By Harry Allison
One of the mysteries of the Flyers’ season is the status of Vinnie Levacalier, who has seemingly been in coach Craig Berube’s doghouse for at least a month.
The term “healthy scratch” should be next to Vinnie’s picture in the Flyers’ media guide.
Finally, Lecavalier appears on the verge of returning to the Flyers’ lineup, Berube strongly hinted yesterday.
Perhaps Berube is just desperate enough. The Flyers lost Tuesday at home to Tampa Bay and are now mired in 15th place out of 16 Eastern Conference teams with only 27 points. They are seven points behind three teams tied for eighth place, the last playoff spot.
“He looks hungry to me and he wants in there, and that’s a good sign,” Berube said.
After the Flyers’ 3-1 loss to Tampa Bay Tuesday night, Berube sounded like he was very seriously considering reinserting Lecavalier to play fourth-line center and on the second power-play unit tonight against the Panthers.
Lecavalier scored his last goal against the Panthers in Sunrise, Fla., on Nov. 1, his first game back after missing seven with an ankle injury. Since that night, he has no goals in 12 games and no points in his last five.
“I just want to play,” Lecavalier said on Monday.
Lecavalier was benched for the first time as a healthy scratch for a Dec. 2 game in San Jose, a first for his career. He hasn’t played since, although one of his seven recent missed games officially is due to a lower-body tweak that he called “nothing bad.”
On Monday, Berube indicated that he had no idea when Lecavalier would play again. A morning skate and optional practice since, the coach apparently has had a change of mind.
“I thought the beginning of the year he was skating really well … and his work ethic was really noticeable,” Berube said. “I’m noticing that skating again.”
If Lecavalier plays tonight, the odd-man out almost certainly will be one of two fourth-line forwards, right wing Chris VandeVelde or center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
“Well, I think I have to give him opportunities with skilled players, whether it’s power play or whatever,” Berube said. “So I’m going to look at the lines. I like the lines the way they are, so I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll have to think about it.”
The line of questioning took off after Berube was asked if his possible lineup switch for Thursday meant that he was thinking about playing defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who has been a healthy scratch three games in a row.
“I’m not going to change the D,” Berube shot back.
“Yep, yep,” the coach said.
This was the first time Berube had even hinted that he was thinking about giving another opportunity to Lecavalier, a 34-year-old, four-time All-Star who has two goals and six points in 16 games this season.
What changed, Berube was asked. Has he looked better in practice the last few days?
“Yes he does,” Berube said. “He’s skating really well. He’s working hard.”
Eventually, Berube mentioned that if Lecavalier returns he’ll play his natural center position.
Lecavalier hasn’t played since he was the Flyers’ fourth-line right wing in two Thanksgiving weekend games against the Rangers, and in his last he was frustrated about getting just 5:56 of ice time in a loss at Madison Square Garden.
Lecavalier will get more ice time in his next games, Berube vowed.
“Definitely,” he said. “I want to get him more than that, for sure. … He does make plays and he can score. I’m going to try to get him obviously more ice time.”
Berube admitted that the Flyers need Lecavalier in the lineup and contributing offense with better two-way play than he’s shown most of his two seasons with the club.
Berube didn’t say this, but it’s pretty much fact that the Flyers are stuck with Lecavalier, who is in the second season of a five-year, $22.5 million contract that carries a high $4.5 million cap hit. Due to his contract and recent production, it would be next to impossible trading him.
“We need Vinny and the team to work together to find a place for him that works,” Berube said.