The Fourth Line
Roy McGregor has often made the point that he doesn’t think hockey needs a fourth line. In this year’s story on the subject, he makes the point that eliminating the fourth line would not only improve hockey, but would also reduce fighting. He buttresses his case with some pretty shoddy statistical analysis, but I’m not sure that anyone doubts his premise in any case. Eliminating the fourth line would eliminate a lot of the players who do a lot of the fighting.
Unfortunately, the league does not want to reduce fighting. If they did want to do it, there are many easier ways than by taking skaters off the ice. If they did want to do it, they would select a method that the NHLPA could buy. They do not want to do it because, to the league, fourth lines deliver up most of the gratuitous violence the league sells.
Furthermore, fourth lines do more than merely fight. They play mostly in garbage time which allows stars to rest and avoid injury once the game is long won or lost. In a long season, a laugher can be a real break. More importantly they provide insurance against injuries during a game. What happens in a game if a couple of the nine forwards get hurt? Even one injury would necessitate some real scrambling to keep rolling three fresh lines. NHL teams can’t compete with two lines.
Why not drop just one skater? As long as rosters stay at 23, the NHLPA can’t object too much if only 17 skaters are allowed to dress. It keeps the benches full enough to guard against injury and it sets up some interesting choices for coaches. Some will drop down to five defensemen once in a while and dress four lines. Others will dress a defenseman who is capable of taking some shifts as a forward. Making sure the extra two forwards can kill penalties (or even serve on the power play) will also be a popular choice.
Seventeen skaters. It might even reduce fighting.