How do you get value out of the bottom of your lineup?
The question is asked more and more these days, too, as NHL fans wonder aloud if replacing veteran, defensive journeymen on free-agent contracts with cheap prospects on entry-level deals might be better for the team and the players in the long run.
While most teams continue to employ the fighter or the faceoff specialist for 4th line duty, the Tampa Bay Lightning are doing something rare: handing the 4th line over to the kids.
Sort the Bolts by forward time on ice per game and you'll see this:
Brian Boyle continues to anchor a line for the Lightning handling tougher minutes and defensive zone draws, and that trio (most often with J.T. Brown and Brenden Morrow) gets about the same amount of even strength minutes as what I'm referring to as the "4th line". In reality, they're interchangeable in terms of minutes, but very different in terms of usage. Boyle and Brown in particular are handling most of the defensive zone draws (both -20% in Relative Offensive Zone Starts per War on Ice), while Namestnikov, Connolly, Paquette and Drouin have enjoyed optimized offensive-zone usage from Jon Cooper as he limits the opportunities for them to make costly mistakes in front of their own net.
The Bolts are bucking the old line paradigm of scoring/scoring/checking/grinding. They're essentially running three scoring lines -- the Stamkos line, the Johnson line and then the '4th' line, which in recent games has been composed primarily of Vlad Namestnikov skating between Jonathan Drouin and Cedric Paquette.
That trio has responded to the favorable minutes with strong offensive production. All three are scoring around 2 points/60 5v5 minute or better, which is a top-6 scoring rate. Drouin is scoring over 3 points/60 at 5v5, but has benefited from a few games played with Steven Stamkos. Still, 8 5v5 goals and 18 total 5v5 points in 17 games is a lot better than you'll see from most teams bottom-5-6 forward in terms of even-strength time-on-ice/game.
For a direct comparison, consider the bottom-3 forwards for the nearly always dominant Boston Bruins, one of Tampa Bay's biggest threats in the Atlantic Division. Of forwards with at least ten games played, their least used forwards are Simon Gagne (0.40 5v5 points/60), Matt Fraser (1.10), and Dan Paille (0.58). That's all well below the offense that the Bolts are getting out of their kid line, and could be an area for Jon Cooper to exploit in head-to-head match-up against teams that employ a more defensive 4th forward unit.
One caveat here with younger players is the value of playing more minutes, especially for guys still considered developing prospects. They need to play to learn; they need to make mistakes on the ice and see them broken down in the video room, to learn the patterns and systems and speed of the game at its highest level.
The concern is always that what befell Brett Connolly in his first year as a professional will stunt the development of a young forward. Connolly was relegated to 4th line duty and had a difficult time adjusting from the WHL to the NHL, but that's another story entirely. The problem isn't that the 4th line is inherently bad for development; it's that typical 4th line usage is.
Is 13 minutes in the NHL really all that different -- developmentally speaking -- than 20 minutes in the AHL? After all, even with careful sheltering, the new batch of kids for Tampa Bay is playing stiff competition on a nightly basis, considerably more difficult than even top line AHL players.
Vlad Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette have gone as far as to earn spot power play duty and a role on the penalty kill, while continuing to earn more even-strength minutes from Jon Cooper.
Perhaps overlooked -- but equally important -- is GM Steve Yzerman's role in all this. There was a concerted effort this offseason to jettison dead weight from the bottom of the lineup, as defensive specialists (Nate Thompson), enforcers (B.J. Crombeen, Pierre-Cedric Labrie) and past-their-prime (Ryan Malone) forwards were removed from the equation and replaced with high-skill prospects ready to make the leap but perhaps not ready for 18+ NHL minutes per night.
Two out of those four 4th liners from a season ago no longer hold an NHL job. Spending to lure Brian Boyle to Tampa Bay makes a ton of sense with how Jon Cooper has been able to free up some of his most talented young forwards to be productive in sheltered minutes.