Why have the Winnipeg Jets dressed terrible fourth lines?

Last year the Winnipeg Jets suffered some significant injuries to both their forward and defensive cores. To patch the holes temporarily, the Jets’ General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff traded for Jiri Tlusty and Lee Stempniak.

After the dust settled, the Jets became a team able to play four lines without much risk of playing penalty kill hockey at 5-on-5.

Michael Frolik has now left the Jets, but his roster spot –and perhaps his role– has been replaced by the return of Alexander Burmistrov.

However, the loss of both Tlusty and Stempniak has sent the Jets fourth line back to unknowns of prospects and AHL fringe players.

Will the Jets finally be able to dress a competent fourth line this year, or will it be a return of the shorthanded even strength chase in the defensive zone?

Why care about fourth line impact

Hockey is a game. A goal scoring game.

The team with the most goals wins. (Duh)

Everything a team does is within the context of attempting to do just that, outscore the opposition. 

Everyone knows that fourth line players are limited. They are not the best hockey players. They do not score as much as their peers, and even the best fourth line players will struggle against the opposition’s top-six.

After all, this is why they are on the fourth line and not higher.

Fourth line players, are still hockey players though and the same rules apply. The more skilled and capable a player is, the more likely they are to outscore their opponent:

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Still, for the most part fourth lines are out shot and outscored, even the best ones. It’s predominately a matter about mitigating the bleeding.

There are exceptions. In 2012-13, the Chicago Blackhawks dressed a fourth line that included Michael Frolik and Marcus Kruger plus a rotation of Brandon Bollig and Jamal Mayers which severely out attempted and outscored their opposition, controlling nearly 60 per cent of shots and goals.

Having a fourth line like that is a huge advantage.

Not needing to shelter their fourth line with a talent like Kruger allows the Blackhawks to push the rest of their roster into scoring situations, like we see here for 2013-14:

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Still, there are limitations.

Fourth line players are limited in their skills and capabilities. This causes fourth line players to be overwhelmed at even strength.

This is why fourth line players are limited in their ice time allowance. Even the minimal ice time they play is more heavily weighted to low-impact minutes (like when carrying heavy leads) than the rest of the roster.

By limiting their icetime and the type of minutes, coaches diminish the impact fourth line players have at even strength relative to their peers. But it does not remove said impact.

The spread in goal differential impact between the 20th percentile and the 80th percentile in Corsi for a fourth line player is about 21 per cent of the spread for first line players, and about half for second and third line players.

Intangibles and potential impact

Coaches and General Managers often look for supplementary sources of impact from their bottom of the roster to make up for their weaknesses.

Bottom line players can often provide additional value through special teams. While better players at even strength tend to be better in special teams situations, it is not always true. Specialists can be found and provide value in impacting a team’s chance to win far beyond that of a typical fourth line player.

This is also where the idea of energy and checking forwards comes from.

The conjecture goes something like this: the limited 5v5 icetime restricts their on-ice impact so the fourth line players attempt to impact the game even while off the ice by affecting both their teammates and opponents.

This is where the importance many of the “intangibles” we speak of and debate over extends from. Grinding down the opponents with physicality and intimidation plays. “Creating space” and energizing the team.

There is a danger with using these intangibles as latent variables. Regardless of how involved or smart an individual is, at best the usage becomes an exercise in educated guessing, with emphasis placed on guessing. While an involved and intelligent individual will likely have a good handle in who can provide things like leadership, positivity in the room, obedience, et cetera, no one really knows the extent in impact.

It is the difference between real and real impact.

The Winnipeg Jets

Over the past four seasons, the Winnipeg Jets have rolled out some of the worst fourth lines in the NHL, and that is not an exaggeration.

Using the Jets two most common fourth line combinations in each season, I found the Jets to control about 45 per cent of both shot attempts and goals while their fourth line on the ice. For context, the average fourth line controls about 48 per cent and the average pressbox player playing less than 30 games controls about 46 per cent.

In other words, the Jets fourth line has been out shot and outscored more than those who cannot make other teams’ fourth lines.

The Jets most common fourth line staple has been Jim Slater. The Jets have controlled 44 per cent of shot attempts and 41 per cent of goals with Slater on the ice. 

Why has the fourth line been so bad? Could the Jets have done better?

We can see some of the problem when we look at all the Jets fourth line players with more than 30 games played:

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All data is limited to minutes while dressed as a Jet only. Example: No Washington minutes are used for Eric Fehr.

There is an interesting trend above. While raw Corsi misses the impacts of usage and deployment, most research has shown the impacts to be minimal. We are also dealing predominately with fourth line players who would have seen similar quality in linemates and competition.

The players that the Jets have used the most also have tended to be the ones with the worst results.

The spread is not insignificant either. The first three quartiles for fourth-line and pressbox players in Corsi is 44, 47, and 51 per cent. In other words, the spread in Corsi percentage above is where the bulk of bottom players are situated.

The Jets have consistently sent out some of the worst fourth lines in the league, despite having alternative options that looked to be far superior.

Why have the Jets made these moves?

Likely the Jets believe that these players with the poorest impact in shots and goals make up for their impact significantly enough in intangibles that it makes up for their terrible play, and then some.

Of course, they could also be wrong.

It is quite the canyon to pass.

They could be wrong on how much value to place into intangibles, they could be wrong which intangibles impact more, they could be wrong in how much intangible an individual has.

They could also be right.

No one knows for sure, but what we do know is that the Jets have carried some of the worst possible fourth line players in terms of shots and goals consistently. We do know how much that has hurt on the scoreboard.

With Jim Slater gone as a free agent, the Jets have an opportunity to do much better and dress a fourth line that is not outscored or outshot by amounts unacceptable even by fourth line standards.

Will they?