Where’s the Rangers’ Fourth Line Go from Here?

It’s no mystery that one of the things that have made the Rangers so successful through the first 30+ games of the season is their forward depth. The defense itself has improved—the longer offseason probably having something to do with that—but the ability of their forwards to attack in waves has been unrivaled this year.

But since the Mika Zibanejad injury against Florida on November 20th (which has been compounded by the additional losses of Pavel Buchnevich and Rick Nash) the Rangers have scored just 39 goals in 16 games; good for just 2.44 GPG (goals per game). That number doesn’t do the lack of production justice, as the total is skewed by a pair of 5-goal outings.

So what’s working for the Rangers to have won three in a row before the Pittsburgh game?

Forward depth. That’s a puzzling irony, considering the impact that injuries have had on scoring, but what we’ve seen is a bottom-six, and fourth line in particular, that has stepped up its game.

Namely, it’s the combination of Jesper Fast, Oscar Lindberg, and Marek Hrivik getting it done. Over the last ten games (Hrivik has only been up for nine), they’ve been deployed at a 10.65% frequency rate, which is good for third on the team. AV likes to tinker, so Lindberg and Fast have moved around a bit, but that’s decent deployment for an NHL fourth line.

For context, the bottom six lines for the Isles, over the last ten games are Clutterbuck-Lee-Cizikas (10.04%) and Chimera-Quine-Ladd (9.9%).

At face value, the line hasn’t been producing, especially when compared to some of the more explosive combinations used earlier in the year, like Michael Grabner-Brandon Pirri-Pavel Buchnevich, and the trio has combined for just one goal (Fast) and seven assists since Hrivik entered the lineup on December 6th. But, they do have strong +/- numbers and were a combined +1 before the Pittsburgh debacle in which Fast alone was a -2. In a vacuum, a good +/- rating isn’t overtly impressive, but considering the team-wide lack of scoring, it’s representative of their overall solid play and defensive acumen.

Perhaps, more important in forecasting long-term success, is the strong possession numbers they’ve generated, particularly in the games they’ve played consistently together. In the home loss to Chicago on December 13th, for example, they were deployed as a line 20% of the time and all three had a Corsi-for of 55% or better. Against Winnipeg on December 8th, they were out as a line 22.86% of the time and all had strong Corsi numbers—Fast (66%), Lindberg (70%) and Hrivik (74%).

Of late, the trio has also started turning possession into chances. After taking a few games to get his legs going, Lindberg has had some jump and it’s only a matter of time before he gets a puck to go in. He’s generated 31 shots in 19 games this season and many have been second chances near the front of the net.

Lindberg (11.13) and Hrivik (10.21) are 5th and 6th, respectively, amongst Rangers forwards in i/Fenwick60 (Individual Fenwick per sixty minutes). Strong shot generation for your bottom-six forwards not only means that they’re keeping the puck out of their own net, which is a requirement for this role, but means that, eventually, they’re going to start potting a few. This could prove key if the injury bug doesn’t dissipate (and Zuccarello & co. stop slumping).

Fast is the worst Rangers forward in i/Fenwick60, but his play has been outstanding, as my colleague, Dave Rogers, pointed out in his Fast piece earlier this month.

Moving forward, it’ll be interesting to see how, or even if, AV continues to deploy these three together. In the Pittsburgh game, Lindberg moved up to the thi

rd and Pirri slotted in on the fourth line, but it’s reasonable to think that these three, with the way they complement each other so well, are likely to stick together. When this team is healthy, it will be even more interesting to see if they’re in the lineup at all. Buchnevich, Nash, and Zibanejad, once they return, take three spots away, and it’s tough to project who will sit for them.

Fast’s spot is about as safe as anyone not named Ryan McDonagh and Lindberg could slot in ahead of Pirri, if he keeps gripping his stick too tight, so it’s possible Hrivik could end up being the odd man out. That would be a tough break for a guy who has played well enough to earn a fourth line spot in the NHL. But, come playoff time, his style of game might make him more valuable than rookie forward, Pavel Buchnevich.

AV can be fickle, especially with lineup decisions, but, for now, the fourth line is helping the Rangers get through a particularly tough stretch made worse by injuries and a heavy schedule of games.

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