In the 2016 NHL Draft, the New Jersey Devils selected 12th overall. In the first round, they took Mississauga center Michael McLeod. In the second round, 41st overall, they decided to take his teammate and linemate, right winger Nathan Bastian. They had done a number for the Steelheads that year, McLeod posting 61 points in 57 games and Bastian had 59 points in 64 games. Two picks after Bastian went to New Jersey, Carolina took forward Janne Kuokkanen from Karpat in the Finnish Liiga. He had crushed the Jr. A league in Finland for junior players, posting 53 points in 47 games, and earned himself one game in the Liiga where he posted two goals. At the time, they all seemed like promising prospects who had potential to become NHL regulars, especially McLeod at 12 overall.
Now, over four and a half years later, all three of those guys, drafted within the top 43 picks of the 2016 draft, have been playing on a line together for the Devils, the fourth line. And across the first four games, they have done really well in their roles. Before the Isles game on Thursday, Bastian had a positive relative Corsi at 5v5, and was ranked 4th among all NJ forwards in rel CF%, while McLeod was ranked 6th and was barely negative thanks to Travis Zajac’s dominance, and Kuokkanen was ranked 9th.
However, Thursday night’s tilt against the Isles was perhaps the best of the season for that fourth line, and it would help to drastically improve those numbers. The game itself was poor for the team, but the fourth line, except for a hiccup at the end of the first period that led to the second goal against, really shined. Here are 5v5 shot contributions for the Devils in that game from Todd Cordell:
Other than Jack Hughes and Nikita Gusev, who both managed decent games in terms of shot contributions, no one compared to the fourth line, especially Kuokkanen and McLeod, who dominated that. And of course, Bastian had the lone goal on that head fake of a shot, so kudos to him. The fourth line was all over the ice in that game and really made itself known. Now, whereas before that game Thursday night you had McLeod and Kuokkanen as having negative relative Corsi percentages, all three of the fourth line are now sharply positive heading into tomorrow night’s rematch. Currently, Bastian ranks third in CF% rel among Devils forwards at 8.20%, McLeod is fourth at 7.29%, and Kuokkanen is fifth at 6.47%. They are the best line on this team overall in terms of relative Corsi. The only two forwards outperforming them are Zajac and Wood, which you might expect given their play to start the season. But to have a fourth line doing so well in possession as compared to the top 9 is definitely something.
For a Devils team that has had a surprisingly quality start to the season, having a strong fourth line is a definite boon. It isn’t a line that produces loads of points, as the three of them have combined for one goal across four games, but the fourth line isn’t generally about scoring goals or producing many points. Anything they can chip in there is a huge bonus and perhaps takes away some of the pressure from the beleaguered second line. Instead, they are about creating momentum, getting the puck out of the defensive zone and up the ice, and generating pressure on the opposition. In this, this trio has done well. Their offensive zone faceoff percentages are not high, all three of them having percentages around 40%. They are seeing most of their zone starts outside of the offensive zone, and thus are being deployed with a mission to interrupt the opposition’s momentum and turn the tide. Despite that, their relative CF percentages are very, very strong as compared to the other forwards on the team, so despite starting the majority of their shifts having to play defense, they are generating quality possession among Devils forwards.
Currently, the Devils are in the middle of a two game set against the Isles. Unlike other teams, who are shallow at the bottom of their forward corps, New York also has a fairly strong fourth line in Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, and Cal Clutterbuck. Like with the trio of McLeod, Bastian, and Kuokkanen, these three are not on the ice to produce points, but rather to generate momentum, push the puck up ice, and provide some physicality. In this, they have been successful. According to Natural Stat Trick, here are the comparisons of team relative numbers for the Devils and Isles fourth lines:
As you can see, there are many similarities here in the lines. NY’s fourth line is among the best on the team in possession, with three of the top four best relative Corsi numbers, but don’t turn that production into many points, with negative xGF% rates. They also rarely have any offensive zone faceoffs. The Devils trio gets some more offensive zone opportunities from zone starts, and perhaps thanks to that have better xGF% numbers, but overall their possession numbers, relatively, are also good.
Now, there of course is a major difference between these two lines, and that is age, and with it, the potential for growth. McLeod and Kuokkanen are both 22 years old, while Bastian only recently turned 23. These three players are only really breaking into the NHL at this point in their careers, and if they continue to grow and develop, something that is very possibly at this point, they could grow beyond a fourth line role into something in the middle 6. Of course, maybe they don’t, and they remain fringe fourth line NHL players, but there is still potential there. The Isles fourth liners, however, are mostly cemented into their roles. Clutterbuck is 33, Cizikas is 29, and Martin is 31. While none of them are 35+ and on the last legs of their careers, all three of them have peaked and carved a niche for themselves on this team. At the start of camp, there was no real debate as to the Isles’ fourth line. When the Devils began camp, on the other hand, none of those three guys who currently play on that line were guaranteed that position, or any position at all in the NHL.
But that potential for growth brings me to the next point, which is where these players maybe were expected to be by this point in their careers versus what they have become. With the second rounders in Bastian and Kuokkanen, you have to be pleased if they can become NHL regulars at all. Yes they both have potential for more, and showed that in juniors, but with Bastian, that growth rate was fairly slow in the AHL. He did improve each year while in Binghamton, and ended last season with over a half point per game, but it didn’t compare to what he showcased in his draft year in 2015-16. The fact that he improved each year in the Bing was a definite positive, and he has shown good things on the fourth line so far, but will he grow beyond this? Kuokkanen, however, did much better with the Charlotte Checkers, and looked to have that growth rate that the Devils were hoping McLeod and Bastian would have. The hope here is that with more NHL experience, he will grow beyond a fourth line role, and among the three, it seems the most likely at this point. It was the reason they traded for him. However, he of course does have the worst numbers of the three fourth liners, but it is also early.
The biggest disappointment of the three, at this point, is McLeod. As a 12th overall pick, to be a fringe NHLer at this point is not what was expected of him when he was drafted. Ideally, he would be playing consistent middle 6 minutes at this point in his career. I know he is young at 22, but forwards do develop more quickly than defenders or goaltenders, so it is not ideal. Now, that being said, he has the potential to grow beyond this, but we have to see it. Playing well now is a big important step towards that growth, and hopefully it can continue, although that would have to come with some point production at some point. I know I said that isn’t a thing for fourth lines, but if he wants to prove he should be a middle 6 forward, the way to do that is by showing the team that the scoring stats he put up in Mississauga can translate to the NHL, at least somewhat. The fourth line is getting more OZ starts than the Isles fourth line, so there is more potential there for points, even if not too much.
But overall, regardless of potential or where you would’ve wanted these players to be at at this point in their careers, the play of this current fourth line has been solid to start the season and was exceptional on Thursday night. It will be interesting to see what happens when Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier return to the lineup. Will this fourth line remain intact if it continues to play well, or will it get broken up, some of these guys being sent to the taxi squad or down to Binghamton? When a line gels well and is positive for the team, it isn’t something you want to break up, but you also aren’t benching Hischier or Bratt, so two guys have to leave, and fourth liners are always on the chopping block.
That being said, what do you think? Should this fourth line be given more time together when those players return? Or should one or more of these guys get kicked out of the lineup when Hischier and Bratt can play? What do you think about the potential of these guys moving forward? Are they fourth liners and no more? Does one or more have the potential to become something more? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.