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The Fourth Line Might Need Some Help

Nathan Bastian returned against Seattle, but the fourth line was thoroughly manhandled that game. Can they pick it up?

NHL: MAR 16 Devils at Flames Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Thursday night in Seattle, we saw the return of Nathan Bastian to the New Jersey Devils’ lineup after being out since November 26th, nearly two months. In the past, the pair of Michael McLeod and Bastian has been a staple on the fourth line, and we even got the cool name “BMW line” for the fourth line of those two and Miles Wood. It was a title that they had earned together, playing gritty minutes trying to tile the ice back in NJ’s favor so that the top 6 could gain more scoring opportunities with their shift time.

On Thursday night, that line was reunited with the return of Bastian, and they played a decent amount together, almost 6 minutes at 5 on 5 play. That isn’t significant minutes, but Bastian was clearly being eased back into NHL action and only got 6:48 of total ice time, so it makes sense. But also, there really was no reason for Lindy Ruff to give either him or that line more minutes, as when they were out there, they simply got dominated in every single way. Check out the numbers for the three skaters individually from that game at 5 on 5, and then as a line, thanks to Natural Stat Trick:

That is what you call a beating. Wood’s numbers don’t look as bad, but that is strictly because of the extremely low bar that the other two set. McLeod had an abysmal 22.58 CF% and a 14.32 xGF%. It is tough to get much worse than that, but Bastian managed it, with a 16.67 CF% and a 10.79 xGF%. You will rarely see numbers worse than that for a professional hockey player in an NHL game. It is frankly tough to manage worse numbers. The relative numbers showcase it in a different way, as both McLeod and Bastian were worse than 30% in the negative for relative xGF%, and Bastian was nearly at -30% in relative CF% as well.

Now, the context to note about this is zone starts. As we know, these guys are not placed out there specifically to generate points, but rather to move the puck up ice and give the top lines a better position on the ice to get off shots and score goals. Any points these guys produce as a line are a bonus. So of course, there should not be an expectation that Wood, McLeod, and Bastian would be sheltered. Quite the opposite actually, they are definitively unsheltered, with only a few offensive zone faceoffs each game. But against Seattle, it was about as extreme as you could get. Between the three of them, they had a total of, wait for it, 0 offensive zone faceoffs. And, wait for it, they had a combined total of 0 neutral zone faceoffs. That’s right, 100% of the faceoffs that these three were a part of were in the defensive zone. Wood had 10 defensive zone faceoffs, Bastian had 11, and McLeod had 12. That’s it, those are all the faceoffs they were a part of. I get that the goal of this line is specifically to play defense, get the offense off of their game and get the puck up ice, but that is a little extreme. Imagine only being able to play defense and never being given a chance anywhere else. And it isn’t like on the fly zone starts were any different. They also show 100% defensive zone starts for all three players during the game.

Now, does this justify their atrociously low numbers from the game? No. But it certainly does help to explain them. I really would never expect any fourth line to have positive possession or expected goals when they only get faceoffs in the defensive zone. That being said, I would still hope for numbers closer to 50%. If they ended that game with possession in the low 40%s, or xGF% around that same area, even the upper 30%s, I would say they played well enough. It would be near impossible to be positive in those categories with those kinds of zone starts. But 20% is unacceptable regardless, even if the context gives them some leeway.

It will be interesting to see how this line plays together over the next few games, assuming they stay together. Will they be able to get back to doing what they were doing earlier in the year? Can they be successful in their role at this point? Or, is Tom Fitzgerald going to need to augment this forward group before the trade deadline, increasing scoring in the top 9 while simultaneously making the fourth line better? Because while they might not be expected to score points, they are expected to help tilt the ice in NJ’s favor, and on Thursday night, they did exactly the opposite.