Rethinking the Fourth Line in Boston

( Photo Credit: Steve Babineau / NHLI via Getty Images )

By: Scott Wood | Follow me on Twitter @ScottHoHPodcast

The makeup of a standard lineup of the current NHL roster is commonly understood. Your top unit, of course, is meant to be your go-to line for offense. Need a goal; you lean on these three players. The Bruins happen to have a legendary example with the “Production Line” of Marchand, Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. Known for being able to control possession in three zones and as one of the most well-rounded and complicated lines to play against in the league. Some even consider it the Bruins only threatening line.

( Photo Credit: Steve Babineau / NHLI via Getty Images )

The second scoring unit rounding out the top six should simply be a poor person’s version of your top line. Oftentimes you will see a top-heavy team move someone down from their top unit to help the second line pop and drive the offense, spreading out some of the responsibility and making the team more complicated to “stack up” and defend against.

The third is often a defensive-centered unit, that gets a disproportionate number of defensive zone starts and is tasked with being with the thankless mission of “shutting down” or containing the opponent’s top line. Numbers are a secondary thought for this type of line and are a bonus if remarkable in any way.

Then there is the fourth line. Typically out there simply to spell the others. Chip the puck deep into the opposing zone, forecheck, lay the body, cycle and repeat. Secondary penalty-killers and pugilists. The perfect place for the Shawn Thorntons, Matt Martins, and Ryan Reaves of the NHL.

My breakdown of the line deployment is admittedly rudimentary, trite, and debatable, but the basic concepts of the formula are commonplace and, in the case of the Boston Bruins, require a re-thinking. I say this taking no umbrage with the top two lines. Sure, I would like to see them attempt to balance out the top two scoring units by trading a struggling Pastrnak and volume-shooter Craig Smith on the right side, but it’s hardly a sword I’d die on. 

Fact is, the Bruins have spent an off-season with a clear focus on improving the skill and tenacity levels on the bottom six on the roster. And they have a few forwards knocking on the door of the NHL who don’t seem to fit the grind-it-out mentality that they would need to shoehorn themselves to crack the lineup in a typical fourth-line role. So much so that despite a pre-season where Studnicka performed well, looking stronger and more decisive in a top-six role entering Taylor Hall and Craig Smith, he was still a victim of the “numbers game” for game one, in lieu of the tenacious but less-talented Anton Blidh. 

That changed after both Foligno and Blidh (and for a brief time, Craig Smith and Curtis Lazar) went down with injuries to start the year. But when Studnicka got the call, it seemed unclear what his role was. Newly acquired depth center Tomas Nosek got the call to move up to the second line, bumping the rejuvenated Charlie Coyle back to the wing and leaving Studnicka on the fourth. But wasn’t the argument for sending Studnicka down in the first place because that’s what the Bruins felt was best for his own success and development?

In short order, Studnicka was moved up in a later contest to center that same line but was given only 10 minutes of ice time to make it work. HIs hard work on that unit resulted in the only (fluke) goal in a two-game back-to-back disaster against the Panthers and Hurricanes, in which the Bruins were out-scored 7-1.

Studnicka isn’t the only one fighting for his place in Boston. Oskar Steen was brought up in one contest and automatically clicked with Jake DeBrusk. Steen’s speed was electrifying, and that line buzzed almost all contest. His beautiful pass to DeBrusk put the Bruins in control 4-1 heading into the third period and ended up the game-winning tally. He was promptly sent back to Providence, where he’s continued his play and currently leads his AHL club with 5 goals and 10 points in just 6 contests. 

Oskar Steen gets his first NHL point on a feed to Jake DeBrusk

Then you have players like Jesper Froden, a free agent signing from Sweden in the offseason, who many felt was destined for Boston’s roster in a Joakim Nordstrom type of role. Jakub Lauko, who in small stints has performed well in Boston and fits their puck-hound philosophy. Even former first-round selection Zack Senyshyn who got a surprise contract again this off-season after appearing to finally turn a corner in last year’s Covid-shortened season.

And finally, you have a struggling Trent Frederic, who is getting a lot of rope and who is the closest resemblance to a typical fourth-line grinder the Bruins currently employ. Is the team better letting him go through the ups and downs of learning the pro game while simultaneously strangling the fighter and stir-the-pot instincts that made him a fan favorite early last season? Thus far in 8 games, he has but one assist and only ten shots on net and has looked odd-man-out during much of his limited ice time. 

The Bruins simply aren’t built to have a traditional fourth-line. They have speed and intelligence on the bottom of the roster and are missing the big hitter presence to make it an effective forechecking, defense-softening group. It’s not realistic to expect to these Bruins go out and wear down opposing teams with Karson Kuhlman as the first man on the defender.

( Photo Credit: Steve Babineau / NHLI via Getty Images )

It’s a change of strategy. While this may come across as a complaint and a longing for heavy play (I do, but this isn’t that article), it’s a plea for the team and fans alike to acknowledge this fact. It opens the door for players like Jack Studnicka to snag a full-time role. Or Oskar Steen to stick after an impressive first-NHL point. For the Bruins to use these depth signings of Foligno, Haula, and Nosek in a true mix on the bottom two lines and for fans not look at the numbers what line is 3rd and 4th and complain about the salaries being used on either. 

What if the Bruins could employ a true four-line attack with Haula in the middle of a fourth with Nosek and Foligno? A third line of DeBrusk, Studnicka and Oskar Steen? Could we not imagine an effective 12-man attack with the options currently afforded to the Bruins?

At the very least, it seems more sound than trying the same old strategy of pounding square pegs into round holes in order to forge a traditional fourth line. It doesn’t exist with the current roster options. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

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