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Removing Anchors: The Playoff Rise of the Fourth Line on the New Jersey Devils

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For much of the 2011-12 regular season, the New Jersey Devils were decidedly weak on the fourth line. In fact, their bottom two lines struggled until the Devils acquired Alexei Ponikarovsky to bolster the third line. Yet, the Devils' fourth line was just pointless for the vast majority of 2011-12. Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen were swapped onto that unit and on a few occasions were played together in the game game. They added absolutely nothing of value; and head coach Peter DeBoer regularly benched either goon and either double-shifted a forward (usually Ilya Kovalchuk) by the second period or so. Ryan Carter, Brad Mills, Tim Sestito, and Steve Zalewski were featured but if they did anything of value, it happened on another line.

The fourth line performance was minimal at best, and DeBoer commented publicly on the matter on March 1 after a loss to Boston. (Thanks to @crash_land on Twitter for pointing it out)

"When you look at the stats, their fourth line has killed us the last few games we've played them.

"I think we knew that. It's been an issue all year. We juggled guys around hoping to find a fit and hadn't been able to. So Lou (Lamoriello) went out and acquired guys I think fit that role perfectly, so I don't see that as an issue anymore."

The Devils acquired Alexei Ponikarovsky in a trade and brought Steve Bernier up from Albany (AHL) after signing him to an NHL contract.

How much did the Bruins force the Devils into making those kind of moves?

"It's not the sole reason we went and did it. I think Lou and I have been on the same page since day one that you have to be four lines deep in this league to win," DeBoer noted. "Our games against these guys, more than anybody, exposed that."

It took until March 1 for DeBoer to come out with what most fans figured out early in the season: the fourth line was a waste. It took until the last game of the season for us to see the current fourth line of this postseason: Carter, Bernier, and Stephen Gionta. And they've been amazing in their roles. Please continue on after the jump for further discussion about the team's fourth line.

Here are the stat lines for all three players from the regular season and . This will say quite a bit for each player:

2011-12 - Steve Bernier 32 1 5 6 6 16 0 0 0 11:57 23 4.3
2012 Playoffs - Steve Bernier 17
2 3 5 3 12 0 0 0 10:43 22 9.1
2011-12 - Ryan Carter 65 4 4 8 -12 84 0 0 0 10:21 47 8.5
2012 Playoffs - Ryan Carter 16 3 2 5 5 18 0 0 2
8:20 13 23.1
2011-12 - Stephen Gionta 1 1 0 1 1 0 0 0 1 10:37 2 50.0
2012 Playoffs - Stephen Gionta 17 3
0 0 0 8:44 16

Immediately, the difference in production stands out. Stephen Gionta has gone from strength to strength with a goal on the last game of the season to six points while playing an average less than ten minutes per game in the playoffs. That's really good and his work ethic on the ice has garnered notice, even prior to Game 5 against New York. Even Scott Burnside of ESPN wrote an article about Stephen Gionta. Say what you want about Burnside, but the fact that a writer at ESPN has taken the time to write about Gionta of all players is a testament to what he's done in the postseason. He's been big despite his 5'7" height and 185 pound frame.

Gionta's not the only one on this fourth line that has found success. Carter's shooting rate has increased from .723 per game to .813 per game; and he's close to matching his goal scoring total already. Two of those goals ended up deciding two playoff games: Game 1 against Florida and Game 5 against New York. That's quite good for a sub-ten minute player. Bernier is one shot on net and one point shy of matching his season total in under half of the games. DeBoer has used Bernier more than the other two forwards, with the exception of Game 5 in New York, and for good reason. He's acclimated himself very well to the team's forecheck style and his big body presence has helped. Especially when he's out there with Ponikarovsky and Dainius Zubrus after a power play.

While Carter, Bernier, and Gionta aren't stomping through guys or acting as "secret weapons." What makes them a pleasant surprise at all is that they have actually made meaningful contributions in games. Throughout the 2011-12 season, the fourth line contributed very little on offense. This trio is, with a couple of shots on game and generally simple play. They tend to dump the puck in, keep the play around the boards until there's an opening, and if there's a shooting lane, then they'll take it. They come off the boards, skate hard, and try and keep the opposition honest for a little bit. " They're performing as a fourth line should.

Similarly, I can't say that they've been super in general. From a perspective gained from a season of seeing a fourth line with anchors sink to the bench on most nights, they have been super. Yet, not all that glitters is gold. The production has been boosted by some seriously hot shooting that won't last forever. I think most fans understand that, as great as their points have been. While the fourth line has had good shifts where they get the puck in deep and generate some offensive pressure, they've usually been at the other end of the rink. And usually, the other team can get several opportunities when that happens. Their on-ice Corsi rates are the only negative ones on the Devils at even strength, small population size aside. For any of them, an even night is a good one in terms of possession. What's more is that those times where they do get pinned back seems long because none of the three are particularly good defensive players. They'll get to where they need to be eventually, but they're not going to be like, say, Patrik Elias backchecking. I think DeBoer knows that and that helps explain why Carter and Gionta have averaged under ten minutes a game, whereas Bernier has received more ice time.

At the same time, the fact that DeBoer will play these players late in games - even in 3-3 games on the road, like Game 5 - is a testament to how they have been performing. While they're not driving the play forward regularly, they can do it and have done it enough times to make it work. They've gotten pinned back, but the other team have only scored 2-3 goals at even strength against them in this postseason, so they're bending without breaking. DeBoer and the coaching staff has made their roles simple and suitable to their talents, and the players have simply fit in well, as evidenced by their hard skating and their drive on offense. Unlike Tim Sestito in the regular season, they've provided actual energy. And if any of them are doing particularly well, he'll give them more shifts.

I have to believe that this is happening for a number of reasons. First, the Devils fortunately got Gionta up here and right into some hot play. I don't think it's really a streak, but it's definitely not his usual form - so I'll go with that awkward term. Second, the Devils dumped the goons. Boulton and Janssen were simply awful in 2011-12. They were supremely negative in possession, they did nothing on offense (Janssen got one assist in 48 games, none for Boulton, no goals for either player), and they were liable for penalties. The Devils got better with them in the press box. Third, DeBoer kept their roles simple. They just had to get out there, forecheck, not get wrecked in their own end, and stay disciplined. That sounds like standard procedure for most fourth lines, but again, the Devils didn't run a proper fourth line for most of the season. DeBoer knew what each player could do and hasn't made them out to be something they're not. And I don't think anyone is questioning the toughness.

Fourth, and most interestingly, the Devils put three guys together who each have plenty to play for: their future. Carter, Gionta, and Bernier will all be unrestricted free agents this summer. Keep in mind that these three players almost didn't get here at all. Carter was a waiver-wire pick up. Gionta was a late call-up, a non-goon to be there to prevent Boulton or Janssen from seeing a single minute in the playoffs. The Devils tried out Bernier in training camp, didn't sign him, he signed with Albany, broke his hand, and eventually came back to sign a NHL deal during the season. All three of these guys weren't here and their futures wouldn't be set unless they made the most of their opportunity. They're playing for contracts in addition to the Cup, two powerful incentives. Needless to say, I believe their performance will likely catch someone's eye in the summer, either here in New Jersey or elsewhere.

The Devils removed the anchors, put three hungry players with their own incentive on the same line with simple instructions they could meet. They not only met them, but they scored and created goals that they otherwise did not do on the fourth line this season. I hope Lou gets the lesson being taught on what a fourth line can do when properly constructed. Goons or other players that can't contribute in any constructive fashion only bring a unit down; and players shouldn't be forced into situations where they can't succeed. Instead, get players who can hustle and do the simple things for cheap - and the line can become a pleasant surprise as opposed to a wasted part of the lineup. Boston had it all season, the Devils found it in the playoffs, and I hope they'll have it next season We know they will tonight in Game 6. Who knows, maybe they'll contribute in this game as well? At this point, it wouldn't surprise me - and that's more reason why the fourth line has risen in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

What do you think of the fourth line's performance in this post season? Do you think the Devils will actually learn from this experience and utilize a proper fourth line next season? Do you think the current trio of Gionta, Bernier, and Carter will continue to contribute in this postseason? If they don't, would that dampen your opinion of how they've performed? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the fourth line, Gionta, Carter, or Bernier in the comments. Thank you for reading.