No matter where you work – no matter what your job is, you have a role that you’re supposed to fulfill. You might be the person that answers phone calls from customers. You might be in charge of marketing a new product to potential customers. Your job might even be to babysit everyone to make sure fistfights don’t break out in the halls (we call that managing).
If the company is set up correctly, then everyone can trust that if they do their job, then they are helping to contribute to the company’s success. The thought process goes a little something like this: I’ll do my job right, my co-worker will do their individual job right; I’ll help them out when I can, and they’ll help me out when I can. When all is said and done, the company should do pretty well.
A hockey team is no different.
The margin for error is so thin with the salary cap and three-point games that has caused pronounced parity across the NHL landscape. Make no mistake about it—if a team’s best players aren’t playing like the best players, the team isn’t going to have much success over an extended period of time. But a team is made up of much more than just “top-6” scorers that are paid to play big minutes and put the puck in the net.
There are six other forwards that end up playing a combined 20-25 minutes per game. When a coach says “our so-called third and fourth lines did most of our work and created most of our opportunities,” and the top-6 forwards held their own, then there’s a good chance that the team is going to come out on top.
Do that over a stretch of games and the team will climb the standings. Do it for 82 games and the team will be playing into April, May, and possibly even into June.
Bottom six guys know that they’re not there to put up 30 goals and dominate on the power play. They have a separate role with different responsibilities that contribute to the team in distinctive ways. And they are accountable for those clear responsibilities.
One of the most important parts of the job is to help set the tone for the team—especially at home. Any player on the team can do it, but it’s the responsibility of the fourth line guys around the league to bring the intensity from the opening faceoff not only for themselves, but for their teammates as well.
“We always talk about, especially early in the game,” Kings forward Colin Fraser told ViewFromMySeats. “Having a good shift and trying to provide energy for the rest of the guys. Maybe if we’re not playing well as a team, hopefully our line can go out there and pick up the pace a little bit.”
But does the energy of a certain line really help the rest of the team?
“I think so, yeah,” Fraser continued. “I like to think so anyway. We’re just gritty, hard-nosed guys that play as hard as we can everyday and every shift. We hope the other guys feed off of that, because you’re not going to be at 100% everyday. That’s our job for our line, to come in and give everybody a boost.”
He’s not the only fourth liner that thinks that way. It’s instilled in every single role player around the NHL. They aren’t going to put points up on the board on a nightly basis, so they have to fill other roles to become effective players in the league. And in reality, there are plenty of roles to fill aside from all-star sniper in the NHL.
“I’m here to provide that spark,” Kevin Westgarth said about his role. “I’m not going to be chipping in 20 goals a year, so it’s one of those things where if I can get in a hit and keep their players on their toes when I’m out there, then I’m doing my job.”
Fellow fourth-liner Kyle Clifford agreed with his linemates’ outlook. “You definitely want to come out big and strong,” Clifford said. “That’s kind of the role for our line is to come out and get some energy and some physical, cycle play going on.”
That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Every team wants to set the tone early in a game that they are going to be the more physical, more aggressive team on a given evening. If a team can get that from their role players, then ideally the more skilled players can feed off of the emotion and to continue to a strong start. In the NHL – and at all levels of hockey – the more aggressive team that is playing in the opponent’s zone most of the night, will usually win its fair share of games. Defensemen get frustrated, opposing players get tired, and at some point the physical play in the other team’s zone leads to either power play chances or goals.
If a fourth line does its job effectively from the opening faceoff, they can help the game snowball in their teams’ favor. Announcers will say that the team has “their skating legs” or that they “came to play,” tonight, but often times the catalyst for a strong start is the work and effort of players who are paid to do work and play with effort.
When they do their job correctly, then the team can look like an unstoppable force. Before you know it, the coach is rolling all four lines and the team is seemingly able to attack in waves. Line after line, shift after shift, the team brings energy and intensity at their opponent. It’s not an enjoyable experience for any team that has to deal with that for a full 60 minutes.
The teammates appreciate the hard work as well. All-Star netminder has the best seat in the house when the Kings fourth line is rolling. “I think that’s something the team needs, especially in our own building, to have guys playing with emotion,” Quick said after the team’s last game before the All-Star break. “That was huge. They were a big, big reason why we won the game [against Ottawa]—the way that line played.”
Once a team sees success from a 20-man effort from the beginning of the game, it’s a little easier to get the players to believe that the work pays off. “As a group, [Sutter] came in here and talked to us,” Clifford told the media after the aforementioned game against Ottawa.” “He said, ‘we have to learn from this, we come out with that emotion, it’s going to have dividends for our team. If we come out like that at the start of every game, and come out like that for the second and third periods, then definitely we’re going to get our wins.’”
Still, playing a fourth line role isn’t the easiest thing to do. If it was, then there would be plenty of junior and AHL stars that would be able to find spots on the 23-man rosters in the NHL.
Kevin Westgarth of the Los Angeles Kings talks about some of the unique challenges and responsibilities of playing a fourth line role in the NHL:
“Playing fourth line, it’s a huge privilege and a lot of fun, but also it has its own sets of challenges sometimes. Just depending on the way the game goes, you don’t get into the game right away if there’s a power play off the first little bit or whatever. But just taking advantage of any opportunity to get out there and us bringing that energy, that’s a huge part of this team’s identity is being hard to play against. That’s a huge thing that we can do, just bring that energy and that relentless pursuit.”
Their job is to put the team ahead of the individual. It’s great for all players to do that on a team, but it’s one of the fundamental duties when reviewing a fourth liner’s job description. Take pride in a teammates’ goal. Take pride in going to war and protecting a teammate when the opposition crosses the line. Take pride in being the catalyst for the team for seven or eight months every year.
Sometimes, the key to a strong fourth line is what they don’t do—don’t take penalties. Don’t turn the puck over. Don’t give up goals.
“They’re all guys that have to play hard and bang,” Sutter said of his fourth line. “If they don’t, then they’re not very effective… When you have guys that have to play like that, it’s important that they do.”
Sometimes that includes dropping the gloves to spark the team or defend a teammate. When a player does that for the team, he’s doing his part. He’s doing his job. He’s filling his role. It’s imperative that his teammates appreciate the effort and respond appropriately, or the entire system falls apart.
Sutter talked about Clifford, but it really could be applied to any role player doing his part for the team. “A kid like that goes to war for you, you better respond in an emotional way for him.”
It may not be fancy, but it’s exactly what a team expects from its fourth line players. Clifford continued to talk about his linemates on the fourth line—but he could have been talking about the ideal fourth line for any team around the NHL. “We all kind of play the same way,” Clifford said. “We’re real simple and we just get pucks in deep and get some hits going—that gets energy for the team; and it creates energy ourselves too.
So what does a team need from their fourth line? First and foremost, they need energy. All 30 teams want a fourth line that can create a spark for the rest of the team. They want the role players to set an example for the rest of the team. There will be nights when they are asked to protect their teammates and there will be nights when they chip in a little bit on the score sheet with some secondary scoring, but it always comes back to energy on a nightly basis.
If a team plays with more energy every night, they’re going to win a lot more games than they lose.