CRAFTING THE FOURTH LINE
When watching the teams in the NHL that are consistently the best, meaning in recent years teams like the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, and Pittsburgh Penguins, several consistent themes emerge separating them from the Colorado Avalanche. For all of those people out there looking for a simple answer I suppose you could simply say the difference is "winning" and call it a day. The differences run deeper than that and while the obvious answer that pops out for most Avs fans is defense (all three of the previously mentioned teams have All-Stars on the back end while the Avs decidedly do not) another theme emerges when watching them along with other top flight teams such as the L.A. Kings: an ability and willingness to roll four lines.
Whether it was due to a lack of depth throughout the lineup or injuries or a combination of the two it seemed as though the Avalanche were never comfortable enough to give the fourth line consistent ice time. Given the hodgepodge of players that comprised the fourth line over the course of the year it isn’t hard to see why but it was something that caught my attention right away, especially in the playoffs when watching the eventual Stanley Cup finalists. The Blackhawks and Bruins both gave regular ice time to and indeed at times relied upon their fourth lines. For the Bruins in particular the line of Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton, the perfect fourth line quite frankly, got some of the team’s best work done in all three zones. When the fourth line is an asset and not a liability it takes pressure off the other lines, spreads other teams thin (especially those whose fourth lines are a liability) and generally makes teams harder to play against. That was missing from the Avalanche last year and while they have the pieces for a fourth line similar to that prototypical fourth line of the Bruins the injuries and internal issues with the team kept it from ever really coming together.
The fourth line is never going to get the attention of the first and second lines on any team but when you look at bubble teams who are just outside of the playoff picture and who seem to have all the pieces of their young core intact it’s always their bottom six depth that seems to keep them out. The Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets are great examples of this. These are two teams with their young cores in place and with some talent up front but the lack of depth and the problems with the bottom six really seem to hamper them. The Avalanche were not, to be clear, a bubble team last year; they will have to put in a hero’s effort just to become a bubble team and the depth up front of the Avs is not the worst issue plaguing the team. They do however have many interesting pieces in play and in the pipeline that I firmly believe can be crafted into a decent, even serviceable fourth line in time. It’s just a matter of all those pieces coming together to turn the Avs from a two-line team (which they were at so many points in the previous year) to a four line team.
To be clear, a fourth line at the NHL level is not there to score goals necessarily. A fourth line will most likely not get as many goals between all three of them as the team’s leading goal scorer. The fourth line is there to wear teams down with their forecheck, throw their weight around and sacrifice the body by blocking shots and playing in high traffic areas, be solid in their own zone, use their tenacity to wear out the other team’s defensemen, and drop the gloves every now and then to spark the team or make the opposition answer for some wrong they have committed. This, again, is where the fourth line of the Boston Bruins becomes a sterling example of all that a fourth line could and should be. All three will hit and fight (Paille less so) and use their size and tenacity to make life miserable for the poor defensemen that have to play against them. In a perfect world the Avalanche would mould their fourth line in the style of that of the Bruins.
Here’s a look at some of the players vying for spots on this fourth line. For a casual Avs fan this is your chance to see just who the heck those guys not named Duchene and Landeskog are and what they do for the team. For the fans with a more serious addiction to the Avs this gives you a good look at the players you’ll be cheering for to make the lineup come training camp.
I started with a player who, quite frankly, is a fourth line lock. Patrick Roy has already made it very clear what he wants his lines to look like at the start of the season, an unusual but refreshing display of honesty from a coach, and since McLeod has been with the team for several years now and has firmly established himself as the teams primary source of grit he is a certainty to start with the team and start on the fourth line or checking line. McLeod is the embodiment of all that a fourth liner should be. He hits hard on the forecheck, chips in with offense every now and then, and is willing to fight just about anyone either in defense of his teammates or in an effort to get the bench into the game. Every team needs a Cody McLeod and the Avs are fortunate to have one. When McLeod is on his game he is one of the league’s top agitators and uses his 6’2, 210 pound frame to create chaos below the goal line in the other team’s zone. Expect him to start and mostly stay on the fourth line this year in spite of a brief stint with Ryan O’Reilly’s line last year.
Another lock for the fourth line, Mitchell was signed as a bottom six center who could kill penalties and play against the other team’s best players. Though his numbers (10 goals and 10 assists, putting him on pace for career high numbers in both) were very impressive for a bottom six forward and although he spent time at the end of the year playing alongside Matt Duchene he is more suited to the role of bottom six centerman and that is the role he will likely play this year. He was an anchor on the Avs penalty kill this past year and played well physically. His size is good for the role (he stands at 6’1 and weighs in around 204 pounds according to hockeydb.com) and he comes with the added bonus of being oddly competent in the shootout. Many fourth liners bring this aspect of the game to the table in spite of not being seen as skilled players, such as former Av Matt Hendricks as you can see in this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pb5A4Ri2iZo). For a look at some of Mitchell’s work in the shootout check out this link. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2c_-49W7yY
His name makes you think of a smooth, fine wine but there’s very little about Patrick Bordeleau’s game that one would describe as smooth. His skating needs work and his hands are all but non-existent and yet Bordy, as he’s affectionately referred to in some circles, fills a vital role on the Avs. Following the departure of Scott Parker back in 2009 the Avs tried in vain to find a big, tough enforcer who could stand toe-to-toe with other top heavyweights. They tried to use David Koci but he was ineffective at best on the ice and was frequently beaten with his gloves off. While no one would confuse Bordeleau with the second coming of Joe Sakic, Bordy’s on ice play and skating ability are actually far ahead of other top NHL heavyweights and he almost never loses a fight, making the most of his massive 6’6, 225 lbs. frame. He hits hard and is learning that his size makes him difficult to move if he parks his massive frame in front of the net as a screen. Bordeleau was also an NHL rookie last year and burst on to the scene quite emphatically, beating established fighters such as Jared Boll, Paul Bissonnette and Mike Rupp. He also will forever have my respect for this amazing fight with Brian McGrattan. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzQgbt8Fzzo
Those players listed above are all under contract and it looks as though that will be the line that starts in the fourth slot on Colorado’s depth chart at the start of the year. Now it’s time to look at a few players who could give those three a run for their roster spots.
I really want Mark Olver to succeed but quite frankly I just don’t see him slotting into the Avs lineup this season unless there’s an injury. For years I had been hearing about how high the Avs were on this young kid who was undersized ( 5’10 and 170 lbs.) but willing to fight for every inch of ice and play physical in spite of his size, and when he finally arrived in Colorado it seemed as though he had been worth the wait. He put up 9 points in his first 18 games in an Avs uniform and seemed to give us a glimpse of the bigger things to come. Those bigger things never came however, at least not yet. Olver is physical and mean for a man of his stature, almost as mean as Bordy even though he’s nearly a foot shorter and he has some real skill, even having shown chemistry with Matt Duchene at times. For all of that potential however the results just haven’t been there for Olver; he has yet to make the Avs out of training camp and has spent more time with Lake Erie of the AHL than in Colorado. He needs to be a third liner at worst and since there simply aren’t any spots up for grabs in Colorado at the moment he’ll likely be starting in the AHL again.
Having said that, there are things I absolutely love about this kid and he has shown flashes of bigger and better things. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVCdAdwBLh0 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qm7D1X9poI0
Since Malone was a late round pick by the Avs (105th overall in 2007) the team is not under an immense amount of pressure to have him in the lineup. Malone hits willingly, parks himself in front of the net and generally plays a hard-nosed game. He has the size for it (6’1 and 207 lbs.) but there is simply nothing special about the young man that demands attention, not yet at least. He is growing into the pro game and learning that his grit is an asset that could carry him far but he has a ways to go yet. In his call-ups with the Avalanche last year he looked solid at times but completely lost at others and put up only two points (albeit with limited ice time) in 13 games played. Malone could be an excellent bottom six forward down the road but he simply isn’t ready to begin the year with the team just yet.
Greg Sherman has made some bad decisions in his tenure as Avs GM but the trade for Jamie McGinn and Michael Sgarbossa looks like a good one (not least because T.J. Galiardi and Daniel Winnik, the two players Sherman gave up, have already found their way onto new teams). McGinn is playing regular minutes for the Avs and is being given the opportunity to play in a top six role the way he never really was in San Jose but Sgarbossa has the potential to be a huge piece of this deal. The Ontario Hockey League’s leading scorer in 2012 made his professional debut last year and was impressive with 44 points in 57 AHL games and a brief 6 game look with the Avs. However his skill set requires the ice time of a top six forward, not a fourth liner and while he may someday enter the team full time in that role he is not as useful playing on the fourth line. Sgarbossa’s time will come but it is not here yet.
This is player that every Avs fan is cheering for to be a successful NHL player. He was taken 17th overall in 2010 and this was considered an off the board selection at the time but the next year he set about the process of proving to everyone that the Avs had made the right choice. He put up 87 points in 50 games for the Owen Sound Attack, making him one of the league’s deadliest players, and then led the league in playoff scoring en route to an OHL championship. Then, in the Memorial Cup, he was the victim of an absolutely horrible cheap shot from Brayden McNabb, a Buffalo Sabres prospect, as seen here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4KChFDOrOE )and it was all downhill from there. Hishon missed most of the next two seasons with a concussion and then suffered another concussion in the AHL from which he is apparently recovering quite well. His initial AHL numbers were solid (6 points in 9 games) and Avs fans hope he will one day become the player that the Brass knew they were getting at number 17 overall three years ago. He requires some more seasoning in the AHL for now.
A longshot among longshots, Heard’s rough and tumble style makes him hard to ignore. The Avs second round pick in 2012 (at 41st overall) has good size, standing at 6’1 and weighing in at 194 lbs. and plays a gritty style with a willingness to mix it up and drop the gloves. After a rough start to his professional career last year with Lake Erie he was sent back to the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL and was more than a point per game player. His 72 penalty minutes in only 23 AHL games gives fans an idea of the kind of style that Mitchell Heard plays and although he too is likely a few years away from the NHL he plays exactly the kind of style you’d want from a solid fourth liner.
Hopefully this has shed some light on the combatants in the training camp battle for the fourth line spots on the Avs opening night roster. Injuries will take their toll this year as they always seem to on the Avs and we may see several or all of these players at any given point this year. I’m as excited as I’ve been in years about the depth the Avs possess up front and while the back end needs work the Avs seemed to have recognized that and are drafting defensemen galore (using five of their seven picks in this year’s entry draft on defensemen). In the next blog I’ll shed some light on those defensive prospects, notably the surprising Will Butcher.