Evolution, where the strong propagate their hold at the top of the food chain, has become something successful coaches embrace. The speed of the game is such that the traditional role of the 3rd line (checking) and 4th line (energy) have had to adapt in the way they play the game.
Checking lines are routinely matched up with the oppositions top lines, with the energy line on the ice to give their teammates a spark or to take care of a perceived wrong with some fisticuffs. That is a very simple and traditional definition of what those two lines are for.
Let’s look at the last five Stanley Cup Champions (Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins). You find that they are rolling four lines, not only throughout playoff series, but throughout the entire season. Darryl Sutter (Kings), Joel Quennville (Blackhawks) and Claude Julien (Bruins) have led the charge in this evolution of the bottom six role of forwards.
Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards started doing this last season on a regular basis and has continued the practice of rolling all four lines into the new season. He’s adapting to the changing environment of what makes a "contender". With this evolution comes the need for a new term to describe what these lines do.
"First off, I don’t know if I’d label them a checking line", said Richards about Matt Calvert, Mark Letestu and Jack Skille. "I think you guys (media) are always going first line, second line, third line. There are night’s I don’t know who is our first line, second line, third line or fourth line."
"(Friday night) we got contributions from Mark Letestu’s group. I think that’s what brought us success last year, because we were getting contributions from a lot of different people on different nights."
Columbus associate coach Brad Larsen has a strong belief that the traditional roles of the bottom six forwards is evolving. He goes into detail about the changing roles of those players and how it affects the way a game is now coached.
"Yes, I don’t think you have a choice", said Larsen. "I think that with how tough the schedule is, how much parity there is… this isn’t the debate of whether you have enforcers or not, this is the debate of do you have four lines that can play?"
"The grind of 82 games and you can’t discredit 8 preseason games, then, if you go deep in the playoffs, you’re playing over one hundred games. If you’re rolling two and half or three lines, and teams got away with it in the past, you’re going to burn out. I just think that the speed of the game and how it’s played, you need pace and you need to build the plays."
The word "trust" is one that Todd Richards has used repeatedly when talking about the bottom six forwards. Larsen believes that to be the very tenet upon which they are able to roll four lines on a nightly basis.
"So, it’s so important that you’re getting valuable minutes", Larsen said. "Those third and fourth line roles, if they can give you eight, ten, twelve or more solid minutes… you need a responsible team. I think more on your third and fourth line it’s about making sure that you’ve built trust with the coach in knowing that he can put you out."
"Sometimes now, with the icing rules and you get stuck out there having to play against their top line, you’ve got to be responsible. The guys that do that are going to be able to survive and play with pace."
The longest tenured Blue Jacket is Jared Boll. He has seen his role as a bottom six forward evolve and knew he had to adapt to stay in the league. Once looked at as merely a player who could lay the smackdown on opposing players that took liberties with his teammates, he’s had to work on his skill level to be able to contribute in a positive way.
"I think overall, the whole league has changed", said Jared Boll. "All of the elite teams and teams that go far in the playoffs are playing four lines. You can’t afford to only roll three lines anymore."
"Obviously, there will be times with special teams play and things happen where you don’t get the minutes. It’s our job to be ready. We know on most nights that we’ll be getting those minutes and we have to definitely be ready to fill those minutes."
Boll has embraced the trust placed in him by the coaches. He’s never going to be the guy who goes out and scores 30 goals in a season for the team, but contributing in other ways is what he does, whether that’s scoring or providing a spark of energy to his teammates. But most of all, he’s having fun.
"It’s been great, especially when you’re playing and getting more shifts," Boll said, "you get more into the game. It’s easier to get into the flow of the game. So far, it’s been good."
While matchups throughout a game are still important, they are not the be-all, end-all that they once were. Columbus has shown that it really doesn’t matter which line is on the ice with the oppositions’ top line. They do the responsible thing with their time on the ice.
"I do believe that matchups play a big role", Brad Larsen continued. "You have certain players that you want to play against. But again, with the way the game is played and the different situations, you have to trust them to do the job. The only way to do it is to earn that trust."
"The third and fourth line guys don’t get as much opportunity, so the quicker they can build that trust and show that they’re doing the right things, such as getting the puck out from their blue line or dump it in and change early rather than later, that gets noticed by coaches."
In a perfect world, every line would be able to have the same average time on ice and play the exact same way with similar skill sets. But in the real world, adaptation is the key to survival. Columbus is adapting to the changing landscape of the game. No longer can lines, or players for that matter, be looked at through a traditional set of what they do.
"You always want a responsible 200 foot player," concluded Larsen, "that’s what everybody dreams of."
By evolving, the Blue Jackets are becoming a more consistent threat to work their way to the top of the Metropolitan Division and beyond. My only question at this point is what do we now call these lines? "The French Connection", "The Century Line" and "The Espo Line" are classics. It’s time to renew the storied tradition of naming lines.