Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Added Value

The fourth line is the most chronically unloved part of a hockey team. Its players generally play single-digit minutes, mostly against each other, a low-stakes, forty-second game of don’t-fuck-up-too-bad. They are little more than embodied breaktimes for their more talented teammates and count themselves lucky to be such, for the specter of being nothing at all is never far away. When the team is healthy and rolling smoothly, a fourth liner might easily find himself spending most of his game nights in the press box, or even in the AHL. And while great players can look forward to getting filthy rich come their UFA summer, fourth liners often simply find themselves unemployed.

But as inglorious and nearly insignificant as the work of a fourth line is, it’s nevertheless a fascinating place. More than any other part of a team, the bottom trio reflects management ideology rather than player talent. Top-six forward roles, top-four defenseman roles- those are filled (ideally) based on skill set and availability and not much else. They go to the best player, period. Fourth lines and bottom pairings, though, are the liminal zone between NHL and not-NHL, and as such are far more flexible and undefined parts of the team. It’s a different world from the top end with much different career trajectories. Players who can fill those roles are plentiful rather than scarce, and so teams can afford to select their fourth liners according to different standards. For the most part, general managers seem to fill up these roles with players who have the kind of ‘intangibles’ that they feel are important to winning but cannot actually prove to be so, pests and goons, old-timers with lots of heart and leaden feet, eager boys with more tenacity than talent.

But there’s other sorts of value one can squeeze out of a fourth line, value far more demonstrable than goonery and far more practically useful than heart. Consider, for example, a recent trade between Montreal and Nashville. On February 17th, the Canadiens traded Hal Gill and a fifth round pick to the Predators in exchange for a second round pick, an AHLer by the name of Robert Slaney, and Blake Geoffrion. Now, considering that the Canadiens are pretty firmly beyond playoff contention at this point in the season, and moreover that Hal Gill is a 36-year-old pending-UFA penalty-kill specialist, there’s no way this trade is a loss for the Habs. Considered purely as a technical matter, it’s getting something marginally useful for nothing at all. A good, solid, workmanlike piece of general management. Considered as an exercise in getting added value out of the deep end of the depth chart, however, it’s far more interesting.

This Blake Geoffrion is probably a fourth liner. Maybe a third, if you squint at him from the right angle in an optimistic mood. He had a great NCAA career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, winning the Hobey Baker in his senior year, but let’s be honest: not many great NHL forwards play four years of NCAA hockey in this day and age. In the AHL, he’s had bursts of scoring but hasn't been consistently dominant, which given his age makes it unlikely that he’ll ever be an offensive force in the Show. Scouting reports describe him as physically assertive and defensively responsible, but lacking in any kind of creativity or flash- a veritable hat-trick of fourth-line clich├ęs. In terms of on-ice value, he’s nothing remarkable.

But in terms of off-ice value, Geoffrion is absolute fucking gold in Montreal. He’s the great-grandson of Howie Morenz, the Stratford Streak, the Canadiens’ Golden Age superstar, famous as one of the few players to ever die of a hockey injury. He’s the grandson of Bernard Geoffrion, called Boom Boom, slapshot innovator and cornerstone of the 1950s Montreal dynasty. Blake Geoffrion is the first-ever fourth generation NHL player, and all of those previous generations played for Les Habitants. He’s literally the blood of the Forum ghosts. As fourth-line deals go, this is the Mona Lisa, the Taj Mahal, this is the absolute peak. If it is possible for a deal involving a fifth defenseman for a depth centerman to be a home run, than Pierre Gauthier hit one out of the park and half way across the city, and yeah, I used a baseball metaphor, that’s how crazy good this deal is.

Did Gauthier make his team better on the ice? Not noticeably, although we’ll see how the pick works out. But he made the franchise better. He took a relatively meaningless slot on the roster and used it to get a player who will mean something to the people in his city, a player who has historical and cultural resonances for the fans. It’s just plain cool to have this kid in the bleu-blanc-rouge, a skating reminder of our ancestry and our longevity- the things Canadiens fans most love to snuggle up to in a cold, bleak season.

This kind of move is not wholly unfamiliar for Habs management. For years, they’ve used the fourth line and the bottom pairing to shore up Francophone representation on the roster, with guys like Lapierre, Begin, Bouillon, Dandenault, Laraque, Bergeron, and now Darche. They seem to be perpetually on the lookout for overage Francophone Europeans who can fill a low-end role on an ELC. The Canadiens have always understood, to some degree, that the fourth line is the easiest place to fulfill their linguistic duties to the city, and they’ve done so. Acquiring Geoffrion represents, for them, not so much a new idea as the magnum opus of a long-practiced art form.

Geoffrion, of course, is an American and doesn’t speak French- a lot can change in two generations- so maybe this turns into a disaster. Maybe after half a season the charm wears off and things turn nasty. Maybe the media vilifies him for his lack of bilingualism. Maybe the fans crucify him for failing to live up to the achievements of his forbears. Maybe his name becomes a curse such that he spends every day of every call up weeping in the fetal position under his bed, afraid to so much as show his face along the Rue St. Catherine. When it comes to its hockey team, Montreal has been able to turn good things into shit before, and I would never dare to suggest that any player is immune from torment when the season goes badly.

But let’s have an optimistic moment here, because it’s been a tough few months and we could use some sunshine in our days. Maybe the city welcomes the kid. Maybe they support his efforts to learn French rather than eviscerating him for not knowing it already. Maybe there are whole bunch of fuzzy history-slash-interview fluff pieces in the papers, and he gets a few extra appreciative cheers when he skates out with his famous patronymic. Hell, maybe he even writes a blog the way he did in Nashville, something sort of bland and friendly, with the uncontroversial amiability common to the best sort of hockey guys. And maybe it means something to him, to play under his grandfathers’ banners, in the place they won their Cups, for they say he was close to Boom Boom right up to the end. Maybe Blake Geoffrion could be one of those oh-so-rare hockey players who likes playing in Montreal. It wouldn’t be a great triumph for the franchise, and it wouldn’t solve any of our myriad problems, but it’d be a nice thing, and why shouldn’t we have nice things? Especially nice things that can be had for so little?

Analysts are fond of saying that the GM should only care about tangible, concrete, on-ice value: Who is the best available player for the position? But on the fourth line, there will always be a lot of guys available with near-equivalent on-ice value. Between prospects on their way up, veterans on their way down, high-end AHLers and unsigned Europeans, there are probably twenty guys freely and cheaply available at any given time for any give fourth line role. Fourth line talent selection is not especially rational or optimized as it is, and there probably isn’t all that much in terms of wins to be gained from further optimizing it anyway. So all other things being equal, teams should pick the guy with the most off-ice value.

The fourth line is exactly the place for local boys and legacies, guys who are media-friendly, guys with senses of humor, guys who really really want to come to your town for whatever ridiculous reason. Guys who have good patter at autograph signings and hospital visits. Guys with cool backstories. Guys who do awesome charity work. It’s the part of the team where a GM can afford to think about not just what’s good for winning, but what’s good for the franchise, what’s good for the cultural institution that a team in a city ought to be. When compiling a first line, a GM has a duty to get the best talent he can find, the best he can afford, and if that talent happens to be sleazy or snooty or shy, whiny or petulant, haughty, lazy, or Aspergy, he has little choice but to hope the coach can deal with it. First liners get a free pass on public-relations awfulness. But a fourth line can, and dare I say should, be an awesome feat of pandering to the community, with players who not only have character but give the franchise some character. Montreal is fortunate that they have very obvious social and historical traditions to play off of, what with all the Frenchness, but there’s no reason other franchises can’t do the same thing, with their Westerness or their Southerness or their New Jerseyness. There’s no place in the world so dull and flavorless that the people can’t be charmed by some kind of appeal to local identity, or failing that, general human awesomeness. There are plenty of good reasons why a fourth line has to be kind of shitty on the ice, but there’s no good excuse for it being shitty off the ice as well.


saskhab said...

Which is why it's a bit shocking that Nashville traded Geoffrion... he was literally the only local boy they could put on their roster. I mean, if the Habs let go of a Begin or Darche, they can find another guy relatively easily... Nashville might have to wait 10 years for their to be a crop of young good ole southern boys that can serve that role for them.

But, of course, Nashville is trying to win much more important hockey games for their franchise this spring and don't see Geoffrion as contributing towards that, so sacrifices must be made.

Unfortunately, your analysis is precisely the reason why we have untalented goons in the NHL: the fans buy their jerseys, and what other 4th liners do fans by jerseys for than goons? It's why Tie Domi making $2m for Toronto was actually justifiable, and he was somewhat decent at hockey at one point (not by the end when he got those deals).

E said...

it's true, i was wondering why they got rid of him, but if gill is really the piece they need... i'm a bit skeptical that he is, but i'm no preds specialist.

goons are an interesting case, because although they're often fan favorites, i don't think they're primarily employed as such. gms that acquire goons believe that fighting is useful; the primary motive for having one is ideological rather than commercial. the commercial/cultural benefits are secondary. (or so it seems to me)

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