It’s clear when you look at the Toronto Maple Leafs forward lines that there is a true sense of identity for arguably three of the lines.
Unfortunately the fourth line is lacking any sort of clear directive for the Toronto Maple Leafs. This isn’t really a new problem, however.
When you look at the lines, the first line is clearly an offense generating one, the second line is a little less clear but generally geared towards offense and the third line is more so a group deployed with a defensive-driven goal.
The typical mix of players on the fourth line seems to point to a lot of indecisiveness about what this line is sent over the boards to get done, aside from tread water.
How Should the Toronto Maple Leafs Approach Their Fourth Line?
With Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds most regularly out there on fourth line duties, it’s clear that Sheldon Keefe expects a degree of physicality with the hopes of netting some slightly above average offense for a fourth line.
However, the cast that has lined up alongside them highlights just how confused the vision is. Ranging from Nick Robertson, Kyle Clifford, Pierre Engvall and Alex Kerfoot to the Maple Leafs newest forward addition, Colin Blackwell versus New Jersey.
The first two would certainly suggest the Toronto Maple Leafs are seeking offense from this group, while the most recent trial alongside the veterans suggests maybe pursuing a group more focused on checking. It’s not a clear picture either way.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s no easy fix here and most teams are lucky to have clear identities in their top three lines, let alone their fourth. However, this is a real chance for the Leafs to differentiate themselves.
Instead of rolling out a fourth line to simply tread water, hopefully keep the puck in the offensive zone and limit any defensive lapses; the team could build a group that can really put it to other time’s fourth lines a lot harder.
The addition of Colin Blackwell is the first step in the right direction, given his forechecking abilities. Likewise, Jason Spezza is worth keeping in any such group given his ability on face-offs and the fact he still has a decent set of hands with the puck.
The third member of the line can absolutely still be Wayne Simmonds as he still brings something to the table with his physicality.
His spot though could also be the perfect one for a guy like Matthew Knies to step straight into the line-up from college.
Putting the youngster alongside the veteran presence in Jason Spezza and knowing he has a similar forechecking-first mentality to Blackwell means it could create a really aggressive fourth line group.
Whilst it’s easy to suggest replacing Wayne Simmonds in that group, he still brings an intangible trait with his willingness to stick up for his teammates.
Likewise, suggesting the college kid gets a shot over Nick Robertson isn’t so much a dig at Robertson’s skill level but rather his being better suited to a top-six role. Matthew Knies is that little better built for getting stuck into a physical, checking role.
It’s really a hard balance to find, but the Toronto Maple Leafs absolutely have the players available to them, or at the very least, available to sign from college, that they could create a line that is really aggressive on the forecheck.
Just by giving the fourth line that little extra identity, they become a more well-rounded team. In fact, it might even mean that Sheldon Keefe throws them over the board a little more often than the sub-10 minutes a game they currently see.
Some tough decisions around two veteran guys may have to be made, but hopefully the team focuses on what improves them the most.
Of course, Simmonds and Spezza aren’t done, but could be rotated in and out of the line-up to maximise their impact in specific games.