On Picking Fourth Liners

Kent Wilson
October 29 2012 04:02PM


Justin Bourne recently wrote about the confusing, fuzzy line between players who make the show and others who plumb in relative obscurity forever on its edges. His notes on role perception, attitude, personality and effort as critical issues for guys at the bottom end of the rotation caused me to theorize a bit on the psychological underpinnings of the observed preferences of coaches and GM's for tough guys with team first attitudes.

The short form, for those who don't click links: fouth line players who exemplify sacrifice, effort and coach-ability help to reinforce the coach's authority. Also, they improve cohesion by modeling the social norms of hockey/teamwork while denuding the effect of market norms that would otherwise influence players to foreground their own interests above the team's.

Okay, that wasn't very short. More to the point: players who are examplars of ideal behaviour and attitude but not talent are still valued by decision makers.

There are, of course, other factors that moderate which players amongst the large pool of replacement level guys makes the cut. Justin discussed a number of them in his original article, including expectations, physical abilities (skating) and size. "Luck", I would suggest, is another non-trivial variable, as is the diminishing value of marginal scoring the further down the roster one travels.

So my contribution to the discussion shouldn't be taken to suggest attitude and such is the only or even the lone primary issue when it comes to 'tweeners making the cut: only that it's a contributing factor in a constellation of hockey assets that are considered in traditional hockey circles. It helps if a guy is big and tough as well, for instance...

Distinct and Diffuse Effects

The issue of whether this collection of norms is necessarily ideal wasn't really investigated by myself or Justin. We only discussed how things work now and why they may have evolved in such a manner.

Sometimes the clash between conventional thinking and advanced stats is a fight between "is and "ought". What "is" normal currently thanks to certain perceptions and psychological biases may not be the perfectly rational ideal in terms of on-ice performance.

What coaches and GM's "ought" to be doing from a strict numbers perspective is putting the team with the consistently best chance of outscoring the opposition on the ice every night. That would usually leave little room for the Steve McIntyres and possibly even Tim Jackman's of the world on most rosters...

Some illustrative anecdotes:

- Several years ago, the Edmonton Oilers boasted an effective fourth line of Kyle Brodziak, Curtis Glencross and Zack Stortini. They trade Brodziak for magic beans, allowed Glencross to walk to the rival Flames via free agency...and kept Stortini (who nows plys his trade on the 4th line of the Hamilton Bulldogs).

- A few hours down the road, near the end of his tenure, Darryl Sutter bought out Nigel Dawes after a 15-goal, 32-point season (in 56 gaems) and signed...Raitis Ivanans. Neither plays in the league at this point, but there's little doubt which guy is better at actually playing the game.

To be fair, if fringe players of a certain size and personality promote real but statistically diffuse values like team cohesion and fidelity to the coach, then their inclusion on a club may result in improved global performance which can't be directly measured or attributable to the guy in question. On the other hand, because those impacts are merely assumed and hard to pinpoint, it becomes, err, challenging, to make completely rational decisions about their true value to a club's bottom-line.

For example, to prefer, say, Ben Eager to Linus Omark, one has to assume Eager's various team building/cohesion inspiring activities outpace his obvious flaws as a player, particularly because he could conceivably be replaced by a guy who has a better chance of actually outscoring the opposition. On the other hand, perhaps Linus Omark does damage to the club's global performance due to not being tough enough or because he's a malcontent on the fourth line. In that case, even though Omark would theoretically outplay other 4th line guys on the ice (and Ben Eager in the same circumstances), his "damage" to his team's cohesion, satisfaction level, willingness to compete or the coach's authority may render his marginal scoring improvement moot.

The hypothetical math would look something like this:

- Player X has lackluster talent, but promotes team identity by protecting teammmates, working hard, being good in the room, etc.

- Player Y is a better player but not quite top-9 on most teams. He's not tough, doesn't bang and crash and wishes for more opportunity to score (since his perceived value doesn't lie in checking or fighting).

- In terms of direct impact, Player X costs his team -0.5 goals per hour of playing time versus Player Y. Over a full 82 game schedule and assuming about eight minutes of ice time per night (662 minutes total), Player X costs his team less than 6 goals against vs Player Y, which is not quite one win worth. As a result, the global "team effects" of our affable checker's toughness or positive attitude need only be worth about six goals a year to the rest of his team's performance for the coach to decide in his favor. And/or Player Y's assumed "team destabilizing" effects cost more than 6 goals a year. 

Obviously the arithmetic will begin to favor Player Y in this equation the bigger the divide between his talent and the talent of Player X becomes; meaning one has to assume a much bigger effect on the team's global performance thanks to the conventional 4th liner/enforcer to justify their place on the roster the worse he gets (or the better his potential replacement gets).


It's next to impossible to prove one way or the other, since pinning down the effect of a "team positive attitude" is a lot easier to do theoretically than it is practically. This issue and the above calculus may be the most important factor in the end: because the 4th line has so little impact on the ice, coaches and GM's may simply default to guys that they (and the other players) like and are easy to manage since a bottom lines' on-ice results are of so little consequence relative to the rest of the roster.

Former Nations Overlord. Current FN contributor and curmudgeon For questions, complaints, criticisms, etc contact Kent @ kent.wilson@gmail. Follow him on Twitter here.