An ongoing issue throughout the season is that neither coach has been rolling four lines as often as fans would like. Ideally, most coaches would like to roll four lines and have their fourth unit out there for around 8-10 minutes a game. The role of the fourth line depends on the coach and under Paul Maurice this season, the fourth line was barely used. That has somewhat changed ever since Kirk Muller took over as head coach as Tim Brent has seen his ice time and his role increase quite a bit, but that hasn't been the case for others. Anthony Stewart and pretty much anyone else who has been plugged on the fourth line, the most recent one being defenseman-converted-to-forward Derek Joslin, have been averaging around 7-8 minutes per game.
With Staal's average ice time being well over 20 minutes for most of the season, I wouldn't mind seeing things more spread out but I think the fourth line itself is part of the problem. What I mean is that it wouldn't hurt to upgrade the personnel we currently have there. However, in order to improve the fourth line, we may need to address other issues in the lineup beforehand.
So, what is wrong with the fourth line? Brent and Stewart are both hard workers, gritty players and great teammates. Plus, they have produced a combined 21 goals and 44 points. That sounds pretty good for a couple of guys who get limited ice time but remember, Brent is a regular on the powerplay and seven of his points have come there. He also has a shorthanded tally so that lessens his production when he is actually playing on the fourth line. Stewart has also scored two of his goals while playing in the top-six on various nights. While I appreciate the offense we've been getting out of our fourth liners, both Brent and Stewart have been extremely lucky this year when it comes to their goal & point totals.
These two are also among the team leaders in shooting percentage and Brent in particular is getting very lucky as 18.5% of his shots have turned into goals. Stewart is also getting very lucky at even strength, only the Hurricanes seem to be scoring more goals whenever he is on the ice. He leads the team in on-ice shooting percentage. Brent's shot rate is slightly up from last season, but there are not many players who can sustain a shooting percentage that high over a long period of time. Stewart's is also pretty high at 14.1% and he's shooting the puck LESS than he was last season. Needless to say, I won't expect either player to have goal totals above 10 next season.
Their current scoring rates being unsustainable is a problem because their scoring is their main upside right now. More times than not, Carolina's fourth liners are getting hemmed into their own zone and not producing much offense.
Both shots and scoring chances are going heavily in the other team's favor whenever the fourth liners are on the ice, and it's probably why Muller isn't using them much. Stewart might be scoring at a top-six rate but if both his shooting percentages weren't over 10% right now, I doubt he would be on the roster right now. Brent's okay defensive game and usefulness on the powerplay gives him some value, but you can see that he doesn't produce much offense at even strength and isn't controlling possession at all. When looking at these numbers and considering that the Canes are currently using a defenseman on the fourth line, it is safe to say that we could upgrade things a bit.
Every team's fourth line has a different role and both Muller and Maurice have been protecting their's for most of the season. They are normally sent out in the offensive zone (aside from Brent who gets tougher draws for faceoff purposes), against weak competition and are getting hammered in their own end despite that. If these three were used in a more defensive role like in Boston or Vancouver, they would likely find themselves in the press box or on the waiver wire with this kind of performance. That is if they weren't scoring to make-up for the bad underlying numbers.
Personally, I think using the fourth line in a more defensive role can help the rest of the team. With Sutter's line taking the lion's share of defensive zone face-offs, there is definitely room to spread that around and free-up even more easier ice-time for the top-six. Brent is a good enough face-off guy to take some tougher draws, but the Hurricanes need better fourth liners if they want to run this kind of system.
If you look at the current roster, you'll see two players who would be superb fourth line wingers; Patrick Dwyer & Andreas Nodl. I know that these two have been very good on the third line with Sutter, but I don't think either produce enough offensively to play in the top-nine. Nodl and Dwyer are terrific defensive players and would be perfect for a fourth line role if the Canes were to spread around ice time more evenly.
As for who fills on the the third line, take your pick. Chad LaRose, Drayson Bowman, Jiri Tlusty or even Zac Dalpe could fit in on Sutter's line if they can handle the tough draws. The workload probably won't be as heavy on Sutter if another line takes some of the defensive zone draws, so this could help the third line produce a lot more offense than they have this season. However, if we want to fix this issue we need to find a first-line winger for Staal's line which has been a problem for longer than I can remember.
LaRose and Tlusty would all be great third liners, but they are playing on the first line right now because the Hurricanes do not have enough talent on the wings. That leaves Dwyer, Nodl & Sutter as the main third liners and they have been the main defensive unit for the Hurricanes this year because that role fits the players best (Bowman is only playing on the first line right now because Nodl is hurt). Therefore, Stewart, Brent, Joslin or an AHL call-up have been the main stables on the fourth line and are getting protected minutes because that's all the coaching staff feels they can handle.
Improving the fourth line would be nice, but the Canes are going to need to fill some other holes in their forward corps first. The lack of talent on the first line has led to the third line being starved for offense and the fourth line needs to be protected as a result. If Carolina can acquire a winger for the top-line, then I think it will have a positive effect on the rest of the forward corps.