Why you’re disappointed in the Habs’ fourth line


It wouldn’t be a fandom if there wasn’t something to complain about. With the Habs are sitting pretty at the top of the newspaper standings with a 15-5-4 record, scoring over three goals a game and allowing less than two and a half, there isn’t much to grumble about. One such complaint, though, is about the fourth line, and how they look bad on most nights.

The criticism is justified: they do look bad. And this is entirely by design from Therrien.

To explain this, let’s look at a few numbers from last season. Here are for a selection of Habs forwards, the 5-on-5 zone start numbers from behindthenet.ca : these numbers represent the ratio of offensive versus defensive zone starts, which is a key point of a coach’s player deployment decisions. The green bar is offensive zone faceoffs, the red bar defensive zone faceoffs; it’s all percentages, and neutral zone faceoffs are omitted so it all adds up to 100%. (Click the image for a bigger version.)

The green bars aren’t very large overall (Montreal was a terrible possession team, which means a lot of defensive zone faceoffs), but we can definitely see a trend. Plekanec, White, and Moen started in the defensive zone quite a lot, and Eller a fair bit, to the benefit of David Desharnais and his wingers. With the decimated offense of last season, the Habs were reduced to putting all their offensive eggs into a single basket and deploying Plekanec and, to a lesser degree, Eller in defensive situations against the top of the opposition’s lineup, in order to give the Desharnais line the best chance to produce the goals the Habs sorely needed. And don’t be fooled by the way the chart is set up: the difference between Plekanec’s 42.8% and Desharnais’s 52.2% is very significant, typical of most team’s maximum range between the most offensive and most defensive players.

This wasn’t a bad tactic at the time, though it predictably led to a bit of overvaluing of the Pacioretty-Desharnais-Cole line as they were the only line with both the personnel to score and the opportunities to do so. Given the holes in the decimated Habs’ lineup, there wasn’t necessarily much choice; the goals had to come from somewhere, and the team had two quality defensive centers but a sore lack of wingers to play with them. But the 2012-2013 Habs are a very different animal from the previous team, healthier and with a lot more forward depth.

And on the surface, the fourth line is very strong as fourth lines go: three real, NHL-quality players with genuine defensive skill, the kind of guys you can send over the board for a regular shift without fear, the kind of line that too few teams deploy, being either lacking in depth or insistent on dressing players whose only skill is fisticuffs. How were they deployed — do they have the defensive role like Plekanec had last year?

Something like that.

There’s much more green on this chart than the other one, owing to the Habs being an excellent overall puck possession club this year. But remember above when I pointed out that a 10% difference in zonestart? That chart blows that completely out of the water. Armstrong and White are at 27.1% and 27.3% respectively, and Moen’s 33.6% also reflects a heavy defensive skew. The primary beneficiaries have been the two rookies, both over 60% zone start (Gallagher leads the team with 63.9%). But between this extreme usage and the Habs’ better puck possession, Therrien has managed to give Desharnais and Pacioretty even more of an offensize slant than last year, and even usual defensive stalwart Plekanec has benefitted from more offensive opportunities.

We also see one of the reasons Prust looks better than he has as a Ranger — his offensive zone starts are much more offensively-skewed than they were with New York, where is usage more resembled Moen’s. Contrariwise, we see that Eller’s zone starts are more defensive than last year’s, owing to his long stint centering the fourth line.

But the key takeaway is the usage of Armstrong, Moen, and White relative to the rookies and the Desharnais line. This kind of skew was unusual last year — it is reminescent of last year’s Vancouver, who used their bottom-sixers to free up the Sedins for maximum offensive impact. The Habs’ top three lines have all done very well, but part of that is because they have been put into positions to do so, and one of the reasons this has happened has been because the fourth line has been taking an inordinate number of defensive zone draws, freeing up the better players to start closer to the opposing net. And they haven’t only faced fourth-liners, either; after Plekanec, the fourth line is Therrien’s second go-to option for defensive missions against top-liners. This is why they keep regularly getting double-digit minutes: they allow the Desharnais line to be employed in an exploitation role where their offensive abilities are maximized and their defensive failings are less critical.

So the fourth-line are buried in the defensive zone and face top opposition fairly regularly. Do they win this ? No, of course they don’t. If they did, if they could outchance and outscore opposition in this kind of harsh circumstance, they wouldn’t be fourth-liners, they’d either be first-liners, the kind that gets paid seven million plus a year, or perennial Selke canditates. Heck, even those would have serious trouble looking good in these conditions. The fourth line can’t provide significant offense; they need to focus all their attention on not getting slaughtered.

A common criticism of Moen since he joined the team, one which has now been spread to the entire fourth line, is that he doesn’t provide the physicality and toughness he was signed for. That criticism happens because the perception of Moen’s role is completely wrong.  Moen was not brought in to be the team’s designated fighter. As for physicality, that may be part of his game, but hitting is never a goal in and of itself. What Moen is, what he was signed to do, and what he has brought is to be a tough-competition defensive forward: a guy who could play against the opposition’s top guys and, while unable to outplay them, would lose the battle slowly enough that the rest of the lineup, freed from having to deal with those difficult minutes, could outscore the opposition enough to compensate. This usage was instrumental in Anaheim winning their Stanley Cup in 2007, with Moen and Pahlsson identified as significant contributors to shutting down the infamous line of Alfredsson, Spezza and Heatley in the Finals. The Habs’ fourth line is a little like that.

Armstrong, White and Moen have lost the battle even before it began. Their job is to sell their hockey lives so dearly that the opposing first line cannot outscore them at a pace that outstrips the other three lines’ production. This is a crucial role in Michel Therrien’s gameplan, and it explains while the three regularly receive double-digit icetime despite all the criticism levelled at them. They are sacrificial lambs, whose job it is to make the other lines look better by affording them better offensive opportunities.

In short, they are a classic checking line, of the kind that has fallen out of favor since the lockout, but appears to be making something of a comeback. They do their job quite well, and they (and their deployment) have been meaningful contributors to the Habs’ success. So let’s tone down the criticism on their lack of toughness. They do some of the toughest work on the team as it is.