What if NHL teams could only dress 17 skaters?

Last Thursday, columnist Roy MacGregor again questioned the necessity of the NHL fourth line. Calling it "hockey's vestigial organ," MacGregor suggested that the game would be improved and "excessive fighting" would be minimized if teams simply dropped the bottom three forwards from the lineup altogether. From the Globe & Mail:

They are often called energy lines — though that should be because they zap it so quickly out of a game that has had good flow until they end their shift, almost invariably, with the scream of a referee's whistle.

Their precious few minutes of play would be gobbled up happily — and far more effectively — by the superior, more-skilled players on the other lines.

MacGregor notes that the NHLPA would never consent to trimming that many jobs, but there are other considerations besides the unemployment rate.

Tom Benjamin points out that the fourth line exists for more than mere goonery:

[...] Fourth lines do more than merely fight. They play mostly in garbage time which allows stars to rest and avoid injury once the game is long won or lost. In a long season, a laugher can be a real break. More importantly they provide insurance against injuries during a game. What happens in a game if a couple of the nine forwards get hurt? Even one injury would necessitate some real scrambling to keep rolling three fresh lines. NHL teams can't compete with two lines.

In other words, even if MacGregor is correct that NHL teams could get by with three lines, any fewer than nine healthy forwards would be a nightmare.

As fluid as things might be with everyone in good shape, an early injury or two and the remaining forwards will be zombified by the third period.

With that in mind, Benjamin suggests an amendment to MacGregor's idea:

Why not drop just one skater? As long as rosters stay at 23, the NHLPA can't object too much if only 17 skaters are allowed to dress. It keeps the benches full enough to guard against injury and it sets up some interesting choices for coaches. Some will drop down to five defensemen once in a while and dress four lines. Others will dress a defenseman who is capable of taking some shifts as a forward. Making sure the extra two forwards can kill penalties (or even serve on the power play) will also be a popular choice.

Now this is a much more interesting suggestion, not only because it wouldn't cost the league any jobs, but because it completely changes the dynamic of the NHL lineup card.

While some stubborn coaches might simply double-shift one of their top nine forwards to fill out a fourth line, that seems unlikely, the other possibility is that coaches effectively roll three lines (as many already do, and MacGregor wants) and convert the 13th and 14th forward roles into utility spots -- places for guys who don't necessarily fit into the rotation, but are still on-hand to perform a specialized role.

Some rule changes create new player archetypes, and this could be one of them. Let's look at a few.

The Everyman

Because these utility players would serve as injury insurance, versatility would become a hot commodity. Many coaches would dress at least one everyman -- a guy that can play either forward or defense, neither well, but either well enough -- so that they could use the other utility spot for something more specialized.

Think of a guy like Dustin Byfuglien, who has been successfully converted from defense to forward and back again. A 17-player NHL roster would likely produce a number of Dustin Byfuglien lites (both in terms of weight and skill).

The Seventh Defenseman

It isn't that uncommon for a team to dress seven defenders as it is, especially in the playoffs when an injury on the blueline can throw the entire defensive unit out of wack. With utility spots, many teams would never risk dropping down to five defensemen again, dressing a seventh defender for every game, just in case.

I'm imagining a player like Aaron Rome of the Vancouver Canucks -- a low-maintenance guy that can come in cold, play either side in a pinch and keeps things simple.

The Powerplay Specialist

Or, a team could go for broke, dressing a d-man whose defensive ability may be suspect, but who excels as a powerplay quarterback.

Here, I'm thinking of a guy like Cody Franson, who has plenty of offensive upside but was deemed expendable in Nashville because he could be a defensive liability. If teams could dress a powerplay specialist like that without having to factor him into the regular pairings, I imagine some coaches would jump at the chance. Plus, this would allow Nicklas Lidstrom to play well into his fifties.

The Kid-in-Training

Some coaches might use the additional space for prospect development. Rather than incorporate a raw rookie into the line combinations, coaches could dress the kid and, for the most part, staple him to the bench unless an injury occurs. He'd hardly play, but you'd hear all about how he "soaks up knowledge" and "learns the game day routine."

This might be ideal for someone like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who has a head for the game but his man-body hasn't quite arrived. The Oilers could keep him around to learn the game without playing it too much, and when he fills out, he could step in to regular duty sooner.

The Shootout Specialist

A lot of these kids might double as shootout specialists. Or, teams might scour other leagues for crazy danglers, then drop them at the end of the bench until the game ends in a tie. I see a scenario where scouts are told to scour Youtube for prospects.

The Faceoff Specialist

Puck possession teams such as the San Jose Sharks put a premium on every draw. With that in mind, they might use the opportunity to dress a faceoff specialist -- a guy who wins draws, then immediately changes.

The Anaheim Ducks have experimented with converting speedy centre Andrew Cogliano to the wing, largely because he's terrible in the circle. With a faceoff specialist at the end of the bench, they could keep Cogliano in the middle and only send him out after his pinch-hitter wins the draw.

The Net Presence

In the playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks experimented with John Scott as the powerplay net presence. Scott isn't much of a skater or stickhandler, but he's immense, which made him a reasonable fit. One imagines more teams would dress giants with limited skillsets for this same purpose, provided they didn't have to worry about incorporating him into their line combinations.

Who cares if Dustin Penner comes to camp out of shape if he doesn't have to keep up with anyone? Just drop him in front of the net on the powerplay and let him create screens, bat in rebounds, and swivel like a lighted museum display.

The Supergoon

And finally, when it comes to vestigial players, the goon himself remains an option. The driving motivation for MacGregor's initial suggestion was to rid the game of these players, many of whom would never be included in a team's top three lines.

But, if the coach has the ability to dress two extra guys, he could use one spot on an everyman and the other on a goon. And if that goon doesn't have to play on a regular line, his skating ability would be even less important. The result? Supergoons -- guys whose hockey skills are minimal but whose fighting ability is insane. Soon the UFC would join the list of scouted leagues.

Granted, if this idea creates the gooniest goons of all time, it sort of defeats the purpose of MacGregor's initial suggestion.

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