What does a team expect from its fourth line?
For some, the fourth line brings energy and physicality to the game, bootstrapping their more skilled teammates into the fray. Other teams use the line to ease prospects into the game as played at the NHL level, while still others just use it to fill out a roster, limiting minutes for players to mid-single digits.
This year’s Dallas Stars appear to being using it to store players for future use. Jason Dickinson at center, until an injury opens up a spot in the top six. Corey Perry idling away his time until a power play, or even Mattias Janmark, just because there isn’t a logical other spot for him at the moment.
Perry and Janmark get their additional minutes on special teams, but with Roope Hintz out injured, the center of this grouping has been Justin Dowling.
At 29 years of age, Dowling isn’t likely to develop into something more than what he’s shown. In 33 games, he still hasn’t found the back of the net, and has a total of three NHL assists. He’s under contract through the end of next season at a Cap Hit of $750,000.
What Dowling does do is help control the game. He doesn’t drive much offense, although he is a sneaky good passer. Defensively, he’s active on the backcheck and maintains position between the puck and the net. This type of reliability is valuable to a team that tries to limit scoring chances and protect itself from randomness.
Dowling is also, per Natural Stat Trick, moderately positive in shot share, is break even on the faceoff dot, and holds his own in generating and eliminating high danger scoring chances.
Once Hintz returns, Dowling will likely return to a position in the press box. There isn’t a similar, safe option on the Texas Stars, and any of the prospects currently sitting in the AHL are probably better served playing big minutes there while they continue to develop.
The way that the Stars use their fourth line, Dowling is an effective and cost controlled option as center/healthy scratch.
Of more importance to team success with Hintz out of the lineup is the makeup of the top six.
After Hintz went down, the Stars elevated Jason Dickinson to the top six, but in doing so, they also rearranged the lines themselves. Prior to the injury, Dallas was rolling out Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov on the first line, with Hintz centering Denis Gurianov and Joe Pavelski.
In an attempt to spread out the less experienced players, Gurinov joined Seguin and Radulov on the first line, with Dickinson playing with Benn and Pavelski on the second line. Dickinson has responded well to his move up the with a goal and a primary assist, his first points of the season.
Given the concerns and visibility given to the productivity of Benn and Seguin, one simple, tried solution would be a return to a top line that features the Stars “big three”. Breaking them apart has been tried a number of times so far this season, for a variety of reasons, but on each occasion it has resulted in a decline in productivity.
Gurianov has shown that he can produce in the top six, and Dickinson has upped his game since being elevated into Hintz’s slot. The Stars may be better served by letting Dickinson take on the Hintz center role on the second line, and return to the general forward lineup that was in place during the heart of Dallas’ point streak.
Slotting Dickinson back to the fourth line center position and a healthy scratch for Dowling is the obvious play once Hintz returns. In the meantime, Dowling is handling his time in the lineup as could be expected. Dickinson has earned trust as a fill-in on the top six and the Stars shouldn’t be rearranging both the first and second lines to accommodate the change.