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Is the “Fourth Line” Deployment Experiment Working?

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Diving into the team’s usage of their fourth line

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Usually, the duty of checking an opponents’ top line in hockey goes to another team’s top-six line, perhaps the third line - but rarely the fourth line. That’s why it’s fascinating that head coach Peter Laviolette, over the last six games at home with last change, decided that the Capitals’ fourth line of Carl Hagelin, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway would be tasked with going up against the other teams’ top lines.

Even “the best fourth line in hockey” on the New York Islanders, made up of Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin, aren’t usually deployed against other teams’ top lines. For example, during a recent home game for the Islanders against the Bruins, it was New York’s second line that was tasked with trying to shut down the Bergeron line.

In the Caps’ first four games of the season, prior to their six-game homestand, the Dowd line averaged the lowest ice time of any of the forwards who played in all four games. But once back in the District? Hagelin played the second-most minutes, Dowd third, and Hathaway sixth at five on five, which means they were for all intents and purposes the team’s the second line during that time.

Playing the guys that are usually the fourth line that many minutes is usually a horrible idea... but Laviolette might be on to something.

Through the six games, that Dowd line played against every first line of each team from the Sabres, Islanders, and Bruins in each of their respective two-game series. That’s pitting them against guys like Taylor Hall and Jack Eichel, Matthew Barzal, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. Most fourth lines in the NHL going up against that kind of high-end talent would get wrecked by such an assignment. So how did the Caps’ trio do?

Let’s first take a broad look at the numbers, taking into account all five-on-five time for the fourth line regardless of who they lined up against (they logged around 18 minutes of ice time against other lines). Here are the raw numbers from the six games:

  • Total ice time at five on five: 68:48
  • Shot attempts: 53 for / 72 against
  • Expected goals: 2.36 xGF / 2.67 xGA
  • Scoring chances: 28 for / 20 against
  • High-danger scoring chances: 10 for / 8 against
  • Offensive zone starts: 23.1%
  • Goals: 4 for / 3 against (0 at high danger)

Off the bat, looking at the Corsi and Expected Goals doesn’t look too good - but when examined alongside scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances, where they were much stronger, it paints a different story. The overall shot attempt ratio being as bad as it was would have a negative effect on expected goals, dragging them down. Take out Corsi (the weakest of puck analytics) and that line looks even better.

And when it comes down to it, a team will take a high shot-attempt total if the majority of those attempts are coming from the outside. Using the heat map below (courtesy of Hockeyviz.com), we can see that the fourth line has shown an ability to keep shots on the outside and away from dangerous areas over the course of the season, including the last six games:

What’s even more remarkable is that the Dowd line was able to put up those numbers when getting very tough defensive starts, and did so while outscoring their opponents 4-3. Two of those goals were also scored in the same game by David Pastrnak - one of which was off a questionable faceoff, the other a direct result of Pastrnak being left all by himself after Carlson caught an edge, and neither of which could really be helped by the fourth line.

(Oh, and let’s not forget a rare Carl Hagelin goal that was called back for the slimmest of offsides calls.)

But that was a very broad overview of the fourth line’s performance during the six-game run,, which includes minutes played - and not played - against other team’s top lines.

Here’s how the Dowd line did against all the top lines minute to minute, second to second, without filler:

Buffalo did the most damage with their scoring chances, but only got one high-danger chance through, which is pretty good (and it’s worth noting that the Dowd line received zero offensive zone starts against the Eichel line). As for the Islanders, the Caps’ fourth line actually outplayed their top line, doubling them up in both scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances - and again, with minimal offensive zone time.

And then there’s the Bruins. Boston’s top line is considered one of the best top lines in the games - and yet the Dowd line kept pace with them in scoring chances, and only allowed one high danger chance against. They did have some good offensive zone starts... relatively speaking, of course, as they were still sub 50%.

Ultimately what stands out is the fact that the Dowd line didn’t get dominated against the other teams’ top lines. Buffalo did the most damage of the three and that damage was limited to one high-danger chance against over two games. That’s pretty minimal.

It’s unclear whether Laviolette came into this season with a set plan of deploying the Dowd line against other teams’ top lines, or if it was a decision based on circumstance, with the lineup racked by injuries and COVID-related absentees.

Whether it was intentional or not, he might have stumbled upon something that could work, although it is important to remember that it’s early in the season, and the fourth line has only been deployed in this manner for six games and just three teams. That’s not enough data to definitively say anything... yet.

What is does show so far is intriguing, though, because if your fourth line can break even, barely lose out, or even win out to another team’s top line, that frees up your other three lines to go up against the opponent’s bottom line. Given the offensive skill contained within the Caps’ top three lines (at least when everyone’s healthy and not in quarantine), that’s a pretty favorable trade-off.