NHL’s fourth liners now have more skill than ever


New York Rangers' Tanner Glass (15). (Frank Franklin II/AP)

Goons are pretty much gone in the NHL.

More and more teams are rolling four lines of forwards who can skate — and score. The days of having seldom-used tough guys on the fourth line just to throw punches or protect stars are over.

"One-dimensional players are almost extinct," Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "The game is faster than ever. Teams that used to want a physical and intimidation factor on the fourth line now are more interested in having four lines that can contribute offensively and play with discipline to stay out of the penalty box."

Fights are down, and playing time is up for more players.

There were 0.63 fighting majors per game last season, the seventh straight year in which there was a decline, according to STATS. And, the number of forwards who play 10-plus minutes has been trending up for years.

"Because of the competitiveness of our league, teams are more focused on having skilled players to make a difference," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.

Instead of sending a message with a fight, teams would rather do it by scoring. The average goals in a game has hovered around 5.3 the past four seasons as goaltenders have gotten more skilled, so coaches and GMs are looking for contributions from everyone.

New York Rangers forward Tanner Glass, though, hopes the trend doesn’t make it tougher for him to keep his job. He also doesn’t want it lead to players using their sticks instead of fists to do damage. Glass had more fights (nine) than goals last year, ranking among league leaders. He has scored 19 times over eight seasons, but five teams have wanted his physical presence on their rosters over the years.

Is he concerned teams are devaluing fighting?

"I think there’s still a spot for that, and there always will be a spot for that," Glass said. "I know it won’t be as prominent as it is and as it has been, but I think if you talk to guys around the league, no one wants a league with no toughness and no accountability."

In other words, he said, slashing majors might become more common if fighting goes away.

"Guys kind of play a different way when there’s no accountability," Glass said.

Holland and Red Wings senior vice-president Jim Devellano both credit Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman with leading the charge to change the way fourth lines are used a couple decades ago.

While he did put notorious tough guy Darren McCarty on a fourth unit in Detroit that was known as the "Grind Line," McCarty could light the lamp as well. McCarty’s linemates, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby, could skate and hit hard while contributing offensively, at least occasionally.

The Red Wings won Stanley Cups with that style of play from the fourth line and the reigning champions are without a doubt the latest example of the trend paying dividends: Chicago’s fourth line of Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger and Andrew Desjardins played a pivotal role last season, especially them toward the end of the Stanley Cup finals when the Blackhawks outlasted Tampa Bay to win their third title in six years.

"That makes our team probably different than other teams when you have that type of a group that can play against top lines and top teams," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "They can score, they can hold their own, sometimes influence a game. It’s almost like they’re probably not a fourth line."

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