The research for this piece was prompted by a comment on Twitter regarding the Tampa Bay Lightning’s loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. The comment mentioned that the third and fourth lines weren’t contributing. I disagree, because I felt that the discussion made it clear that they had an expectation that was not in line with the reality of bottom six forwards in the NHL.
Tampa’s third-line players have actually been contributing offensively, and a lot of that is because they are involved in the power play along with even-strength contributions. The Lightning are one of the few teams in the league that employs eight forwards over their two power play units and will even go with four forwards in four-on-three situations. Most teams use only seven of their forwards on the power play, opting to have one defenseman on their first unit and two defensemen on their second unit.
If we made the assumption that there was a perfectly even distribution of talent across the NHL, the top three forwards for each team would make up the top 93 forward scorers in the NHL, and the top six would make up the top 186, and the top nine would make up the top 279.
The 93rd scoring forward sits at 10 goals, 12 assists, and 22 points. The Lightning have Nikita Kucherov (48p), Steven Stamkos (45p), Brayden Point (31p), Vladislav Namestnikov (29p), Yanni Gourde (23p) and Tyler Johnson (23p) ahead of that mark. The 186th leading scorer has four goals, 11 assists, and 15 points. Ahead of that mark are Ondrej Palat (21p) and Alex Killorn (19p).
The Lightning’s top 8 forwards (who for all intents and purposes are the whole of the third line) have been scoring like top-six forwards. So that pretty easily puts to rest any notion that the third line is not producing enough offense.
However, I thought there was some validity to the comment about the fourth line not producing enough and I wanted to look for myself.
One of the hardest parts about this evaluation is that lines change so often in today’s NHL. Players are in and out of the lineup with injuries. Players are moving up and down the lineup because of injuries. And without having followed all 31 teams in the NHL closely all season, I’d be hard pressed to go through each team’s roster and point out which players have primarily played on the fourth line.
So for that reason, I chose to use the Top 9 in forward scoring on each team as the cut-off for the fourth line. This is somewhat arbitrary, and I could have used TOI as a determiner as well. However, I felt that even that could provide some awkward results as well with call-ups plus special teams play impacting TOI.
For each team in the NHL, I totaled up the games played, goals, assists, and points for their 10th forward in scoring, on down to the bottom. I’ll collectively call these players the “Bottom Forwards.” Some interesting tidbits came from it, and we can see a bit better how the Lightning’s bottom forwards stacks up against other teams.
The average point production for a fourth liner in the NHL is somewhere around 18-20 points over a 82 game season. Some will have more goals than others, but they typically end up around that mark. Some higher-end fourth liners excel beyond that, but then you could argue that they really should be a third-liner instead of toiling away on the fourth line, like a Brian Boyle.
The Lightning’s bottom forwards have collectively played in 80 games this season. This is the fewest in the data set, with the Carolina Hurricanes the next lowest at 102 games played. The highest is the Anaheim Ducks with 152 games played.
There are some easy conclusions to draw from this. Injuries have not been a big factor for the Lightning’s forwards so far. Of the Top 9 scoring forwards, only Tyler Johnson has missed a game this season. Also the fact that Jon Cooper has gone with only 11 forwards for the majority of games this season means that the bottom end of the lineup have played in fewer games. Looking at Anaheim, this is explained by the many injuries that they have dealt with this season and the call-ups that have had to step in to fill the gaps.
The Lightning’s bottom forwards also have the fewest goals at four, and have the eighth-fewest assists. Their 0.20 points per game also ranks eighth fewest in the league. Projected over an 82 game season, the Lightning’s average bottom forward would put up four goals, 12 assists, and 16 points with their collective scoring rates over an 82 game season. That puts them a little bit below the average for NHL fourth liners.
By contrast, the Lightning bottom forwards put together a collective scoring rate of 12 points over an 82 game season. The Lightning are already getting 33% more production from the bottom end of their line-up while playing many less games.
So while it would be nice to get some more scoring from the fourth line, the Lightning are already getting a lot of scoring from the top end of their forward corps to go along with an increase in defensemen scoring. The increase in scoring on the blue line has already made up for any deficit the fourth line may have in the offensive zone.
Also keep in mind that fourth-liners generally have a different role within a game. They’re asked to play an energetic game with good defense, offense is a secondary consideration.
Jon Cooper often sends them out for the first shift after a power play to get the rotation reset for the forwards since both units draw from more two forward lines for it’s personnel. They’re also sent out for the first shift after a goal scored, weather for or against to either turn or continue the momentum following the goal.
In conclusion: Tampa is doing just fine.