They’re often the plugs, the role players, the goons and the also-rans.
During the Stanley Cup Finals, though, the fourth line almost always joins the superstars at center stage. The narrative surrounding the “lunch pail” players is too ripe for the picking to be ignored, especially if they’re successful on each team’s run to the Finals.
In 2011, the efforts of the Shawn Thornton/Gregory Campbell/Daniel Paille line for the Boston Bruins were considered the ignition that drove the franchise to its first Stanley Cup victory in 39 years (Editor’s note- thanks to Iggles for pointing this error out. Flyers have not won the Cup in 35 years…).
In 2012, New Jersey Devils head coach Peter Deboer credited the Bruins for exposing the lack of depth in their bottom six.
“I think our third and fourth lines have been exposed against these guys when we’ve played them… When you look at the stats, their fourth line has killed us the last few games we’ve played them… I think we knew that. It’s been an issue all year. We juggled guys around hoping to find a fit and hadn’t been able to. So Lou (Lamoriello) went out and acquired guys I think fit that role perfectly, so I don’t see that as an issue anymore.”
Fast forward to the Stanley Cup Finals and the fourth line of Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier have transformed a middling unit into one of the most effective lines for the Devils.
In 109 combined regular season games, the trio were individually responsible for 5 goals and 14 points.
In 22 post-season games, they combined for 10 goals and 19 points.
The Kings’ fourth line hasn’t been as productive, but they have earned similar accolades. Between Brad Richardson, Jordan Nolan and Colin Fraser, the Kings’ fourth line produced 9 goals and 20 points in the regular season compared to 3 goals and 5 points in the post-season.
Looking ahead, the Philadelphia Flyers have one player who will be key to the success of their fourth line- Matt Read.
Read bounced around between all four lines in his rookie campaign, finishing with an impressive 24 goals and 47 points in 79 games played.
Both his production and defensive play would be enough to earn him a spot on the third line, but the Flyers have a surplus of young forwards in need of ice time. Since Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier may prove to be the future of the franchise (if they aren’t traded tomorrow), someone is going to have to slide down a line, and it may as well be Read.
Read has the versatility to play center or wing, depending on what line Max Talbot falls to next season, along with a cap-friendly hit of $900,000. As an undrafted forward on an entry level contract, his position on the team was built for the fourth line, but he has shown he is capable of being useful on other lines as the need arises (injuries, slumps, suspensions, etc.).
There is no evidence to suggest that either Read or Talbot will be able to recreate their production from the 2011-12 NHL season, but compared to the Kings and Devils, they are both better prepared to take on tougher competition than their fourth line counterparts.
Read, though, should be the anchor on which the Flyers’ fourth line is built. The organization will have to be creative in who his linemates are, as goons and enforcers add little to no value to the line-up in the post-season. The Devils realized that late this season when forwards Cam Janssen and Eric Boulton were dropped from the roster.
At the end of the day, Read is as important to the make-up of the club as Claude Giroux.
He’s just a fourth liner.