The New Jersey Devils’ fourth line once again came up big in the deciding game 6 against the New York Rangers. Halfway through the first period, Ryan Carter opened the scoring with his second goal in as many games, pouncing on a Stephen Gionta rebound after a great pass from Steve Bernier. These three players have unexpectedly combined for 9 goals in the playoffs so far. Heck, Gionta now has more points this postseason than Patrik Elias.
The impact their fourth line has had is impressive, particularly since the members of the line weren’t even on the team to start the season.
It’s an odd trio of players. There’s a former 1st-round pick who never lived up to his promise, an undersized career AHL-er, and a fourth-line grinder with a Stanley Cup ring. When the Devils brought each of them into the lineup during the regular season, it was the result of an injury elsewhere in the lineup and was done without fanfare. But the three of them have combined to became an effective line that has made the most of limited minutes.
While some teams fourth lines are where you’ll find rookies or fading veterans, all three are in what should be the peak of their careers: Gionta and Carter are 28, while Bernier is 27. So all three have a decent amount of professional experience, but each took a very different path to the New Jersey Devils. Let’s take a look at how this fourth line was brought together.
Steve Bernier is the biggest name of the trio, if you discount that Stephen Gionta shares his far better brother’s last name. Bernier was selected 16th overall in the first round of the 2003 NHL entry draft, widely considered to be one of the best drafts in NHL history. Chosen immediately after Bernier was Zach Parise, who has had a slightly better career.
After making a splash in his rookie season with the Sharks, scoring 27 points in 39 games, Bernier has declined every season since. He went from a player who was given a $2.5 million offer sheet by the St. Louis Blues in 2008 and was expected to play alongside the Sedin twins in Vancouver, to a player who scored just 15 points in 68 games on a terrible Florida Panthers team in 2010-11. The Panthers chose not to qualify him as an RFA, sending him to unrestricted status.
With no contract offers coming his way, Bernier was left with few options. He was invited to attend the Devils’ training camp, likely because of Peter DeBoer, who coached him in Florida. The Devils offered Bernier a two-way contract, which he rejected, hoping that another team might offer him something better. Instead, he ended up signing with the Albany Devils, New Jersey’s AHL affiliate.
Needing forward depth thanks to injuries to Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac, New Jersey signed Bernier to a two-way deal on January 30th to fill in on the third line. He stuck around, playing 32 games during the regular season. He has already matched his regular season point total in the playoffs with 6 points and is also one of the team leaders in hits in the playoffs, with 45 through 18 games.
Bernier has always shown momentary flashes of the player he could have been, but those flashes have been too few and too far apart. On the Devils’ fourth line, however, he doesn’t need to be a consistent offensive threat; he just needs to be reliable. The moments where he suddenly demonstrates great vision or a nice pass are now added bonuses rather than frustrating glimpses.
While Bernier was expected to be a premier power forward, Ryan Carter never had the burden of those expectations. He went undrafted and spent two years in the NCAA, where he showed enough talent to earn a contract from the Anaheim Ducks in 2006. He played no games during the regular season for the Ducks, but was called up for the playoffs, skating in 4 games to get his name on the Stanley Cup. His agent was likely thrilled, as he could add “Stanley Cup winner” to his arguments in every contract negotiation from then on.
Carter was traded twice during the 2010-11 season, ending up in Florida under Peter DeBoer. Apparently DeBoer liked what he saw, as when the Panthers waived Carter, he recommended that the Devils pick him up. Injuries had come just short of putting defenceman Mark Fraser on left wing for the Devils in the game prior to claiming Carter, so more forward depth was clearly needed.
DeBoer continued to like what he was seeing from Carter, keeping him in the lineup all season. Carter played 65 games for the Devils during the regular season, but has matched his regular season goal total of 4 in just 18 playoff games. Carter’s simple north-south game seems to be particularly well-suited to the playoffs: he had 5 points in 10 playoff games for the Ducks in 2008-09.
Unlike Bernier and Carter, Stephen Gionta never played for the Florida Panthers. In fact, he’s been a member of the Devils organization for his entire professional career. He has not, however, been in the NHL, having spent the last 7 years in the AHL playing for the Albany Devils aka. Lowell Devils aka. Albany River Rats. Gionta actually holds franchise records for games played, points, goals, and assists with the Albany Devils, which underscores just how long he’s been toiling in the minors.
Gionta got a brief shot in the NHL last season, playing 12 games for New Jersey, but failed to make an impact. He didn’t make the same mistake this season: he was called up for the final game of the regular season and scored his first career NHL goal. Better yet, it was the gamewinner.
While he was only called up because of a minor injury to David Clarkson, Gionta got a chance to stick around as Jacob Josefson was out several weeks with a broken wrist. The 5’7″ Gionta has not slowed down, scoring 3 goals and adding 4 assists, which is 7 more points than his brother scored in this year’s playoffs.
Also, he put this expression on Mike Rupp’s face:
As a reminder, Mike Rupp is 6’5″, 240+ lbs, meaning he’s nearly a foot taller and 60 lbs heavier than Stephen Gionta.