Fourth Line Integral to Florida Panthers Playoff Chances


As advanced stats have become more accepted in front offices around the league, the typical NHL fourth line has changed, especially among teams that are successful in the playoffs. Gone are the enforcers and bruisers, and in their place are skilled hockey players who have the task of scoring goals, as well as providing solid two-way play.

The Florida Panthers are a team that certainly has the talent to make the playoffs, as many of their young players will be looking to take a step forward, and could help elevate the team from the 91-point season they had in 2014-2015. As of right now, the team is on pace for 95/96 points. 95 points is usually the point barrier for a playoff team, so the Cats are operating at a good clip, though they do have tough matchups against the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars up ahead on the schedule.

One of the biggest areas for the Panthers to improve on from last season is the play of the fourth line, as last year’s line of Derek Mackenzie, Shawn Thornton, and Tomas Kopecky was terrible when all three were on the ice together. Here’s a quick list of fourth line centers from around the league last season, along with their goals for, goals against, goal differential, and scoring chances for percentage.

(Note: Centers were determined by GP and average TOI per game. This list isn’t perfect, but it’s a fairly good gauge for fourth lines, as (theoretically) these players spent most of their time on their team’s fourth line, and represent the line as a whole)

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If we sort by goal differential, we can see that Derek Mackenzie and the fourth line were absolutely terrible last season. Only Cody Hodgson of the abysmal Buffalo Sabres had a lower goal differential, while only six other centers had SCF% lower than Mackenzie’s 43.4%. If the Panthers had utilized their fourth line in an exclusively shut down role, this would be understandable, but the toughest usage on the team last season actually belonged to Dave Bolland; there really isn’t a usage based excuse for the fourth line’s atrocious numbers from 2014-2015.

Most of the problem comes from the fact that the fourth line as a whole was not filled with NHL-caliber players, as Shawn Thornton and Tomas Kopecky really struggled to produce offense, even if their defense wasn’t terrible.

Derek Mackenzie, on the other hand, at least appears to be an NHL-caliber player. As we can see from his  HERO chart, there’s a strong argument to be made that the 34-year-old is even a third line NHL player, at least in regards to his impact on puck possession.

Seeing as replacement level NHL players are available in free agency all the time (this year alone, Jiri Tlusty, Lee Stempniak, and Tomas Fleischmann all signed cheap, one year deals late in the free agency period), the Cats should be able to get the fourth line up to at least league average levels. That would be a goal differential of -4, and a SCF% of 46.5%. If we figure that three goals is typically worth one point in the standings, getting the team’s fourth line from a goal differential of -20 to -4 would be worth about FIVE points in the standings.

That’s a pretty big jump, and the team could almost be expected to make the playoffs even if the rest of the team played the exact same way they did in 2014-2015. That’s how important the fourth line can be for the Panthers, especially if it features skilled players.

Over the offseason, Dale Tallon invited David Booth and Martin Havlat to training camp on PTOs. Neither veteran was signed, mainly because youngsters such as Connor Brickley, Quinton Howden, and Rocco Grimaldi simply played better than the veterans and earned spots on the NHL roster.

It’s very early in the season, but Brickley and Howden look solid, especially playing alongside Mackenzie (Rocco started the year on the IR, and was sent back down to the AHL for conditioning). While looking at shot attempts instead of scoring chances in order to increase our sample size, we can see all three fourth line players (Howden, Brickley, and Mackenzie) have SAT% over 50%.

Unfortunately, we’re not seeing Brickley and Howden in the lineup every night. Instead, Shawn Thornton has drawn into the lineup on three separate occasions. Because Howden and Brickley are upgrades over Kopecky, Thornton’s numbers aren’t as bad as they were last season, but out of the four players mentioned as fourth line players, only Thornton has a SAT% under 50%.

When the fourth line is filled with players like Thornton, the line struggles to create offense. They may not concede any egregious goals, so it doesn’t appear as though the line is hurting the team, or costing the team the game. The job of the fourth line with Shawn Thornton in the lineup becomes “don’t get scored on”, instead of “try and score more goals than you give up”. This is how a bad fourth line may not cost the team a game; if they don’t get scored on, they technically aren’t hurting the team.

But, as we’ve seen so far this season, a good fourth line can earn you points in the standings. Think of the team’s 4-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, where Connor Brickley scored the game winning goal halfway through the third period, or of the team’s 3-2 OT loss to the Penguins, where Quinton Howden and Derek Mackenzie scored the team’s only two goals (as part of a third period comeback, I should add).

The Panthers have the depth and the talent to make their fourth line a strength this season. Making the playoffs can be a much more attainable goal if the right players are used, and the best lineup is iced every night.

Doing otherwise may not appear to be hurting the team, but remember: even if a bad fourth line doesn’t directly cost you the game, a good fourth line CAN directly win you the game.

Next: Dmitry Kulikov is showing flashes of dominant two-way play

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