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Photo Credit: © Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The Canucks’ 4th Line Has Been Getting Decimated Since Christmas – Is It Time For a Shakeup?

Early on this season, the only line with a better expected goals share that the Canucks fourth line of Jay Beagle, Tim Schaller and Tyler Motte was their top line of Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser. Though they were still getting outshot, the fourth line was limiting thei opponents’ shot quality to the extent that their expected goals share was near 60% in mid-December.

Having a fourth line that could reliably and consistently hold their own – while playing against top six competition at that – was a blessing for Vancouver, and it contributed to them being one of the league’s better possession teams early in the 2019-20 campaign.

Lately though, that magic seems to have slipped away. Over the last handful of games, the Canucks’ fourth line has been routinely obliterated on the shot clock.

That said, the Canucks are in the midst of a seven-game winning streak, so should we really care about the struggles of their bottom line? NHL coaches, and fans by extension, are notoriously reluctant to make changes to a winning lineup. Still, before casting off the idea entirely, let’s take a closer look at just how the fourth line is struggling, and then consider what options there might be.

Breaking Down The Struggles

Something about the Christmas break didn’t agree with the Canucks’ fourth line.

Prior to Christmas, the combination of Beagle, Schaller and Motte had played 70 minutes together, during which time they bested their opponents in unblocked shots (50-42) and in scoring chances (32-30), and had a score adjusted expected goal share of 56%. If your fourth line is controlling north of 47% of on-ice offence, you’re in good shape. North of 55% is a dreamlike scenario.

Since Christmas though, it’s been a disaster. It all started with that December 28th game against Los Angeles where Jacob Markstrom had to make a career high 49 saves to pull out the win. The Canucks, as a team, were out-shot by a 2-to-1 margin – anyone in the hockey business can tell you is not a long term recipe for success.

During that game, a large portion of the Canucks struggles could actually be attributed solely to the fourth line. When Beagle, Schaller and Motte were on the ice together, they were out-attempted 19-2, out-shot 9-2 and out-scoring chanced 9-0. That led to an absolutely abysmal score adjusted expected goals share of 1.6% after accounting for shot location and quality.

When I brought this to noted fourth line supporter Thomas Drance, I was assured that it was a one-off. Sure, they could go on controlling play at 55-60%, but could be relied upon to keep their heads near the water line at least. With a largely successful first few months, it was hard to argue with that.

Three games later, however, the struggles have not subsided. As a trio, they posted score adjusted expected goal shares of 10.2%, 6.2% and 1.8% against Calgary, Chicago and New York, respectively. All told, since returning from the Christmas break, the Beagle-Schaller-Motte combo has been out-attempted 51-10, out-shot 30-7, and out-scoring chanced 26-2 in about 27 minutes of 5-on-5 time. They’ve also been outscored 2-0 in those four games, and you could argue that they’ve been lucky it hasn’t been worse.

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After considering score effects, the before and after Christmas splits look like this:

Before Christmas After Christmas
70:31 TOI 27:07
48.9% Corsi 18.2%
55.4% Fenwick 20.6%
55.6% Shots-on-net 20.7%
52.5% Scoring Chances 7.2%
56.1% Expected Goals 7.2%
39.6% Goals 0.0%
5.5% On-Ice Sh% 0.0%
89.6% On-Ice Save% 93.3%
9.3% Off. Zone FO% 25.0%

This is pretty ugly. The only numbers that have gone up after Christmas are on-ice save percentage (further evidence that Jacob Markstrom has prevented the fourth line from looking even worse) and, confoundingly, offensive zone face-off percentage.

But Why Though?

What is causing this sudden drop-off in the fourth line’s ability to control play? To answer that, let’s dig deeper into the numbers.

There are a few reasons for incredibly lopsided possession numbers, but the main factor is being trapped in your own end. You can’t get the puck out of the zone while the other team piles up scoring chances. When you finally do break free, the only thing that you have the energy to do is get the puck down into the other team’s zone and get off the ice. Allow this to happen a few times, and your shots against will balloon while your shots for remain static.

This is undoubtedly a problem for the Beagle-Schaller-Motte line. Over the past four games, the trio has had five separate shifts during which they have surrendered at least three shot attempts against and generated zero attempts themselves. The most egregious shift took place in the second period against Los Angeles. The fourth line came over the boards in favour of Adam Gaudette’s line at 10:23 and over the next 89 seconds they surrendered nine shots attempts, culminating in a goal by Anze Kopitar.

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Nine shot attempts is, for the record, roughly 365 shot attempts per hour. For most players, nine attempts against is more than half a games worth.

There was another unfortunate stretch against New York where a total of nine shot attempts across five shifts, while again tallying none of their own.

And how do they get stuck their in the first place? You might be tempted to point out that their deployment leans towards the defensive side of the ice, and you’d be right. As a trio, they’ve taken 12 defensive zone face-offs since Christmas compared to 5 offensive zone face-offs. But they’ve also taken 15 face-offs in the neutral zone, and have started a large portion of shifts on the fly (as is typical). Schaller, for instance, has started 28 shifts on the fly over the last four games. This hardly amounts to an excuse for getting obliterated night after night, especially given that the relationship between zone starts and shot metrics are typically overrated.

Moreover, their end zone face-off ratio leaned much more heavily towards the d-zone before Christmas, when their shot results were much more palatable.

What Can Be Done?

So what can or should the Canucks do about their fourth line’s struggles?

Again, the easy answer is to do nothing. Don’t mess with a winning lineup! That’s the old adage, right?

There’s another commonly held belief in sport though that pertains specifically to winning streaks and losing streaks. Often, it’s said that towards the end of long winning streaks, you can win a couple extra games that you otherwise might have lost, while at the end of long losing streaks the team plays well enough to win but doesn’t get the bounces. I’m not saying that the Canucks haven’t deserved their last couple wins – just that things can start going south even while the wins are still piling up. So when you see some red flags, why not get ahead of it?

Despite their continuous ability to come away from games with two points, the Canucks are showing signs of fraying a little bit at 5-on-5. So what if, instead of waiting for that first loss to come, they get proactive and make the changes now to reinvigorate the lineup and keep the good times going? Where would one even start to make changes?

1 | Changes to the Fourth Line Alone

The obvious spot is the focus of this article: the fourth line. As it happens, outside of the fourth line, the Canucks have been perfectly fine at 5-on-5 during this recent stretch – with none of Beagle, Schaller and Motte on the ice, the Canucks are controlling 51.2% of score adjusted expected goals, and have outscored their opponents 11-5 at 5-on-5.

So if the rest of the lineup is doing fine, how do you make changes to the fourth line without tampering with the synergy somewhere else?

The answer here is to bring in an outsider – someone who has been out of the lineup entirely – to get a different look on the fourth line, without touching the three lines above it.

The obvious candidate is Zack MacEwen, who’s currently on the NHL roster and traveling with the team. MacEwen has played on this fourth line before, and although the results haven’t been great, they’ve been better than what the fourth line has accomplished over the last four games. Other possibilities from this angle might be a minor league call. Tyler Graovac, who filled in on the fourth line when Jay Beagle was out of the lineup, is currently sidelined with an injury, but the Canucks could try someone new like Justin Bailey or Francis Perron.

The tricky part here would be deciding which player ought to come out of the lineup – and then convincing Travis Green to make the switch. Given that most of the potential replacements are wingers, and taking salary into consideration, I’d say Jay Beagle is likely safe. Tim Schaller on the other hand, who’s already had his share of healthy scratches under Travis Green and has gone pointless for 29 consecutive games, seems like a natural choice to take a break in favour of a little shake-up.

2 | Changes To Multiple Lines

The other possible strategy is to tinker with the lineup to a larger degree. I can almost guarantee that an NHL coach wants no part of this when the team is riding a seven-game win streak, but hear me out. A little tinker could go a long way.

The change that I would look at is moving Loui Eriksson down to the fourth line. Eriksson has played well with Horvat and Pearson, but this is about what’s best for the lineup as a whole, and Eriksson has put up good numbers with Beagle and Schaller previously (62% expected goal share in 61 minutes at 5-on-5). The challenge then becomes finding a spot for Tyler Motte and that poses a problem: Motte hasn’t really had good two-way results with ANY currently available Canucks. Given that, it might be a better idea to sit Motte out and give MacEwen another shot on Horvat’s wing – although to be fair, MacEwen’s record there is even worse than Motte’s.

Another option here? Call up one of your “top six” options from Utica and plug them into your second line with Horvat and Pearson. Reid Boucher and Nikolay Goldobin are both fine options, but I’d go with Sven Baertschi. He has a proven track record of producing on Horvat’s wing, and has relished the chance to get physically involved in the play this season – no matter what the GM has said about his soft skill.

Based on these two options, my suggested lineups are as follows:

Option 1 Option 2
Miller – Pettersson – Boeser
Pearson – Horvat – Eriksson
Roussel – Gaudette – Virtanen
Motte – Beagle – MacEwen
Miller – Pettersson – Boeser
Baertschi – Horvat – Pearson
Roussel – Gaudette – Virtanen
Schaller – Beagle – Eriksson

Of course, the coach is the boss, and it’s up to him to fill out the lineup card. If he settles on keeping things as they are, then so be it. Beagle-Schaller-Motte worked earlier in the season, and they could pull themselves out of the ditch on their own.

If it were me in charge though, I’d want to exert a little control over my fate and give the fourth line a jump start before it costs the team a game, especially when spirits in Vancouver are riding higher than they have been in years. It doesn’t even have to be a permanent switch – just something to shake things up. If left the way things are, it’s only a matter of time before the fourth line costs the Canucks a win – and their impressive streak along with it.