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Boston Bruins' Dennis Seidenbergg, right, checks Jan Visek, right, of Bili Tigri Liberec during the second period of a preseason NHL hockey game between Boston Bruins and Bili Tygri Liberec in Liberec, Czech Republic, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010.
Boston Bruins' Dennis Seidenbergg, right, checks Jan Visek, right, of Bili Tigri Liberec during the second period of a preseason NHL hockey game between Boston Bruins and Bili Tygri Liberec in Liberec, Czech Republic, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010.

ROY MACGREGOR

No need for fourth line Add to ...

This is a perfect time to bell a hockey cat that has had far more lives than can ever be justified.

The fourth line.

They try not to call them that any more. Perhaps it's just not considered politically correct these days.

Broadcasters tend to refer to the three forwards on the bottom rung of the team as "the energy line." This may be because the lesser lines, especially the fourth, tend to have the most media-friendly players on them, players sharp enough and experienced enough to know - and certainly with enough time on their hands eventually to realize, if it's not readily apparent - that their careers are as fragile as a solution to the Phoenix Coyotes.

Coaches being asked questions about their roster will say they do not have a "third" or a "fourth" line - as if they are somehow indecipherable from each other.

If that were so - and it isn't - then how much better would "third" lines in NHL hockey be if the three players on it were chosen from the best of the six-to-eight roster spots currently available to make up the final two lines of a team?

The reality is that the typical fourth liner in the NHL could be replaced with any one of, say, thousands of other professional hockey players around the world who had neither the contract nor the luck to land such a position.

Or, if the sport would only do so, they could be replaced with … nothing.

If the modern exhibition season proves anything, it is that today's NHL players are in remarkable shape. They leap straight from summer into winter. And yet, as the preseason games drag on, the central question (beyond goaltending) in the era of the salary cap almost invariably boils down to which single player, perhaps two, is going to crack the lineup - and usually so far down the lineup that those covering training camp have to check the media guide to find out where he came from and how his name is spelled.

This often amounts to more attention being paid to a player who will be on the ice for three minutes or so a game than he will receive in a season of regular play.

Think about it: Given that the players are in such good shape, how can it possibly be that a line that takes up three, four, five minutes of ice time a night is in any way a necessity? The three other lines would, and could, happily consume those rare shifts.

And even if an argument, however moot, can be made that spreading the ice time out among four lines keeps the other three lines stronger - what, exactly, is wrong with having periodically tired players on the ice? As the new rule on icing has shown, having a faceoff with fresh players on one side and gasping players on the side that iced the puck adds an intriguing element of possibility to games. If hockey is indeed, as they love to say, a game of mistakes, why not give us more mistakes that can become scoring opportunities?

The NHL roster is set at 18 skaters and two goaltenders. We know from fluke experience - the Calgary Flames' problems with the salary cap and injury as the 2008-09 season wound down - that a team can get by with as few as 15 skaters against 18, as the Flames actually won a couple of games with that shrunken bench.

The ECHL sets rosters at a limit that eliminates the need for a fourth line. The American Hockey League had slightly smaller rosters but is at NHL numbers in order to have consistency between the mother club and the affiliate.

There are, as well, other advantages to shaving off that final line.

Team payrolls would come down, in several cases by millions of dollars. The cap could be reduced, although experience tells us it would more likely result in even more money being made available to the Ilya Kovalchuks and other unrestricted free agents of the game.

Still, team costs would come down, not just in salaries, but in the care and feeding and travel of that unnecessary fourth line - perhaps even come down enough to cause a drop, however slight, in ticket prices.

And finally, it would help clean up the game. Most fourth lines are merely support groups for the team enforcer. Someone has to skate out with the player on his way to the penalty box, so two healthy bodies are kept on the bench simply to skate out for the necessary faceoff before the fisticuffs begin.

All this is fanciful thinking. The National Hockey League Players' Association would never stand for the elimination of so many jobs: 90 if you simply lopped off the fourth line, but in effect far more as each team maintains plugs for their lower lines both in the press box and in the minors.

If that many players retired at once, TSN would have to extend its sports panel to twice the length of an NHL bench.

However, it is a question often raised in morning-skate corridors and late-night bars. Some in the game say that the only possible modern rationale for a fourth line is to make it specialize in penalty killing, but this is a role easily transferable to other, higher lines. Recent champions - the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings - have all illustrated the benefit in having players who can actually play form the fourth line. But this equally argues in favour of dispensing with that fourth line - "energy" line, "weakest" line, whatever it might be called - in favour of creating a superior third line out of the multiple players otherwise available for two bottom lines.

Others in the game wonder if, in fact, the elimination of that fourth line would have any actual effect on the frequency of fighting in the game.

"Even if they went to two lines," chuckles Jim Schoenfeld, former player and coach who is currently assistant general manager of the New York Rangers, "some team would find a way to put a tough guy on one of those two lines. And then every one else would follow suit."

Perhaps so. Perhaps not.

Either way, it all argues the same point: A fourth line is unnecessary.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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