely on, but also because other offensive players need to play more defensive assignments to make up for it.
In the past, the fourth line used to be the rough and tough. I see people clamor for toughness constantly when the team struggles, even though they didn't seem to mind the more skilled approach to last year's run. There's a difference between Milan Lucic (tough and good at hockey) and John Scott (very tough and very bad at hockey). And while I'm not suggesting Glass is as bad as Scott, the point remains the same.
And that should be the difference. Take a look at the below two lines and tell me which one you'd want on your hockey team as the fourth line:
Glass - Dominic Moore - Ryan Malone
Lee Stempniak - Moore - Jesper Fast
Explain to me why the second option can't happen? I agree, there are games I want Malone in the lineup to be a little more physical or to bring a power play presence in front of the net. But those games should be the exception, not the norm.
The second option would add some offense, would be fine with tougher defensive assignments and because of that they would create space for the top forwards. Enforcers do not create space for top line players. Lines capable of handling brutal defensive assignments do.
The Rangers very well may succeed with Vigneault using the first option. I tried to rationalize this previously, but I'm not seeing the plan I was hoping to see. Or maybe it's coming. Maybe things will make more sense when Derek Stepan comes back and it pushes someone else down to the fourth line. I still don't like Glass there, though.
It's not just the fourth line anymore, it's more important than that.