Stop making fourth lines bad on purpose
The first priority in player acquisition is always talent
One of the strangest enduring conventional mindsets is the idea that a club's fourth line has to be bad.
I am using this phrase very specifically - not "is going to be the worst unit in the rotation", and not even "will likely be bad", but "has to be bad". Since "will be bad" and "more likely to be bad" are conceptualized as equivalent many teams fill the bottom of their forward rotation with the sort of players that ensure being objectively lousy is the only possible outcome.
The mindset is so prevalent, that most fans and decision-makers completely change (in fact, invert) their evaluation criteria for players once they enter the 10-13th F threshold on the depth chart. Talent? Nope. Offensive skill? Waste of time! Can drive play? Doesn't matter. Every factor that meaningfully contributes to scoring more goals than the bad guys is suddenly moot. If you are a talented player, then, not only should you not be playing on the fourth line, you can't.
I submit that this is bizarre given the explicit goal of team building is to gather as many talented players as possible. No team can have too many stars, too much offense, or be way too good at driving the puck north. The idea that talent evaluation no longer applies beyond the 3rd line is needlessly self-limiting.
However, before we proceed, let's steel man the conventional 4L build method so we can understand why this has become a norm.
Chesterton's 13th forward
Picture the archetypal NHL 4L player. Is he:
A veteran of some repute?
Willing to crash and bang?
Known as a good pro/teammate?
Bonus - Does he fight, win faceoffs, or play on the PK sometimes?
That's the way of things in Calgary most years at least. The archetypal 4L guy most certainly can't score at anything about a replacement level rate and his player page on Evolving Hockey is a career of negative contractual value in aggregate.
Yes, yes but why? Let's get into it.
Offense and talent are typically expensive to obtain. Let's make a distinction here that this is true of known talent (let's circle back on this later).
Teams are constrained by contractual and budgetary limitations from adding known "good" (read: expensive) players all the way down to the bottom of the roster, so they instead shift focus to "intangibles" (which are cheaper and more plentiful) as an evaluation criterion.
Any player with offensive talent who is available for 4L prices is usually non-trivially deficient in some other area of the game (or at least perceived to be).
Because 4L players play so little and often have unskilled linemates, the prerequisite of offensive talent seemingly becomes much less important.
Due to 4L deployment being relatively thankless, teams look for guys with a certain constitution or personality type to staff this role (easy to coach, pro-team, content with the role in question).
Taken together all of this seems reasonable. And it is to a certain degree.
Pragmatically speaking decision makers are constrained along all sorts of ley lines to make an actually good (or at least not bad) fourth line. The conventional rubric illustrated above is simple to execute and manage. In fact, I think the way 4L's are typically built right now is more about lessening the cognitive load for the coach and GM than anything else. It's nice to have guys you don't *have to think about* much at the lowest layer of the roster.
In contrast, I argue that this mindset leads to less than optimal team-building practices and philosophies, in two major, related ways:
1.) It has conjured a normative environment where pattern matching to archetypal "fourth line type players" restricts long-term upside.
2.) It confuses the meta-function of the fourth line as a filter that keeps low upside veterans in the NHL while keeping kids and no downside players (with uncertain upside) out. I contend it should be the opposite.
Fourth line as filter
Let's start with the second point first.
As noted, NHL fourth-liners are usually granted limited on-ice functions - play simple, try not to get scored on, crash and bang, maybe skate on the PK, and win a face-off whenever possible. Fourth lines currently exist to spell off the top of the roster so the stars don't get too tired. It's also where coaches stash coke machines and nuclear deterrents in case a game turns into a street fight (though this is mostly an anachronism these days).
Rather, I contend that the bottom rotation has a far more important meta-function - as a filter that sorts NHLers and non-NHLers. It's where kids find their legs, it's a glass ceiling for replacement-level fringe guys, and it's where vets on the back nine of their careers play out their contracts. It is both entry to and exit from an NHL career.
So the question is: "what are you filtering for?"
The primary answer should always be: upside, talent, skill, impact. The fourth line becomes a far greater contributor to an organization when it is a semi-permeable membrane for talent and not role.
Great quote from Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis after training camp today: “I’m a big believer – especially with young guys – I look at their ceiling. I don’t care about the floor. I really don’t when they’re young. Show me your ceiling – we’ll fix the floor.” #HabsIO
What NHL teams shouldn't actively filter for: size, playing style, "intangibles", nominal special teams impacts (nice to have but often swamped by negative even strength impacts).
A coach may want some of these things, but you don't have to actively select for them in terms of player acquisition processes. For example, filtering for size for the sake of size (and not integrated with talent or impact) is silly because there are plenty of heavy, towering hockey players who look impressive on skates, but don't really help a team win.
The other things are relatively easy to find and are abundantly available. The term replacement level means, explicitly, a player who could be freely replaced by a similar guy in the AHL or open market at league minimum. You don't need to select for replacement level players, they are figuratively speaking, everywhere.
On the other hand, talent/upside is more difficult to find and vastly more valuable than check box intangibles. Finding, grooming, and leveraging talent is a goal that should be infused at every level of an organization, including the fourth line.
In operating principle, the bottom of the rotation should always feature a handful of talent and upside bets, and not merely be a dumping ground for veterans who have aged out and/or zero upside replacement level guys who also happen to check a few boxes on the pattern matching wish list ("this is what 4L players are").
The 4L is where the replacement and sub-replacement level players end up as a matter of course, but it's a consequence of market forces and upstream decisions, not a blueprint to be purposefully followed. Your 4L being a burden at even strength should be an emergent outcome, not the plan.
An analogy - imagine using a clothes dryer daily for a few weeks and noticing there is often a bunch of lint in the lint trap. Imagine, then, gathering the lint yourself and putting it into a clean trap because "that's where lint belongs".
This is an unflattering analogy. I promise the goal is to clarify rather than insult. The point is - sometimes a contract won't work out and a guy will end up on the fourth line. Sometimes you'll promote a kid and his ceiling will turn out to be "12th forward". Sometimes you'll be forced to round out the roster with a 15th percentile reputational veteran because you're capped out and no one else would sign for that role or budget.
But! Don't sign five 15th percentile guys on purpose and make this segment of the roster a wasteland that is to be avoided/hopscotched by anyone who isn't 220 pounds and can put the puck in the net. You've narrowed your talent searching function for practically no return, aside from a lower cognitive burden for decision-makers.
Pan for gold, not stones.