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The Potential Return of the Fourth Line from the 2012 New Jersey Devils Playoff Run

They were together in the 2012 Playoffs and they all may be back for at least the 2012-13 season. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE
They were together in the 2012 Playoffs and they all may be back for at least the 2012-13 season. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE

The New Jersey Devils may have determined some of their 2012-13 roster ahead of July 1. Namely, their fourth line. Tom Gulitti tweeted yesterday morning that Steve Bernier may get a contract extension soon. Todd Cordell apparently has been talking with Stephen Gionta's agent and him re-signing with the Devils is a real possibility. He also claimed that Ryan Carter will be extended soon. No offense to Cordell, but I'm taking his information with a grain of salt. Still, I don't think it's out of the question that all three could return.

In a way, I hope he's right. The line of Carter, Gionta, and Bernier were quite successful in the Devils' 2012 playoff run. Unlike the fourth line during the regular season, these three actually had good, attacking shifts and put up points. Yes, they were still mauled in terms of possession. (Note: I know Behind the Net's playoff stats are cut off; let me assure you, the numbers didn't get better against the Kings.) Yes, they got generous offensive zone starts with at least 53.8% for Bernier. Yes, they really need to be protected to a degree. Yes, they could take some bad penalties at times. They still managed to not be abjectly bad seemingly every time they stepped on the ice. They showed that they can play an average of 8 minutes of ice time against good teams. They may have gotten hot but that doesn't take away that they actually contributed to the team's success. If you look at that run as an opportunity for each to prove themselves, it's hard to say that they didn't make their case to stick around in the NHL, much less with New Jersey.

Since it appears that all three may be coming back, let's talk about it. I have a few questions and thoughts regarding the potential return of the fourth line after the jump. It may be wise to temper our expectations instead of thinking they can reproduce what they did as a unit in 23 games from this past spring.

The first question is the big one: what can we really expect from these three? We know they contributed in the playoffs. However, we also know that their scoring made up for the ills that came up in possession, especially when other teams were able to get their top players out against them. We also know that their scoring in the 2012 playoffs definitely deviated from their 2011-12 regular season.

2011-12 - Ryan Carter 72 4 4 8 -13 90 0 0 0 10:21 50 8.0
2012 Playoffs - Ryan Carter 23 5 2 7 4 32 0 0 2 8:42 21 23.8
2011-12 - Stephen Gionta 1 1 0 1 1 0 0 0 1 10:37 2 50.0
2012 Playoffs - Stephen Gionta 24 3 4 7 4 4 0 0 0 9:13
25 12.0
2011-12 - Steve Bernier 32 1 5 6 6 16 0 0 0 11:57 23 4.3
2012 Playoffs - Steve Bernier 24 2 5 7 3 27
0 0 0 10:21 22 9.1

Carter nearly matched his 2011-12 season total in the postseason and Bernier just exceeded it. We can say they were a bit more successful since Carter's shots per game jumped to just below one per game, as did Bernier. Gionta only played in one game in the regular season - the last game - so it's hard to say whether he did a lot more in a smaller amount of time. Still, Carter clearly got hot as indicated by his high shooting percentage, Gionta had a strong percentage, and Bernier doubled his percentage. We can't expect either player to produce at that pace over a whole new season. As for Gionta, I really doubt

The remarkable thing is that even if all three players return and put up these numbers over the course of a season, it would still be more productive from most of the fourth line last season. Keep in mind that Carter and Bernier got time on a third line at different points of the season, so their ice time - and possibly their points - jumped in that regard. Recall that Eric Boulton registered no points, the newly re-signed Cam Janssen got one measly assist, Brad Mills only got one helper in his short time on the fourth line, Tim Sestito got none in his tenure on the fourth line or elsewhere in 2011-12, and Vladimir Zharkov didn't get a real chance in four games so he's got nothing last season. Quite frankly, Carter-Gionta-Bernier can repeat out their 2012 playoff production stretched over 82 games and it would still be an upgrade.

Therefore, I think it's best to keep expectations in terms of production low. Even low production is a step up from last season. I think it's more fruitful to see whether they can consistently play 8-10 minutes without being destroyed. While they would still need to be protected like most fourth lines, we know each player can, well, play.

Their return raises some other questions. If all three players are coming back, why in the world did the Devils re-sign Cam Janssen? For those of you unaware, the Devils retained him with a two-way contract at the minimum salary for one year as confirmed by Tom Gulitti. While the cost and the term are relative drops in the bucket, he's not going to help this team succeed. I don't think they kept him to play entirely in Albany where he belongs or in a luxury suite where he can't play on the ice. It's true I don't think much of Janssen. He didn't even average five minutes of ice time last season (a team low 4:40), he got the weakest competition on the team last season at even strength and finished next to last in on-ice Corsi, and he's usually seen on the ice way away from the play. Cam Janssen objectively sucks at hockey. With the real possibility of Carter, Gionta, and Bernier all returning, there's no room in the lineup for Janssen (or Boulton, for that matter). Yet, with a new deal, he's likely going to get some games and that will mean either someone's hurt and a spot needs to be filled or one of these fourth liners will sit. I'm not looking forward to either happening.

This possibility of all three fourth liners also will make it harder for those forwards in the system looking to crack the New Jersey lineup. Put yourself in Vladimir Zharkov's skates. You proven in two half-seasons under Lemaire that you can handle the rigors of the NHL on a fourth line and actually push the play forward. OK, you're not scoring goals, but that's not your main role that deep in the lineup. It's to spell the other guys by not getting wrecked and generate a little offense to keep the opposition honest. After those experiences, you get four appearances with so little ice time under Peter DeBoer and then spend the rest of 2011-12 in Albany. You've been qualified by the Devils and since then you're hearing that the fourth line could come back along with Janssen definitely returning. Since Carter, Bernier, and Gionta are best suited as fourth liners, and you're likely going to be on the fourth line or not at all, then what shot do you really have at making the NHL in this organization unless someone gets hurt? This may be a Zharkov-specific beef, but it can definitely apply to anyone else in Albany who may be interested in making the next step sometime soon. This may be fine for the short-term; if Carter-Gionta-Bernier are the best three guys for the fourth line, then they should be the guys. I'm just saying this would put some doubt in other players in the organization. Though, almost any move would do that.

Lastly, how much would a Carter-Gionta-Bernier fourth line help the team in the regular season? As much as I have griped about Janssen and Boulton being terrible hockey players who don't belong in the league, the Devils did pretty well in spite of having to shorten the fourth liner on most nights. If that unit can chip generate a couple of shots in most games, in some goals and not be horribly out of place or out of pace when things go awry, then they may help out a little. Yet, in the big picture, a fourth line isn't going to make or break a team. There's a reason why it isn't difficult to find players to play those roles; it's not as demanding as forwards on higher lines. While such a unit could mean some players won't get double shifted as much next season and won't put up a whole lot of nothing for the most part, I don't think the Devils will be significantly better throughout next season. It would be good to see the team play their best 12 forwards more often, though.

As far as the always-important question of "how much?" goes, we'll know the amount and the term if/when the new contracts are announced. Since they made much of their case in the playoffs, they may get raises. However, since their position isn't exactly difficult to fill, then I can't imagine it would be particularly expensive. As much as everyone wants, say, Zach Parise to return, keeping these three forwards won't prevent that from happening. So if/when it happens, we can factor that into our opinion about retaining these players.

While it's technically speculation that the fourth line from the playoffs is returning, let's talk about it anyway. What's your take on the questions and issues I've raised? What others issues do you think the returning the whole fourth line from the playoffs raises? (e.g. Do we call them the CBGB Line as per Sherry Ross' suggestion?) Would you want all three to return and what would you expect from them? If not, who would you like to be on the fourth line? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the fourth line, Carter, Bernier, and/or Gionta in the comments. Thank you for reading.