My favorite NHL players are traditional fourth-liners. They are crash-and-bangers who skate with purpose. They punish their opponents without consideration of the damage they do to their own bodies. They touch the game with their infectious energy.
Roll video of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2011. The Canucks are storming the Bruins in the first period. The only players who push back are Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell, and Shawn Thornton. The Bruins do not win the Cup if the fourth line doesn’t hold its ground.
Fourth-liners are postseason difference-makers. In Game 7 on Wednesday night, Montreal’s fourth line of Brandon Prust, Daniel Briere, and Dale Weise scored early on its Black-and-Gold counterparts. Weise skated with purpose. Briere (one goal, three assists in the series) made the most of his chances.
“You look at their fourth line, they had a couple big goals,” Campbell said. “Sometimes that’s the difference. In years past, it’s been the difference for our team in a positive way for our line. Last year we were really good, and in the year we won. This year, I felt we left a little bit on the table.”
The Bruins’ fourth-liners were once the industry standard. During the playoffs, they looked beyond their best-by date.
They were slow. They hustled after pucks instead of controlling them. Once they closed on an opponent, the puck was gone.
“In the years they played well, they spent a lot of time in the offensive zone,” coach Claude Julien said. “For some reason — it’s not one player only, it’s as a line — I didn’t think they had enough puck poise or managed it well enough.”
On Weise’s goal, Thornton was late to seal off Andrei Markov at the red line. Campbell joined a puck battle against Prust, which left Briere open. Like stretches of the regular season, they were out of synch.
When Thornton and Campbell were on the ice, according to www.extraskater.com, the Bruins allowed more shots than they took. During the regular season, all three were on for more shots against than attempted.
In 82 games, Campbell blocked 46 shots, third-most among Bruins forwards after Patrice Bergeron (57) and David Krejci (56). Campbell did so while averaging 11:54 of ice time, well off the pace of Bergeron (17:59) and Krejci (19:07). Part of that may be attributed to Campbell’s deployment as a shot-blocking penalty killer. But it also shows how much Campbell was defending instead of attacking.
“We didn’t have the traction all year that we’ve had in the past,” Campbell said. “We weren’t able to gain that with some injuries to Piesey and the suspension to Thorty. Then Piesey didn’t start the first round. Not to say that as an excuse. We’ve been together for a long time. We should know each other. But it just didn’t feel like we were connecting.”
The NHL is changing. General managers and their colleagues in hockey operations are shifting from caveman hockey to skill, speed, and puck possession. A fourth line can be as gritty as it wants by hitting and fighting and blocking shots. But those elements mean they’re chasing the puck instead of controlling it.
The benchmark is Chicago. The Blackhawks play modern hockey: fast, skilled, and relentless. They don’t care that their fourth line isn’t rippling with muscles. That would slow them down.
In Chicago’s series-clinching, 2-1 Game 6 overtime win over Minnesota, Marcus Kruger centered Joakim Nordstrom and Ben Smith on the fourth line. Kruger is 6 feet, 180 pounds. Nordstrom is 6-1, 160. Smith, a former Boston College player, is 5-11, 207. There are no Colton Orrs or John Scotts or Brian McGrattans on Chicago’s roster. The Blackhawks want the puck. And they want to go fast with it.
Part of this movement is unfortunate. The fourth line is where fighters usually play. I like fighting. It exemplifies courage, sportsmanship, and unselfishness.
In most cases, fighters go against their own. They agree upon the bout’s parameters. They cease punching once one hits the deck. They give each other attaboys on the way to the box or to the room to repair breaks or leaks. It is the hardest job in the league.
But it takes an agreement to fight. If a skilled team doesn’t have a slugger, the opponent’s tough guy has no dance partner. Through attrition, the fighter is becoming irrelevant. Heavyweights such as Thornton, Scott (Buffalo), Micheal Haley (Rangers), George Parros (Montreal), Mike Rupp (Minnesota), Cam Janssen (New Jersey), Steve MacIntyre (Edmonton), Ben Eager (Edmonton), Paul Bissonnette (Phoenix), and Kevin Westgarth (Calgary) will become unrestricted free agents this summer. Some of these players may be on their final NHL contracts.
“The fisticuff trend — this doesn’t characterize Thorty as just a fighter, because he’s contributed on that line and that line has had a lot of success in the past — we’re definitely trending away from that style,” Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said.
The Bruins are in transition. Thornton is doubtful to return. Paille and Campbell will enter the final year of their contracts. This could be the beginning of refreshing the fourth line to keep pace with Chicago’s innovation.
Paille is a good No. 4 left wing. He’s fast, kills penalties, and is good in battles. Justin Florek could replace Thornton on the right side. Florek is big and smart. He’s strong on the walls. He can also kill penalties.
In the middle, Ryan Spooner and Alexander Khokhlachev are pushing from below. Neither has Campbell’s grit, physicality, or experience. But they’re faster, more skilled, and better equipped to play with the puck. Nowhere in the NHL rule book does it say that a fourth line must be all about checking and sandpaper. Campbell should have to earn his job in training camp.
Old-school coaches like traditional fourth-liners. They’re tough. They’re good people. They’ll do anything they’re told. They’ll sacrifice themselves for the team. Coaches get nervous when they don’t have tough, rugged, defense-first players.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville used to be in this group. The 55-year-old once coached players such as Peter Worrell, Jim Cummins, Reed Low, and Tyson Nash. Now, his fourth line pushes the pace and plays with the puck, just like his skilled groups.
His moustache may say otherwise, but Quenneville is a modern man. It’s time he gets some company.
BLUE LINER TO SEE SOME GREEN
Boychuk can expect big payday down road
Johnny Boychuk will be in his seventh season as a Bruin in 2014-15. It could be his final one in Boston — if it even happens.
Boychuk will be entering the final season of his three-year, $10.1 million contract. Given Boychuk’s age (30), pedigree, rugged style, and durability, the right-shot defenseman could score more than $5 million annually on the open market. The Bruins might not have that kind of cash to spend.
In 2014-15, the Bruins will have nearly $11 million invested in Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. Torey Krug, who is restricted after this season, will be playing on a bigger contract. Dougie Hamilton will be in the final year of his entry-level deal and due a raise the following season.
None of that bodes well for the Bruins being able to afford Boychuk’s raise. The market dictates that Boychuk could score at least a six-year, $33 million contract, which is the deal Dan Girardi earned from the Rangers. Had Girardi reached the open market, he could have made even more.
Boychuk has a Stanley Cup ring. He has a harder shot than Girardi. During the regular season, Boychuk was a better possession player. Girardi plays more (23:07 average ice time) than Boychuk (21:11), but the Rangers lean harder on their top four defensemen than the Bruins do.
Boychuk is a good fit, not just on the No. 2 pairing but in the team’s system. He’s the Bruins’ most punishing defenseman. He closes on forwards rapidly. He’s eager to block shots — sometimes too much so by limiting his goalies’ sightlines.
But they have options on the right side. Hamilton, Kevan Miller, and Zach Trotman will be under contract. Adam McQuaid, UFA after next season, has no choice but to get healthy. He has no trade value because of his injuries. Seidenberg is just as comfortable on the right side as he is on his left.
The Bruins want Boychuk back. But he’d get more on the market after next season. If the Bruins want more mobility, Boychuk would command a good return this summer.
Top-heavy Penguins have some holes to fill
The Penguins deserved to win Game 7 against the Rangers. They had the best looks. They controlled the puck. They created havoc in front of the New York net. If not for Henrik Lundqvist, the Penguins would have advanced to the Eastern Conference finals.
But as Clint Eastwood once said, deserve’s got nothing to do with it. Pittsburgh, up 3-1 on the weary Rangers, failed in three straight attempts to close out the series. On Friday, GM Ray Shero paid for that shortcoming.
They have the pieces to be a Cup contender. There’s no better 1-2 punch at center than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Brandon Sutter is a good third center. Paul Martin is a No. 1 defenseman.
But they have too many small deficiencies. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is good, not great. James Neal will either score or take an unnecessary penalty. The depth falls off dramatically after the top two lines. Their forwards don’t backcheck aggressively enough to help out their defensemen.
Off the ice, the Pittsburgh bosses must have concluded that Shero locked himself into bad contracts. Kris Letang will start an eight-year, $58 million contract next season. Rob Scuderi will be in the second season of a four-year, $13.5 million anchor. This creates a top-heavy cap structure that leaves the Penguins little room to re-sign Martin (UFA after 2014-15) or give their top two centers some bottom-six support.
All these small problems add up. The next GM — it could be Pat Brisson, Crosby’s agent — has to deal with these issues, plus address the coaching situation.
The Penguins were once a model franchise. But now they’re springing leaks.
According to Sportsnet, the Maple Leafs have not ruled out trading Dion Phaneuf. If such a deal takes place, it would not reflect well on new boss Brendan Shanahan. Phaneuf is coming off a miserable season in which he chased the puck instead of setting the defensive tone. In 2014-15, he will be starting the first season of a seven-year, $49 million extension. If the Leafs ship him out, they’d have to take back a bad contract or assume some of Phaneuf’s salary. It would be the definition of selling low. The smarter route would be for Toronto’s incoming assistants to straighten out Phaneuf. (It seemingly won’t be Randy Carlyle’s job, because he hasn’t done it yet.) Phaneuf is strong. He’s a very good skater. He doesn’t back down. But he turns those assets into shortcomings because he plays so recklessly. With some structure, Phaneuf could bring some Zdeno Chara-like elements to Toronto’s defense. It’s on him. But it’s also on his bosses.
Rival GMs will keep a close watch on Stan Bowman this summer. The Chicago GM could use the offseason to re-sign Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who will be UFA after 2014-15. That Toews and Kane will re-up with the Blackhawks is a given, most likely for the eight-year maximum. Toews is 26. Kane is 25. Their extensions will cover the sweet spot of their careers. But Bowman’s counterparts will be curious to see the two superstars’ average annual value. Their salaries will set the top end of the market, maybe even higher than Anaheim’s Corey Perry ($8.625 million) and Ryan Getzlaf ($8.25 million). Their contracts will help to define the value of David Krejci, Jason Spezza, and Bobby Ryan, who will also be unrestricted after next season.
On July 1, Ryan Johansen will become a restricted free agent. If Johansen hasn’t re-upped with Columbus by then, his three years of service make him eligible to sign an offer sheet with any team. Offer sheets don’t happen. Since the 2005 lockout, only eight offer sheets have been signed. But Johansen is exactly the type of player who merits this kind of transaction — a superstar-to-be playing for a small-market organization. Shea Weber fit that profile, which is why Philadelphia signed the defenseman to a 14-year, $110 million offer sheet July 18, 2012. Nashville matched, partly because of the loss earlier that month of Ryan Suter. If a team (Buffalo, Montreal, Toronto) wants a clear-cut No. 1 center who’ll be ripping it up for the next dozen seasons, Johansen is that guy. The 21-year-old is coming off a 33-30—63 season, plus a point per game in the first round of the playoffs against Pittsburgh. If a team goes the offer sheet route, the Blue Jackets will have no choice but to match. Even if there’s no offer sheet, there won’t be a bridge contract for Johansen. He’s going to get paid.
San Jose GM Doug Wilson announced on Thursday that Dan Boyle will not be re-signed. The Sharks will compensate for Boyle’s departure by moving Brent Burns, once Joe Thornton’s righthand man, back to defense. The Sharks could still get an asset for Boyle by trading his rights before he reaches the market. If so, expect Detroit to be in the mix. The Red Wings need a right-shot, puck-rushing defenseman such as Boyle. Boyle would be the equivalent of Brian Rafalski — a small but smart, mobile, experienced, and offensive-minded defenseman.
It seems like a matter of time before the NHL makes bird’s-eye TV cameras the same in every rink. Coaches often look to video from up top to complement other angles. But the top-down look differs depending on each network’s feed. Some networks use tighter shots than others. A leaguewide standard would make video scouting easier for coaches and management . . . At this point, Barry Trotz is probably happy he was turfed by the Predators. Trotz will be in even higher demand once Pittsburgh’s job opens up. He’ll be able to call his destination and his price . . . It didn’t matter that the Canadiens played Game 7 of the second round at TD Garden. For a $10 donation to the Montreal Canadiens Children’s Foundation, fans packed the Bell Centre to full capacity. The NHL’s Canadian headquarters is in Toronto. But its heart is in La Belle Province.