Fourth-line production key to Rangers’ strong season

The 2012-13 New York Rangers certainly weren’t without their blemishes. And if there was one wart that stood out above all the rest, it was the team’s complete absence of a fourth line.

The Rangers, last year, were a two-line team. Their offense came almost exclusively from the top-six forwards, a group that wasn’t good enough on its own to carry such a heavy load. As a result, the Blueshirts struggled through much of the lockout-shortened season, and were bounced in the second round of the playoffs by the Bruins – a team that knows a thing or two about depth up front.

By the end of the season, ten different players – including a carousel of centers – had roamed the fourth line for coach John Tortorella. The constant switching and swapping was a product of flimsy personnel and ineffective play. Over a combined 171 games, those ten forwards produced four goals and six assists for a whopping ten points total.

With mostly the same top-six forwards returning in 2013-14, management needed to supplement the offense by beefing up the bottom two lines. The Rangers cannot rely on one of those Backstrom-to-Ovechkin or Crosby-to-Kunitz connections, and so production from the fourth line, in many ways, is just as important as production from the first line.

Brian Boyle has been a key contributor on the Rangers’ fourth line.

So GM Glen Sather signed center Dominic Moore and winger Benoit Pouliot this past summer, two bottom-six forwards who have given the Rangers considerably more depth up front. Moore has been the team’s fourth-line center from the get-go, while Pouliot, by virtue of playing mostly on the third line, has allowed Alain Vigneault to drop Brian Boyle to the fourth line as well. Moore and Boyle, along with Derek Dorsett/Dan Carcillo, have provided the fourth-line stability the Rangers were sorely lacking a year ago.

Outside of Darrel Powe’s one-game cameo in October and Arron Asham’s six-game stint that ended in December, only four players have manned the fourth line this year for the Rangers. This exclusivity stems partly from Vigneault’s steady hand behind the bench, but mostly from continually strong play among those fourth-line stalwarts.

For it isn’t just stability provided by Moore, Boyle, Dorsett and Carcillo, but offense too. Moore has 18 points, Boyle 17 points, Dorsett seven points and Carcillo two – both of which are goals, one of which was the big game-winner over the Islanders at Yankee Stadium back in January. All told, they have produced 44 points combined over 211 games, a per-game pace that triples last year’s season-long crawl.

Good teams are built by making small gains in hidden areas of the game. 18 points from Dom Moore might not seem like a whole lot, but when you consider that Jeff Halpern, the team’s primary fourth line center last year, produced one point in 30 games, Moore’s production begins to feel like found money. Ditto those 17 points from Boyle. Top-end talent is crucial in the NHL, but the marginal benefit in adding a pair of 20-point seasons to a formerly dismal fourth line is absolutely huge. That’s where games, and seasons, are won.

The fourth line, you may have noticed, has been the best unit for the Rangers in the past three games. That much has been obvious watching them play. But is it possible that the fourth line has been the most important unit for the Rangers in the past 75 games? Considering that the point production from the top two lines has been decidedly below league-average all season long, it has been vital for the team to gain ground somewhere else.

Thus has the fourth line emerged. Plug in replacement-level production for the first or second line, and the Rangers are unaffected. (If anything, they might look better.) But do the same for the fourth line, and this team most definitely drops in the standings. The comparative advantage they have found in a rejuvenated fourth line cannot be overstated.

It’s a small gain making a big difference.