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New York Rangers missing a possession-strong fourth line

(Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports)

An integral part of the successful equation that brought the New York Rangers from middling mediocrity to the Stanley Cup finals is conspicuously absent this year: a possession-strong fourth line that devoured tough minutes. While the team’s injury troubles have been well documented in the first month, its fourth-line ills have gone mostly unnoticed.

Last season, the team iced a typical fourth line of Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore and Derek Dorsett. At even strength, Boyle started 23.4 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, Moore started 25.1 percent of his shifts in the defensive and Dorsett started 33.1 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone. The small disparity counts for game situation line shuffling.

Conversely, this year, the only Ranger that’s played the entire season on the bottom forward line is Tanner Glass. In 11 games this season, Glass has started 57.6 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone at even strength, more than double what Boyle and Moore did last year.

Compare the Rangers’ player usage chart from 2013-14 with the player usage chart from 2014-15, courtesy of Hockey Abstract and Behind the Net:

The reason this is so important? Usage throughout the rest of the lineup.

The Rangers sheltered their top offensive forwards as the fourth line acted as a special teams unit for the most part, drawing hard assignments in heavy defensive zone starts.

Deployment of the fourth line matters, especially for a team that ranked near the top of the league in Corsi, Fenwick and shots on goal last year. The Rangers won with elite goaltending and possession, the latter of which will suffer as their stars take defensive-heavy draws.

Now, their top players and offensive talents Derrick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello and Carl Hagelin are being asked to take more defensive zone starts, which takes talented players away from goal-scoring areas.

A big reason for the change has to be the reluctance to rely on the fourth line to give the team possession positive minutes. Tanner Glass, with his negative 11.5 percent corsi-on percentage this season, should not be relied on in the defensive zone. He plays without the puck too much. Giving a player a start in the defensive zone that doesn’t have an aptitude for finding and possessing the puck is a recipe for disaster.

New York has an expensive, three-year anchor on their bottom pairing and that’s not only bad news for Glass’ linemates, it’s bad news for the guys that are usually relied on for offense.

Glass has a body of work that falls in line exceptionally well with what he’s done on the ice this year: an on-ice Corsi around 40 percent.

Through the first 11 games this season, his offensive zone start percentage is as high as it’s ever been. The below chart, courtesy War on Ice, shows a steady Corsi and some sheltered starts in 2014-15:

The New York Rangers will need to sort out their fourth line woes quickly. Burying offensive talent in the defensive zone and showcasing a player like Glass offensively greatly impacts what made the team successful last year.

The return of Derek Stepan, which will slot Dominic Moore back to the fourth line center role, could force Glass into heavier defensive zone situations. But is it unrealistic to think that even with a guy like Moore steadying the fourth line, Glass won’t drag the unit into possession purgatory.

Patrick Kearns is a freelance writer seen at VICE Sports, The Fourth Period Magazine and others. He is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.