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The Useless Energy Line

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Recently, Tyler Dellow quizzed me about the origin of the term "energy line". I guessed someone used it in reference to Detroit's famous energy line, but really had no idea. Tyler discovered what he believed to be the first-known reference to an energy line in the archives of the internet. The answer to that is at the end of the article.

The term came about as a way to discuss fourth lines without using the traditional fourth-line descriptors: awful, bad, crappy, overwhelmed, terrible, useless, etc. The term has become deeply ingrained in the hockey lexicon. Broadcasters love to yell out "...and they've got the energy line out now to try to change the momentum of this game." Fans talk about adding energy line players in the off-season as if they are an essential part of the team, a group of players necessary to generate or steal the momentum of a game.

It all sounds great. Sign a bunch of lunchpail players who, though lacking in skill, are able to change the outcome of games through hard work and energy alone. But is it true?

I used a simple criteria to determine a team's 4th line. With the help of the numbers available from Behind the Net, I limited the player list to forwards who've played in at least 20 games and selected the three forwards who've played fewest even strength minutes per game. It's not a perfect methodology, and in fact likely flatters actual fourth lines overall.

The table below contains the combined +/- ON per 60 and combined Corsi/60 of those lines. I've used heat map coloration to indicate the value and groupings of those numbers. The table is sorted by Corsi/60.

4th Line +-ON/60 Corsi/60
Washington Capitals 0.52 9.45
Dallas Stars -1.30 7.92
San Jose Sharks 0.25 6.00
Columbus Blue Jackets 0.38 5.63
Calgary Flames -1.21 4.91
Detroit Red Wings 1.30 4.43
St. Louis Blues -0.83 3.96
Los Angeles Kings -0.67 0.76
Chicago Blackhawks -0.66 0.22
Buffalo Sabres -1.43 -0.53
Toronto Maple Leafs -0.87 -0.89
Ottawa Senators -0.55 -1.20
Montreal Canadiens -1.19 -1.61
Pittsburgh Penguins -0.87 -1.89
Colorado Avalanche -1.00 -3.22
Phoenix Coyotes -0.14 -4.58
New Jersey Devils -2.04 -5.64
Vancouver Canucks -0.28 -7.40
Philadelphia Flyers -0.75 -8.71
Florida Panthers -1.31 -9.07
Tampa Bay Lightning -0.96 -9.84
New York Islanders -2.26 -11.73
New York Rangers 0.14 -13.57
Boston Bruins 0.75 -15.09
Carolina Hurricanes 0.17 -15.48
Winnipeg Jets -0.82 -15.79
Nashville Predators -1.05 -21.46
Anaheim Ducks -2.19 -21.94
Edmonton Oilers -0.88 -25.29
Minnesota Wild -0.88 -26.71

Of note - all 30 of these fourth lines have the lowest qualcomp on their respective teams, which means they are almost exclusively playing other fourth lines with a couple of shifts against top nine players thrown in. Note that 21 lines have compiled negative Corsi and 23 lines have given up more goals than they've scored. It's also worth noting that this doesn't pick up all of the goons in the league - many of them don't have enough games played to qualify. I've looked at their contribution previously.

Two-thirds of the league is icing a fourth line that is losing the possession battle to some degree, which can only mean those lines have been destroyed by other non-energy lines in total. Remember, without exception, these lines have the lowest possible qualcomp on their teams - they are playing the easiest opponents possible and still two-thirds of them are losing the battle, some to a much greater degree than others.

As a group, the 90 men who comprise "energy lines" in the NHL average 8.71 minutes per game. They've combined for a +/- ON per 60 of -.65 and have averaged -6.23 Corsi/60. Thus far, the average energy line has given up one-tenth of a per game more than they've scored. Over the course of a season, that means they're worth about -8 goals, or more than one win. And they're doing that against the easiest competition possible. Some are worse, much, much worse.

  • Three of the bottom four teams on the list - Nashville, Anaheim, Minnesota - are the three worst Fenwick close teams in the league.
  • Add Edmonton (the worst team in the league over the last 60 days) to the three teams above and you have the four lines who are being outshot at 1.9 to 1 or greater. Again, consider the ramifications: these lines are playing the easiest possible competition and they are still being outshot at a nearly 2-1 ratio. The fastest way for those four teams to improve at even strength is to never, ever play their fourth lines.

So there you have it. Using the 2011-12 data, the average energy line, playing against other energy lines with an occasional shift against a top nine line, will cost a team 1.3 wins per year. Some will cost their teams even more - over 3 wins per year. Less than one-third of the lines will make a positive contribution to their teams.

The 1996 Dallas Stars were first referred to as having an energy line, rather than a fourth line. If you know of an earlier reference, please let us know.