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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Kissing a Competent 4th Line Goodbye by @BrianK_PI

The downfall of the Pittsburgh Penguins last season was a bottom six that was often along for the ride and incapable of driving play and adding value on their own. It was a focus for Jim Rutherford when free agency opened, as he made a couple of great value signings in Blake Comeau and Steve Downie. Those players have been great, but the drive the rectify the team's shortcomings has fallen by the wayside since the season has started. While injuries have forced players higher in the lineup than they might be playing otherwise, the one constant in the equation has been the team remaining committed to an awful 4th line. Craig Adams and Zach Sill, despite being players that would struggle to hold down a roster spot on lottery teams, have somehow managed to play 42 and 33 games, respectively. They've combined for 2 goals and 5 assists during that timespan while managing a FF% of 47.6%. The team has previously brought in possible 4th line options in Rob Klinkhammer and Mark Arcobello before trading Marcel Goc for Maxim Lapierre. The front office that had decided (rightly) to try improving the 4th line in the offseason has now gone in the opposite direction.

As can be seen above for the past five years Marcel Goc has routinely been more productive than Maxim Lapierre from a scoring perspective, both when considering even strength points per 60 minutes and total points per game. Over the previous five seasons Goc has recorded 25, 19, 27, 24, and 30 points while only playing more than 70 games once and more than 60 games twice. Lapierre has recorded 15, 10, 19, 12, and 14 points while only playing fewer than 70 games in the lockout year. A similar disparity can be seen in their possession stats.

The possession numbers aren't even close. Marcel Goc is a good possession player who routinely manages to outperform those on the ice around him. Maxim Lapierre is an awful possession player who routinely performs worse, often far worse, than those on the ice around him. For a team looking to upgrade their 4th line, the Penguins seem to have found a way to trade for even less scoring and even less possession.

And here's the problem with the team's approaching to fixing the 4th line: they're putting anyone they get behind the 8-ball. The Pens so far this year have brought in Rob Klinkhammer, Mark Arcobello, and now Maxim Lapierre; they've seen Bryan Rust come up and flash talent. Even Bobby Farnham has provided the particular brand of hockey they seem to be looking for to fill in the bottom of the lineup. What they've been unwilling to do is bench Craig Adams and Zach Sill for extended periods of time and let their more talented teammates see the ice. It doesn't matter who they bring in for the third spot on that line if they're going to be forced to play with two untalented, negative possession players. It's not surprising to see Goc's numbers go down during his time in Pittsburgh, and it's only going to become a bigger problem when plugging someone much less talented in his place.

And here's the thing that might actually put this into perspective for Pens fans: Maxim Lapierre is on the same level as Craig Adams. Adams has been a better possession player and even the scoring isn't markedly different. Lapierre has scored 79 points since the start of the 2009-10 season; Adams has scored 68 points. Lapierre has registered 1.09 pts/60 even strength; Adams has 0.87 pts/60. Toss in a player in Zach Sill who, while having a small sample size, quite clearly doesn't deserve to have that sample size increase and you have a recipe for disaster on the 4th line. Craig Adams and Zach Sill should have trouble finding roster spots on much worse teams than the Pittsburgh Penguins; not only do they play regularly, but the team has now added a third Bash Brother.

The positive reactions to this trade so far have centered around Lapierre having "grit" and "toughness", but those are a ridiculous reasoning. Let's play along anyways. When thinking grit and toughness, what portion of the ice do you picture? Predominately the defensive zone. So in a world where grit and toughness are important, they become increasingly important the more a player spends in the defensive zone, meaning conversely that they aren't as important the more a player spends in the offensive zone. So instead of getting talented players who can drive gameplay to an area of the ice where the Penguins can score goals, the front office has assembled a 4th line that will be trapped in the area of the ice where the other team can score goals. When Rutherford was hired he talked about his usage of analytics, but all he was really showing was that old dogs can learn new buzzwords. This trade has undoubtedly made the 4th line even more of a disaster, and as we've seen the past few seasons that can make a huge difference in the playoffs. Bottom line is the 4th line won't be competent until the team is willing to scratch Adams and/or Sill, but moves like this one certainly don't help the matter.

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