Wanna blog? Start your own hockey blog with My HockeyBuzz. Register for free today!

Meltzer's Musings: Finding a Fit for Lecavalier

May 5, 2014, 9:08 AM ET [555 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT
At the time the Flyers signed Vincent Lecavalier last summer following his amnesty buyout by the Tampa Bay Lightning, the majority of the reaction around Philadelphia was positive. One frustrating year later, the tune has changed.

As with everything else in hockey and life, context is needed.

Last season, when the Flyers missed the playoffs, there was a widespread belief that the team had missed the presence of Jaromir Jagr both on and off the ice following his departure via free agency in the summer of 2012. Additionally, the Flyers had just used an amnesty buyout on the immensely well-liked Danny Briere, whose best games tend to be during the postseason.

Lecavalier, who just turned 34 on April 21, is two-and-a-half years younger than Briere and eight years younger than Jagr. Although some were uncomfortable with the five-year duration of the deal the Flyers gave Lecavalier, the player still projected (presuming good health) to be a productive offensive player for most of that span.

The cap hit on Lecavalier's Flyers contract, $4.5 million, was $2 million less than Briere's bought-out contract. The hope was that the team could get more production out of Lecavalier than they got from Briere in his final two regular seasons and at a lower cap cost.

Like Briere, Lecavalier is a highly respected player off the ice. He is a positive, upbeat man who exudes class and dignity. Lecavalier was an icon both in Tampa Bay and to many of today's younger forwards who grew up admiring his skills. Signing Lecavalier filled a
dressing room leadership group position.

It should also be said of the Lecavalier deal that the Flyers were far from the only NHL team that was interested in the player last summer. He was courted by numerous clubs with similar offers to the one he accepted in Philadelphia. Lecavalier accepted the Flyers' offer in part because he was looking forward to playing in an offensively oriented style of hockey preached by then-coach Peter Laviolette.

According to Flyers' general manager Paul Holmgren, Laviolette was an integral part of recruiting Lecavalier to come to the Flyers. The coach laid out a plan that prominently included Lecavalier as a key cog in the Philadelphia attack after Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.

Alas, things didn't work out for Lecavalier this season. The Flyers had a disastrous training camp and got off to an 0-3-0 start in the regular season, which hastened the firing of Laviolette and the promotion of Craig Berube from assistant to head coach. Berube implemented a more defensive-minded system that was more reliant on back pressure, puck support and improved quickness.

Lecavalier had a good first month of the 2013-14 season from an offensive standpoint. Even as the rest of the team struggled to score goals, Lecavalier posted five goals and two assists in the club's first eight games. That included a hat trick in a road game on Long Island, which ended up being the Flyers' only hat trick of the regular season (Wayne Simmonds had one in Game Six of the playoff series against the New York Rangers).

Despite his offensive productivity, however, Lecavalier struggled in other areas. His defensive play as the second line center was below average; not all that different, in fact, from the trade-off they made when the much smaller Briere played in that role. Although muscular of frame and powerful once he got his legs churning, Lecavalier's speed was below average. That created some problems with pacing at even strength.

Lecavalier started to have injury issues in late October. First, he missed three games with a groin pull. Then he suffered a facial injury in the Nov. 1 line brawl with Washington best remembered for Ray Emery's beatdown of Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby.

In December, Lecavalier suffered what were initially called back spasms and then diagnosed as a non-displaced fracture in his lower back. He missed nine games but returned ahead of schedule, as he was initially projected to be out until after New Years.

For much of the season, especially after his return, Lecavalier was a nomad in the Flyers lineup. He was tried pretty much everywhere in the lineup, and was ineffective in virtually every role that Berube attempted to use him. That was especially true when Lecavalier played wing.

Struggling at second line center, Lecavalier was also tried at both right wing and left wing. He skated on a wing with Giroux on the top line for a little while and Sean Couturier on the third period. At times, Lecavalier played left wing on the second line, with Brayden Schenn in the middle. At other times, Lecavalier and Schenn switched spots. They never did find much chemistry, regardless of which one centered and which one played left wing.

As a last resort, Lecavalier was demoted to center the fourth line. He continued to be used on the second-unit power play at five-on-four and the first unit (replacing Jakub Voracek) in five-on-three situations. That actually proved to be Lecavalier's most effective spot and he had a mini-surge down the stretch to finish the regular season with 20 goals (eight on the power play) and 37 points (13 on the power play) in 69 games.

The 20-goal campaign wasn't hopelessly off the pace the Flyers needed, although the hopes had been more in the 25 to 28 goal range with at least 10 to 15 more assists than Lecavalier produced. The bigger problem was that Lecavalier was a non-factor at best and a lineup liability at worst when he wasn't scoring to offset other issues.

Lecavalier was a team-worst minus-16 at even strength during the regular season. This was largely due to his skating issues. Once he got on the wrong side of the puck, he struggled mightily to get back into the play and assist on the backcheck. His defensive zone coverages have never been one of Lecavalier's strengths, anyway.

As the season went along, it became clear that Lecavalier was effective primarily in stationary situations. He still has a fearsome one-timer from the right circle and can finish plays when he uses his anticipation to get open near the right post and the puck comes to him. The more skating he has to do, the less effective he is.

In the playoffs, Lecavalier had a weak series against the Rangers. He struggled at bothe ends of the ice. started out the series on the fourth line in Games One and Two, was promoted back to the second line in Games Three through Five and then finished out the series on the fourth line.

Lecavalier scored a long-distance power play goal in Game Five of the Rangers series and also had a secondary assist on Jason Akeson's Game Two power play goal. Those were pretty much his only highlights. Lecavalier was minus-five in a series New York dominated at even strength.

More tellingly, Lecavalier skated only 9:28 of ice time in Game Six and 8:45 in the team's 2-1 loss in Game Seven. When the chips were down and the season was on the line in elimination games, Berube did not feel he could trust Lecavalier to make a positive difference on the ice.

That had to sting a proud player like Lecavalier, but he is not one to complain publicly. It also could not have been a pleasant decision for Berube. The coach respects Lecavalier as much as the next hockey person, but has to do what he feels gives the team the best chance to win. The truth of the matter is that Berube tried everything he could think of to find the "right" spot for Lecavalier, but nothing really worked.

As the Flyers start to plan for next season, they need to be dispassionate and honest with themselves. Lecavalier needs to play center, and it needs to be on the second line. Brayden Schenn also is better at center, and needs to be on the second line. In either case, the line needs a little more speed and two-way presence.

Despite Holmgren's insistence that it is "easy for centers to play wing", most Flyers natural centers who have been moved to wing have had difficulties when playing away from their preferred position. It would be counter-productive to continue to try to jam square pegs into round holes by shuttling either Lecavalier or Schenn to the wing to find spots for both players in the lineup.

What's more, Lecavalier was not signed for five years at a $4.5 million cap hit to be a fourth line player and secondary power play specialist who slides up to the top unit on 5-on-3s. He needs either to be a second line center with wingers who can cover for his other deficiencies, and with Wayne Simmonds a fixture in his current second-line RW and netfront top power unit role that would mean a left winger other than Schenn or Scott Hartnell.

The best option the Flyers may have this offseason is to ask Lecavalier if he's willing to waive his no-movement clause and try to find a trade partner even if the team has to absorb a portion of his cap hit and/or take on another team's problematic contract. Although no teams will be beating down Philly's door, there would still likely be some interested teams. Lecavalier was a rather one-dimensional player this season, but there are still clubs in the league that could use his shot on their power play and could also use a respected veteran presence in their dressing room. Health is a concern but Lecavalier is not "too old" to bounce back, whether it is here or elsewhere.

If Schenn gets traded (which would only happen as part of a deal that would bring a significant player back this way), Lecavalier could once again become part of the second-line mix if the right linemates could be found for him. Those are a lot of "ifs."

Vincent Lecavalier's first year in Philadelphia did not go how anyone would have wanted it to be; not the team and not the player himself. There are tough decisions to be made about what to do going forward. Any option, including standing pat, will entail significant risk by the Flyers. That's how it goes.
Join the Discussion: » 555 Comments » Post New Comment
More from Bill Meltzer
» Quick Hits: Draft Countdown, Flyers Daily, Alumni, Grossmann, TIFH
» Quick Hits: Abols, TIFH
» Quick Hits: Couturier, Alumni Pickleball, TIFH
» Quick Hits: York, Laine Rumors, TIFH
» Quick Hits: Hart, Flyers Daily, TIFH