There's really no denying that Vinny Lecavalier has been a disappointment since coming over from Tampa Bay this offeseason with a 5-year, $22.5M contract in hand. His play at even-strength was horrendous (here's a good breakdown of how bad things were from late February), and the only thing saving his production was his power-play scoring on the 2nd unit. Before the March 28th game against Toronto, Craig Berube made a decision that many of the advanced statistic-leaning Flyers fans had been in favor of for some time: he demoted Vincent Lecavalier to the 4th line. The move seemed to be acknowledging a sunk cost: Vinny had struggled as a 2nd line C and struggled even more when moved to the wing, and the Flyers were doing what they could with him. Instead, the move has seemingly revitalized Lecavalier and strengthened the 4th line, which was once a weakness for the Flyers.
Vinny's Corsi For% for the season is an abysmal 44.8%, ahead of only Andrew MacDonald, Adam Hall, and Jay Rosehill among Flyers. Yet, since moving to the 4th line (a stretch that spans back to March 28th), his Corsi For% has been a shockingly competent 50.9%. If we exclude the April 5th game against the Bruins (where Lecavalier was bumped back up to the 2nd line), that number jumps to a robust 55.2%.
|Game||40's CF||40's CA||40's CF%|
|3/28 vs. TML||11||8||57.90%|
|3/30 vs. BOS||10||7||58.80%|
|4/1 at STL||6||12||33.33%|
|4/3 vs. CBJ||12||7||63.20%|
|4/5 at BOS**||10||21||32.30%|
|4/6 vs. BUF||16||5||76.20%|
|4/8 at FLA||6||10||37.50%|
|4/10 at TBL||13||11||54.20%|
The Flyers as a team have also been better possession-wise during this span, despite the results not always being there (3-3-2 record). They've played the last 8 games at a 50.7% CF%, slightly better than their 49.8% CF% for the season.
|Game||Flyers CF||Flyers CA||Flyers CF%|
|3/28 vs. TML||48||40||54.50%|
|3/30 vs. BOS||53||41||56.40%|
|4/1 at STL||37||51||42.00%|
|4/3 vs. CBJ||49||44||52.70%|
|4/5 at BOS**||40||62||39.20%|
|4/6 vs. BUF||56||28||66.67%|
|4/8 at FLA||36||55||39.60%|
|4/10 at TBL||49||37||57.00%|
It's not totally fair to subtract the totals from the Boston game here since every Flyers' line that game was dominated, but if we do remove that data (because Lecavalier wasn't on the 4th line), they've been even better possession-wise the past several games at 52.6%.
Lecavalier's counting stats have also been better recently. In 7 games on the 4th line (again, removing the Boston game), he's tallied 5 goals and 7 points on 24 shots. It's important to note that of those 5 goals, one came on a power-play and another came in a 6-on-5 situation, while one of his assists came on the power play as well. However, even 3 goals and 4 points at even-strength over a 7 game stretch is a dramatic improvement from his previous work at even-strength.
Despite playing with a relatively subpar revolving door of linemates in Adam Hall, Zac Rinaldo, Jay Rosehill, and Tye McGinn, the 4th line as a whole has seen dramatically improved production since Lecavalier joined it, both in terms of counting statistics as well as possession. Lecavalier's linemates have combined for a goal and 5 points on 19 shots in the 7 games that Vinny has spent on the 4th line (again, excluding the Boston game):
|Game||Linemates||Linemate Goals||Linemate Assists||Linemate Points||Linemate Shots|
|3/28 vs. TML||Hall/Rinaldo||0||1||1||0|
|3/30 vs. BOS||Hall/Rinaldo||0||1||1||3|
|4/1 at STL||Hall/Rinaldo||0||0||0||3|
|4/3 vs. CBJ||Hall/Rinaldo||0||0||0||5|
|4/6 vs. BUF||Rosehill/Hall||0||0||0||4|
|4/8 at FLA||Hall/McGinn||1||2||3||2|
|4/10 at TBL||Hall/McGinn||0||0||0||2|
This is a significant increase in both the scoring and number of shots generated by these players compared to their season rates. The impact is even more notable in the possession department.
|Game||Linemate CF||Linemate CA||Linemate CF%||4th Line's CF||4th Line's CA||4th Line's CF%|
|3/28 vs. TML||22||23||48.89%||33||31||51.56%|
|3/30 vs. BOS||20||7||74.07%||30||14||68.18%|
|4/1 at STL||15||26||36.59%||21||38||35.59%|
|4/3 vs. CBJ||26||13||66.67%||38||20||65.52%|
|4/6 vs. BUF||23||15||60.53%||39||20||66.10%|
|4/8 at FLA||13||24||35.14%||19||34||35.85%|
|4/10 at TBL||23||17||57.50%||36||28||56.25%|
Considering Hall's CF% this year is 43.8%, Rinaldo's is 45.7%, McGinn's is 45.5%, and Rosehill's is 42.1% (not to mention Lecavalier's 44.8%), a 53.9% CF% for the 4th line over this stretch is a simply remarkable total that would make it one of the best 4th lines in the league as well as one of the Flyers' best lines. To put that 53.9% CF% figure in perspective, the only Flyers players with a higher CF% than that are Jakub Voracek, Kimmo Timonen, and Scott Hartnell.
(pic via FanSided)
So we've established that both Vinny and his linemates are playing better in terms of both point production and possession since his move to the 4th line. But why is this the case? I see two possible explanations, one that is qualitative and one that is quantitative.
The qualitative explanation: Vinny is back playing center. He never seemed to look very comfortable playing wing, especially not the off-wing (and he said as much this season). Now he's back at the pivot and he's the focal point of his line. Play runs through him. He looks more comfortable, feels more comfortable, and he's performing better as a result.
The other explanation is that he's facing much weaker competition as a 4th-line C. Per ExtraSkater, Lecavalier's ranks of opponent quality faced in each of his 7 games on the 4th line: last, 2nd-last, 2nd-last, 3rd-last, 7th, last, 2nd-last. And the game in which he was 7th was against Buffalo, where nearly every player is terrible. Vinny is most certainly not the elite player capable of dominating any opponent that he once was, but even after his decline he's still able to perform at a solid level against weak competition.
So what to do with Vinny going forward? For the rest of the regular season and the postseason, there's no doubt that he should stay as the 4th-line C. He makes the 4th line much better and gives the Flyers 4 lines that can beat you in any given game. He can still get 2nd-unit PP time in addition to his 4th-line role, and he won't weigh down any of the top-9 forwards in this scenario. Down the road, the team would seem to have two options: try to trade Lecavalier or keep him in this spot. A trade would figure to be the ideal option with Scott Laughton waiting in the wings, but Lecavalier does have a NTC. Additionally, the trade market for Vinny would figure to be limited, as he is aging and still has 4 seasons left at a cap hit of $4.5M per year. They would likely need to retain salary to move him, and for a Flyers team that is tight up against the cap that would certainly not be the ideal option. The other option would be to embrace the "Vinny as 4th-C" experiment and keep him there in his same role next season. Assuming Steve Downie leaves and Michael Raffl is put in his place on the 3rd line, the Flyers could roll out a forward unit consisting of a Vanek/Moulson type with Giroux and Voracek, Schenn centering Hartnell and Simmonds, Couturier centering Read and Raffl, and Lecavalier centering some combination of Laughton, McGinn, and Rinaldo. That would be a very deep forward corps with potentially 8 players scoring 20+ goals.
In an ideal world, Vinny would have thrived as the 2nd-line C centering Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds from the get-go and we wouldn't be having this discussion. And no, it's not the most effective allocation of salary cap resources to have your 4th C making $4.5M against the cap. But Lecavalier's performance has drastically improved since being demoted (along with the performance of his linemates), and keeping him down there is the best course of action for the Flyers for the rest of the season and potentially beyond.