There seems to be a growing trend in Rangerland that whenever the fourth line is mentioned, it is used as derogatory term. It is a trend that is a bit baffling, because the fourth line is far from an “unnecessary line” or a “line that shouldn’t play” (both are terms I’ve heard). Sure, the Rangers current fourth line is a bit of a hodgepodge, with a spare part, a good locker room grinder, and a bit of an unknown. But on competing teams, the fourth line is critical to the overall success of the team.
Currently, the Rangers don’t have the NHL depth to really dress a fourth line that can rival the fourth line of the Vancouver Canucks, or the Washington Capitals, or any of the other elite teams in the NHL. So, the coaching staff puts the spare part(s) on the fourth line and limits their minutes. That may not be the most popular approach, but it is the way the Rangers are constructed as a team for this season. Players like Erik Christensen and potentially Wojtek Wolski are spare parts, and just roster fillers until some of the prospects in the AHL are ready.
Line structure in the NHL has altered a little bit from the mid-90’s. The top two lines are still your primary scoring lines. The third line should be a hybrid of a defensively responsible line coupled with a legitimate offensive threat. Generally speaking, the Rangers have used the third line as a staging line for their rookies, and it has worked. The third line is no longer relied upon to be the shutdown line for the opposition’s top offensive threats, like in the past. The fourth line is a lot like the third line: it is a line that is good defensively, has a physical edge, and can be an offensive threat. These are your primary penalty killing forwards.
The Rangers already have a line that would be a great fourth line on contending teams: Ruslan Fedotenko, Brian Boyle, and Brandon Prust. They fit that description, and may be one of the best fourth lines in the game. The problem is that they are currently the Rangers third line, as their fourth line is a melting pot of everything else on the roster. It is something we have been saying here for a while: when the Fedotenko-Boyle-Prust line is a fourth line, and still getting 12 minutes a game, the Rangers will be legitimate contenders.
Depth is the name of the game, and the Rangers do not have that third line to really put them over the top yet. They have the necessary pieces in the system, assuming they all pan out. Between Chris Kreider, Ryan Bourque, Carl Hagelin, and Christian Thomas, there are enough pieces to fill in that third line. That’s not to say that these guys will be on the third line, but between them, pieces can be moved around to fill out the third line.
The fourth line on any competing team is an integral part of the organization. With the Rangers over the past few years, fans have become a bit disgruntled over the fourth line because there were still a few missing pieces required to fill out the roster. That is not to say that the fourth line is useless as an entity, but it may be “useless” from a Rangers standpoint, as spare parts generally are not given roster spots. The Rangers will be competitors when Fedotenko (or a comparable player)-Boyle-Prust is their fourth line, and that is not a slight against any of them. The fact that they may be the best fourth line in hockey is a compliment, not an insult.