Throughout the regular season, the New York Rangers featured a number of combinations on their fourth line. Many of those combinations emulated a speed and skill focused style, rather than a more traditional gritty fourth line. Players like Brandon Pirri, Jesper Fast, and Oscar Lindberg often found themselves on the fourth line in the regular season.
Of the fourth line combinations, the line of Michael Grabner with Lindberg and Fast was one of the most productive despite playing limited time together. However, during the playoffs, this was the most consistent fourth line to be deployed – and they thrived. Overall that trio combined to be one of the strongest fourth lines in the postseason.
That line combination was successful because they were dominant on both sides of the ice. In the playoffs, that combination was excellent defensively (38.49 Corsi against per 60, 15.06 shots against per 60, 1.67 scoring chances against per 60, 1.01 expected goals against per 60) and was not on the ice for a single goal against. Their offense provided the Rangers with much-needed scoring depth as well. Plus, their ability to maintain the puck in the offensive zone allowed the first line to have more favorable zone starts.
Although their regular season and postseason ice time was limited, this style of fourth line is what the Rangers should strive for going forward.
Unfortunately, one of the key pieces of their fourth line from last season is missing as Lindberg was claimed in the expansion draft. Lindberg’s two-way play will certainely be missed down the middle of the ice, but there are a number of free agent centers the Rangers could explore to replace him.
If the Rangers are looking for a more experienced, veteran presence on the fourth line, players like Brian Boyle and David Desharnais could become options. However, after actively clearing up cap space and expressing their want to go younger, they may instead pursue fulfill that goal with young, low-risk options through free agency – including Dennis Rasmussen, Andrej Nestrasil, Michael Latta, Alexander Burmistrov, and Mikhail Grigorenko.
As for the wings there are two options that are already on this team – Grabner and Fast.
Fast is expected to be out of the lineup until November after undergoing hip surgery, which may force the team to find at least a temporary replacement. Most often, Fast is used in a fourth line role, although he has been moved up in the lineup due to his versatility and adaptability. The Rangers could utilize their 13th forward (likely Matt Puempel) in his absence, look at players within the organization, or target a free agent. A player like Tyler Pitlick, whose last season was derailed by injury, is likely going to be a cheap option available that could be signed to give the Rangers depth in Fast’s absence.
If not a free agent, the Rangers could look from within their organization. Along with Cristoval Nieves, who could also take on the role as fourth line center, players like Nicklas Jensen or Robin Kovacs could be given a chance at the NHL level.
Grabner who scored 40 points (27 goals, 13 assists) this season, was more often deployed on the third-line. Because of that, the Rangers may prefer to keep him in that position unless his play diminishes.
If the Rangers are going to acquire another center to fit into their top nine though, then Zuccarello, Zibanejad, Kreider, Buchnevich, Hayes, Nash, Vesey, and Miller should all be used ahead of Grabner – since his playing style best fits a fourth-line role of those options. Young players like Vesey and Buchnevich, whose roles dwindled at times during their rookie seasons, should have a guaranteed role in the top nine instead of appearing on the fourth line as they did this past season.
The easiest solution to rebuilding for the Blueshirts, should be using Fast and Grabner as foundational pieces and finding a center to play between them. Fast and Grabner both played some of their best two-way hockey while together last season, especially on that fourth line with Lindberg. Grabner speed and scoring can help spark the fourth line, while Fast provides balance with his strong defensive play. With the right center between them, the Rangers fourth line could again be dangerous like it was in the postseason.
A fourth line may play fewer minutes, but can be crucial to a team’s success – why it is imperative that the Rangers rebuild their fourth line wisely. The greatest concern is that the Rangers look to more traditional fourth liners that cannot emulate their speed and skill game. The scoring depth and ability to roll four lines was a major strength last season, which is why the fourth line should recreate that instead of becoming an impediment on the team.
Tanner Glass and his gritty game only hampered the fourth line in recent seasons and for what he brings to the team, a cap hit of $1.45 million is far too high. Grabner may have a higher cap hit ($1.65 million), but he earns that with his offensive contributions. Re-signing Glass or pursing players like Dwight King, Chris Neil, or Chris Thorburn at any cost to fulfill a more traditional fourth line, would only detract from the Rangers strategy.
If the Rangers are truly rebuilding on the fly, to give themselves their best chance at the Stanley Cup now and in the future, then their fourth line needs to be rebuilt to fill the void of Lindberg while maintaining a skilled game. Also important, is that young offensive weapons development is not risked with constant demotions to the fourth line. Rather, there has to be dedicated fourth line players that will balance the lineup.
There are a number of potential gems in the free agent market that could help the fourth line excel, it is just a matter of the Rangers finding them.