Toronto Maple Leafs fourth line much more than just an energy line

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 10: Mitch Marner
TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 10: Mitch Marner /

Once considered a graveyard for Toronto Maple Leafs players who scored the least, the fourth line has now become a rallying point to save slumping forwards.

Think back to the 2012-13 NHL season. You may remember it as the lockout-shortened season where the Toronto Maple Leafs made the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

If you paid attention to that season, you would know the fourth line of the Leafs was less than ideal. By less than ideal, I mean that the Randy Carlyle era Leafs decided their last forward line would be the best suited with two enforcers on the wings.

The wingers, of course, were Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, who finished their careers with a combined 35 points and 1450 penalty minutes in 579 games. Jay McClement was a fine centre on that line but the mindset for the trio was clear; Don’t get scored on and hit everything that moves.

The NHL has obviously moved towards actually utilizing teams fourth line to put up numbers since that time. The current iteration of the Maple Leafs under Head Coach Mike Babcock has seen the team go towards rolling four lines and being the best possible team up front.

Matt Martin was signed to “Keep the flies off” the Leafs’ young stars. However, he’s not just out on the ice to throw fists. Looking at the hero chart for Martin, he’s better than most of the numbers that an average fourth line winger puts up. His shot suppression is something that is a big factor in his game on defence.

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Although Martin’s not out there every night to be the main scoring threat on his line, remember that he did play junior hockey on a line with Steven Stamkos in Sarnia. Martin has a deceptively good wrist shot with some great accuracy behind it.

However, as the winger has stated in a sit-down interview with Leafs TV after he signed, he was told in junior he wasn’t going to be a top scorer, so he had to contribute in other ways to make it to the NHL.

Throughout his career, Martin has played on an energy line with bottom six players. Given the chance with more skilled players, he can produce at a better pace.

Last season, Martin finished with five goals and nine points in 82 games. Just over a quarter into this season, he has eight points in 26 games. Six of the eight points have been assists, which is better than last year. Martin’s best assist came as a secondary assist on an Auston Matthews goal in the Leafs’ most recent trip to Montreal.

Martin could be well on his way to breaking his career high in points, currently sitting at 19. If he can crack 20 points for the Toronto Maple Leafs, I would think the fan base would look more favourably on him as a viable fourth line option.

Of course, this isn’t Martin creating his own offence. He’s had the advantage of playing alongside some solid young wingers including Connor Brown, but most recently, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

Babcock has also changed his ideology when it comes to the fourth line this season. Whereas lines were set for the most part last year, all bets are off as to which players will feature on each line.

This strategy was first implemented when Marner was going through a goalless streak after scoring in the first contest of the year against Winnipeg. Social media exploded when the move was made, but clearly, it sent a message to Marner that he had to play back up to Babcock’s standards to regain his position in the depth chart.

Playing alongside his de facto father Martin, the sophomore began to get back to the form he was at last season. Although he couldn’t manage to put up the same kinds of numbers, Marner just looked more confident with the puck and more dangerous with it.

Plus, the pair produced the best gif of the season to date.

Marner’s time on the fourth line also forced him to play a 200-foot game every time he was on the ice which, given the low ice-time, meant Marner had to show something every time he was out there.

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Marner was moved back up to his regular line alongside James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak after playing a handful of games down with the fourth line. Now, it’s Nylander going through the same experience as Marner.

Although his overtime winner in the final seconds of overtime against New Jersey did snap a scoring drought, Nylander could not avoid the demotion. Like Marner, the point production just hasn’t been there for the Swedish winger.

The New Jersey game snapped an 11-game goalless drought. Although Matthews did miss time during that span, the two were together for the first seven games of the slump.

Since finding himself on the fourth line, Nylander has looked to have more jump out there and ultimately, he has made the line more dangerous for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Nylander finished with a goal and two assists against the Edmonton Oilers last week. He had a secondary assist on the Leafs third goal of the night scored by Martin.

Nylander has a point in four of his last five games and is looking to be on the upswing. Marner, on the other hand, has been held without a point in his last six contests, so maybe there’s another stint on the bottom forward line if this drought keeps up.

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Regardless of who plays on that bottom line, Babcock has made it clear that players who earn an opportunity will get their chances. If you’re under-performing, you’ll find yourself down on the fourth line, which at the moment, doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.