Whenever a whipping boy is selected by the smarter parts of the online Oiler fanbase, I’ve generally been entirely willing to jump aboard the bandwagon. Ryan Whitney? I coined “Barbaro.” Nik Khabibulin? I led the charge. There’s an emerging trend in dumping on the fourth line though that I don’t think I’m entirely on board with.
Let’s be clear: the fourth line looks horrible. All three of them have Corsi%’s below the Petrell Line of 40%. The game isn’t about getting the most Corsis though – it’s about scoring more goals than the other team. What would this fourth line cost the Oilers if they kept them together for 82 games? Turns out that we can come up with an estimate through the application of math.
Let’s look at the 5v5 shot attempts for the fourth line and we’ll contrast those with what we’d expect from an average fourth line:
The average fourth line Corsis at about 47.1%. So there’s a big gap there between the average fourth line and what the Oilers have got from their group so far. Here’s what it would look like over 82 games:
Shot attempts aren’t shots though and shots aren’t goals. In 2011-12, fourth liners shot 6.24% and posted a .923 save percentage. About 50% of shot attempts are actual shots. I suspect that figure may be lower for fourth liners but we’ll work with that. So what if we convert our Corsi data into shots and then into goals using those figures?
You can see that an average fourth line, over 82 games, would be about 4 goal difference better than the Oilers fourth line. Using the standard math of three goal difference to a point, you would figure that the fourth line being so much worse than the average fourth line costs the Oilers about a point.
Fourth lines are special though. Goals for and against by fourth lines tend to be scored at low leverage moments in hockey games. Luke Gazdic scored his goal against Winnipeg very early in the game. Will Acton scored tonight in garbage time in Washington. The Oilers have played 18 periods so far this year. 22% of the 5v5 minutes played by the Oilers fourth line has come in the third period against Vancouver and the third period against Washington. Garbage time.
The unspoken assumption behind converting goal difference into standings points is that over team, a team of X ability scores a proportionate amount of meaningful and meaningless goals. This falls apart with fourth lines, which tend to play a disproportionate amount of their minutes during times when a game is out of reach one way or another. In other words, because of when Acton/Gazdic/Brown will play their minutes if they’re kept together all year, the difference between them and the average fourth line is less meaningful than it appears – some of the extra goals that they’ll allow will be meaningless. When you allow for that, the gap between the Oilers fourth line and the hypothetical average fourth line becomes smaller.
So to me, the criticisms as currently framed kind of silly. Would I like the Oilers to have better players on the fourth line than they currently have? Yes. I’d like them to have better players on every line than they currently have. “Is the fourth line costing them significantly at 5v5 relative to a better fourth line?” is a better question to ask. I doubt that the answer is yes. “Can the Oilers play three lines enough to make up for having a poor fourth line that they don’t play a ton?” is a better question to ask and one that I haven’t heard seriously discussed by anybody.
There was a moment when Dallas Eakins was talking about RNH’s return and how much he’d play and he said something like “We don’t want to push him into deficit.” It struck me as being a very physiological comment, like he was talking in terms of how much a player has him in his bodywise. The consensus about him seems to be that he’s a physical fitness nut. I’d bet he’s turned his mind to this issue.
Two more points. One, it wouldn’t stun me at all if, at some point in the season, the Oilers added a fourth liner who can kill penalties to give Eakins a little more flexibility with his roster. Gazdic is bigger than Mike Brown and possibly a better hockey player, although that remains to be seen. He seems to me to make fewer outright goofy plays. Gazdic’s also a MacT property whereas Brown isn’t. MacT’s got no history of a fourth line like the one that the Oilers have now and I wouldn’t expect it to be like this all year long.
Two, I think people are drawing conclusions on Will Acton a little early, possibly because of his last name. I haven’t thought he’s looked that bad – I was watching for him during the Toronto game – and I think a large chunk of his poor Corsi% is tied up in who he’s on the ice with. Take this:
That’s one shift but it’s hard to really tie anything to Acton there despite there being a number of SAA. Gazdic and Brown do a series of odd things in there which are likely to related to lack of skill/being uncomfortable at the NHL level in Gazdic’s case (skipping easy passes to just club the puck out) and I don’t know what with Brown – passing to Gazdic on a 3 on 2 at the end of a shift that they’ve barely survived against Kessel rather than gaining the red line and chipping the puck in for a change.
I’m not saying that Will Acton’s a player – I’m undecided – only that those are tough circumstances in which to look like an NHLer. He hasn’t looked nearly as out of place to me as his wingers do, although I’m open to changing my mind as the season progresses.
In any event, the fourth line’s unlikely to have a major impact on where the Oilers finish this year. To the extent that they’re discussed, it should be in the context of how the makeup of the fourth line affects the penalty kill and imposes demands on other lines in terms of ice time. They aren’t as good as the average fourth line but then it probably doesn’t matter that much.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org