Training Camp Battles Pt. 1 - The Fourth Line

Welcome to our look at the battles we expect to see in the Blue Jackets training camp, which opens this Friday with physicals, while players hit the ice on Saturday at the Dispatch Ice Haus.  

In part one, I'm looking at the battle for a roster spot on the fourth line - usually something of an afterthought, but this year featuring several interesting angles. 

If you read our look at the forwards coming into camp (assuming that none of the free agents currently on the Traverse City squad earn an invitation to the team's full camp), there are quite a few players that either currently play on the fourth line, might compete for a spot rather than returning to Springfield of the AHL, or might try to earn a spot on on the team out of Juniors by competing for a fourth line role.

But, when we say "Fourth line role", what are we looking for a player to contribute?

For the hell of it, I decided to plug the phrase "What is a NHL fourth line?" into Google.

I actually got a couple good results, along with a lot of people complaining about fourth line players. 

Here's the first definition, from Wikipedia

The fourth line is often called the "energy line," both because their shifts give other players a chance to rest, and because their physically oriented play is said to give their teammates an emotional boost. It is usually composed of journeymen with limited scoring potential, but strong physical play and, as often as possible, strong skating abilities. With the smallest amount of ice time, they tend to play in short bursts rather than pace themselves

Not bad. 

Alternatively, About.com offers this definition: 

The fourth line is counted on to check, fight, and take up space while the real hockey players take a rest.

Before the lockout, I might have accepted that - but the NHL has moved up from there, particularly with so many teams trying to roll four lines as often as possible. If you're not a "real" hockey player, there's no place for you in the locker room in a salary capped world. (Or your name is Raitis Ivanans, but that's another column.)

So, let's compromise between those definitions:

The fourth line should contain players with strong physical skills, good skating ability, and checking talent who can be asked to take shifts in short bursts to help contain the other team's skaters and help motivate their teammates through hard checking, winning board battles, and potentially fighting.

I'd also say that ideally a fourth liner should have SOME scoring ability, but it's not an absolute requirement. 

Also, it's probably worth defining what a third line player is, since some of the players who spent time on the fourth line last year might be considered contenders to move up.

From those same sources, we get this:

The third line is often called the checking line, and is generally made up of more defensively oriented forwards. This line is often played against an opponent's first or second lines in an effort to reduce their scoring, and physically wear them down. The third line adds less offense than the first or second lines, but generally more than the fourth.

Or: 

The third line shuts down the opposing team's first line and chips in a few goals.

Keeping those in mind, let's look at the returning players who saw time on the fourth line last season:

Mike BlundenJared BollDerick BrassardChris ClarkDerek DorsettNikita FilatovTrevor FrischmonTomas KanaChad Kolarik, Maxim Mayorov, Derek MacKenzie, and Andrew Murray. Other players who appeared on the fourth line but are no longer with the club include Freddy Modin, Greg Moore, Nathan Paesch, Alexandre Picard, and Raffi Torres.

I have no idea why most of our fourth liners' names start with the letters "M" or "P". Just one of those odd coincidences, I suppose.

Looking at the list a bit more seriously, nothing speaks to the problems this team had with injuries and roster shuffles like the fact that you could take these names and make 6 different fourth line combos without re-using a skater, and I'm sure it's created a headache for GM Scott Howson as he worked on the team's depth chart. 

Of that group, though I think it's safe to say that Brassard and Filatov are extremely unlikely to return to the fourth line. Both are considered "top six" players, and their appearances were more about shuffling the lines to try to spark some offense and / or a punitive assignment from the coaching staff than really being a proper use of their skills. Scratch them off the list, and that leaves us with 10 returning players and three spots to fill before we start considering new additions.

To help clear things up, let's try looking at each player's stats last season. Don't worry - I made a chart!

 

GP

G

A

+/-

PIM

SOG

ATOI

Blunden

40

2

2

3

59

40

08:06

Boll

68

4

7

-8

149

56

07:12

Clark

74

7

13

-12

48

105

12:06*

Dorsett

51

4

10

6

105

57

10:53

Frischmon

3

0

0

0

4

1

6:06

Kana

6

0

2

2

2

4

8:40

Kolarik

2

0

0

-1

0

2

6:29

MacKenzie

18

1

3

3

0

14

8:41

Mayorov

4

0

0

-1

0

4

7:40

Murray

46

5

2

-6

6

73

10:21

 *Split fairly evenly between Columbus and Washington, but his ATOI was in the same range with both clubs.

Is it a little unfair to compare guys who only played 2-3 games in the NHL last season with guys who played 40 or 50? Yes, it is. But those are the breaks in pro sports, especially when you start looking at players on one way contracts.

Using our earlier definitions, two players really stand out from the rest - Chris Clark and Derek Dorsett. They play more minutes and are a much higher scoring threat. Clark has frequently been projected for the third line this season by the local media and fans. I think these stats make a case that if there's a spot for him, Dorsett might have a place there as well. The only area where Clark falls down a tad is his -12, but in his defense A) Nobody on the CBJ had a fantastic +/- last year and B) He was actually a -7 before he came to the club in the Jason Chimera trade, so his -5 in a CBJ uniform, while not great, is at least a bit more reasonable. The only wrench in penciling in each player for a third line spot is the fact that utility forward R.J. Umberger is very likely to start the season on the third line if Nikita Filatov earns a top 6 spot, leaving only one spot on the wing open to alongside RJU and Pahlsson.

Andrew Murray can clearly play heavier minutes than the "short bursts" typical of the fourth line, but his low scoring numbers and weak +/- keep him in the fourth line race in my mind.

Regardless, if we set Clark and Dorsett aside for now, that still gives us 8 returning players battling for those last three NHL spots. If we look at the idea that the fourth liners are supposed to be the goons and tough guys, Blunden and Boll certainly fit the bill, and each collected quite a few major penalties, though Blunden's 5 majors, while good for third on the team, were dwarfed by Jared Boll's 21. Murray, on the other hand, despite his strong reputation for physical play, did not take any major penalties last season, and the remainder of our returning players only have a few minor penalties to their name. If that's what new head coach Scott Arniel is looking for in his fourth line, it's clear they'll have an edge, but what if he's looking for a more physical play style without crossing over into dropping the gloves? 

The NHL's real-time stat tracking isn't perfect, and hits are frequently considered a difficult stat to track, but it's still worth considering. Let's see how our 8 returning candidates stack up. I'm also going to include blocked shots, since that's frequently a move associated with the "grit" in the fourth line.

 

Blocked Shots

Hits

Blunden

7

83

Boll

12

123

Frischmon

2

3

Kana

1

11

Kolarik

2

2

MacKenzie

1

17

Mayorov

1

10

Murray

11

75

While it's not too shocking that Blunden, Boll, and Murray, who played in the most games last season of the pool, have the most hits and blocks, I was surprised that Derek MacKenzie, who generally has a reputation as "grit" player, only recorded 1 hit for each game he played at the NHL level last season, and a single blocked shot.

Most of the "typical" fourth liners record an average of at least two hits per game - including Clark and Dorsett, who we pulled out of the pool. MacKenzie is a fairly good faceoff man, winning 54.8% of his draws, but it makes it seem likely that a pivot like Murray or Kana, who clearly play with a more physical style, might be able to squeeze him out, particularly if they show a decent performance in the faceoff dot in camp...and Andrew Murray's faceoff percentage last year was a 41.5%, so it's clear that he has some skills that could be developed. (Kana did not take any faceoffs while with Columbus, and unfortunately the AHL doesn't track faceoff wins anywhere I can find, so he's a wildcard in that area.)

(For the curious, Clark recorded 5 blocked shots in 36 games with Columbus, and 12 with Washington for a total of 17, while Dorsett blocked a surprising 24 shots - only one shot less than Nash, and only 10 shots less than Pahlsson! With his surprisingly good +/- and unexpected defensive skills, don't be shocked if we see Doors get some PK time this year.)

I think it's fair to say that Blunden, Boll, and Murray are our most likely returning players to start on the fourth line, leaving the remaining 5 down in Springfield to start the year. That means it's time to look at the players who will be coming into camp with a plan to take a job away from them.

If we talk about other players expected to challenge for a roster spot, there's two categories: Players with NHL experience, which basically amounts to recent waiver acquisition Ethan Moreau and former Jacket Dan Fritsche, and the players who are looking to make the jump from junior or NCAA hockey to the NHL. (Most of the returning AHL roster eligible to see time in Columbus was already covered by the earlier winnowing. Call me skeptical that a guy who couldn't earn a game or two up in Columbus last year is going to outwork the above group.) 

The one NCAA prospect who might jump is C Matt Rust, acquired from Florida at the deadline last season. He's projected to return to Michigan for his senior season, but with a strong enough showing, I think it's a possibility. Other college prospects, like Kevin Lynch, Trent Vogelhuber, Cam Atkinson, or Sean Collins, are sophomores or juniors, and in the case of guys like Vogelhuber and Atkinson, playing on teams primed for deep runs at the NCAA tournament, so I expect them to return to college. 

That leaves our Junior players. While many people have talked about the potential of 2010 first round pick Ryan Johansen, I still doubt that he will see time in the NHL this year. I also have made the editorial decision to cross the other two 2010 draft picks, Petr Straka and Dalton Smith, off the list. Their time will come, but with such a crowded group coming into camp, they're going to have to play at an exceptional level to even get considered for some pre-season action, let alone the final roster. 

That trims the list of candidates down to three guys from the 2007-2009 draft classes: Matt Calvert, Tomas Kubalik, and Kyle Neuber. Let's take a look at Dr. Moreau and Danny Boy, and then we'll compare the four young guns.

GP

G

A

+/-

PIM

SOG

Hits

Blkshts

ATOI

Moreau

76

9

9

-18

62

143

98

42

12:12

Fritsche

67

13

29

-10

12

161

*

*

*

*Stat not officially tracked by the AHL

For all the complaints about Moreau in Edmonton (and his -18 is certainly nothing to sneeze at - that's an even worse +/- than any forward on the Jackets last season), the rest of the stats are surprisingly good. 98 hits would have been good for 10th on the club last year. 42 blocked shots would have been good for 10th in that stat as well, outblocking Vermette, Pahlsson, and Nash - and that 12:42 ATOI isn't to be sneezed at.

Fritsche's stats show that he isn't really a world-beater on defense either, but he's clearly still got a decent scoring touch at the AHL level, and he isn't afraid to shoot the puck. Unfortunately, because the AHL does not officially track time on ice, hits, or blocked shots, it's difficult to judge how he played the physical game, but in his last full NHL season, split between the Rangers and the Minnesota Wild, he recorded 53 hits and 11 blocked shots over 50 games - the level of recorded hits is a little low for a typical fourth liner, but he also brings a bit higher scoring ability.

If it weren't for his crapluent +/-, I'd suggest that Moreau is another guy in that 3rd line mix, and even that can be (somewhat) explained away by Edmonton having one of the worst tandems in the league for most of the season. Still, if your choices are putting Umberger on the left side, or Moreau, I'd guess that Moreau will likely slip to the fourth line as a result, likely bumping Mike Blunden (who probably would have been switching from RW to LW in that scenario anyhow.) Fritsche, on the other hand, still strikes me as a guy who would fit best on a scoring line, which means he's doubtful to break back into the Jackets' lineup. I suspect the team will offer him a 2 way deal, but he'll make the decision to look for work in Europe.

Should Moreau put in a good camp, it seems very likely that he's now part of our fourth line group, so that means the four potential young guns will have an even stiffer competition to push someone out of the last two slots.

GP

G

A

+/-

PIM

SOG

Hits

Blkshts

ATOI

Rust

45

13

27

+22

24

99

*

*

*

Calvert

68

47

52

+47

70

*

*

*

*

Kubalik

58

33

42

+16

8

*

*

*

*

Neuber

60/1**

5/0

5/0

-16/0

188/2

*/3

*

*

*

*Stats not tracked by the league this player competed in last year.
**Neuber played 1 game in the AHL last year with Syracuse after his OHL season ended.

It's clear that three of these players bring a great deal of scoring talent, but it's difficult to say how that will translate into the NHL - or the AHL, for that matter.

In the case of Kubalik, we have a player who is basically a pure scorer. While the idea of adding more offense to the fourth line is a good one on paper, we saw last year how a player whose game is heavily weighted to offense, combined with a pair of energy / physical players, often makes for an inconsistent line that has difficulty playing together. We don't really need to see that movie again. I would suggest instead to give him a chance to earn top six minutes in Springfield, perhaps tweak his defensive game in the minors, and make him part of the talent pool that could bubble up to improve the team over the course of the next few seasons. 

Rust's stats are similar - he's not a guy who takes many penalties, and as a point a game player, it's obvious that his strength is offense, not going out to check or agitate. Since he is a center, if he should impress enough to go pro, perhaps he might fit in Springfield to aid the team's depth down the middle, but I think it's more likely that he'll finish his college career this season, then come to camp next season to start his pro career.

That takes us down to two players - one of whom you've probably been waiting to hear about since you started this article. 

So, we'll start by talking about Kyle Neuber. Considered a surprise pick in the 7th round last year, Neuber was regarded as one of the top heavyweight fighters in the OHL when he played for St. Mike's. Traded to Sarnia before the start of the 2009-2010 season, he was able to pot a few goals for the Sting, but his main responsibility was fighting, and his 188 PIMs clearly reflects that. Regarded as a poor skater in most scouting reports, his -16 last season would seem to indicate that his foot speed is still an issue. Put him in Springfield. He and Tom Sestito can please fans with some exciting fights, but Neuber doesn't offer anything that could replace Boll, Dorsett, or Clark on the right wing. Let's see if he can improve his skating or do something interesting in the AHL to rise above the pack.

Last but certainly not least, we come to Matt Calvert. Drafted in 2008, he came within one game of winning the Memorial Cup and one point short of a 100 point season in the WHL before signing his entry level deal this summer to much interest and fanfare from the fanbase. A late round pick in 2008 who fell down the board because of his smaller size, he's known for being a high energy player - banging bodies, crashing the net, willing to drop the gloves - and a strong work ethic. Part of the group working out in Columbus this off season, he was offered a chance to play in Syracuse last year after tearing up the ice in the 2009 Traverse City tournament, but choose to return to Brandon so he could compete for the Memorial Cup in his home town. If he'd gone pro last year, part of me wonders if Calvert might have been called up to replace Nikita Filatov after he returned to Russia, but that will remain a tantalizing "what if?" scenario.

As it stands, Calvert's play this past season in the Dub has made a lot of fans excited for what he might bring to the big club, and gotten the attention of other fanbases as well. Scouts praise his hockey sense and ability to take over a game at the junior level. Nearly every report on the young winger also mentions his "contagious" energy on and off the ice - perfect for a fourth line role where he'll be asked to fire up his teammates. 

The only barrier standing in Calvert's way (aside from the players who already have lockers in the dressing room) is the fact that he's a left wing, a position where the team is fairly stuffed. If he can successfully switch to the right side, It's not difficult to envision him being carried as an extra forward on the roster to start the season, potentially alternating games with Jared Boll or Chris Clark, particularly if his quick skating and hard nosed attack mesh well with Arniel's game plan. 

The Blue Jackets are in a position where they'll have a surprising amount of depth this year in Springfield - I can't remember an offseason where so many talented young players were likely to be headed to the AHL. I have no doubt that there will be injuries, and there will be players called up. I have no doubt that players like Fritsche (if he stays in North America), Kana, Blunden, Calvert, and MacKenzie could see themselves making trips back and forth from Springfield this year, and I also wouldn't be shocked if we see a strong showing from guys like Kolarik and Mayorov in camp, but there's simply too much talent and experience already on the ice to expect a massive shakeup in the roster.

But there is one player who I think could be the victim of change. 

While many teams still keep an enforcer on the squad, it's no longer a position that every team must fill, particularly with the rise of agitators like Dorsett, Steve Ott, or Jordin Tootoo who are comfortable dropping the gloves themselves. Unless Boll can step up his play outside of his fists, it's difficult to see him becoming a regular on the fourth line, despite the team re-signing him to a new two year, 1.45 million dollar deal this past summer.   His commitment to hit and block shots is a good thing, but unless he can improve his play away from the puck on defense (don't forget he was a -8 last year), or do as Dark Blue Jacket suggests and hone his offensive skill and positioning, he may find himself in the press box more and more often - or potentially making the long flight to Massachusetts. (For another look at why Jared Boll may very well be expendable, take a look at this profile from Ten Minute Misconduct.)

Because his main skill set may be de-emphasized, because his injury history over the last few years is troubling, and because there are so many sharks in the water for that single available roster slot, if there's one player who needs to come into down and impress the hell out of everyone at training camp, it just might be Jared Boll.

My Prediction:

If I had to guess, team's bottom six to start the season looks like this:

3rd Line: Umberger - Pahlsson - Dorsett

4th Line: Moreau - Murray - Clark

Spare: Boll / Calvert

No matter how it shakes out, it's going to be a fascinating camp to watch for the Blue Jackets. It's not quite Christmas in September, but it certainly feels like we'll be able to unwrap an unexpected gift when the team finally takes to the ice.

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