Thursday, October 23, 2014

No Enforcers and no brawls make the Flyers...something, something...

by Rob Riches
Phanatic Hockey Contributor 

When the Flyers took the ice earlier this month for the 47th season in franchise history, they did so with something missing since the pre-Broad Street Bullies era -- the lack of a true, heavyweight enforcer on the roster.

Yes, the Flyers, of all teams, were left without an enforcer after waiving Jay Rosehill at the end of training camp. Rosehill was subsequently sent to Lehigh Valley, where he leads the Phantoms in undisciplined play and the resulting penalty minutes through three games, with 24.

The Orange and Black also gave veteran enforcer Zack Stortini a look during training camp after signing him to a one-year deal on July 2, and he recorded 48 penalty minutes through four games. Stortini was more of a long shot to make the roster, however, as he spent the last three seasons bouncing around the American League, with Milwaukee, Hamilton and Norfolk then couldn't seem to reallyu hold his own in exhibition-play bouts where he came out on the losing end.

Rosehill is in the second season of a two-year deal that pays him $675,000 this year. Stortini is also scheduled to hit the free agent market in July, after earning just over the league’s minimum salary at $575,000 this year.

The lack of an enforcer in the Flying P seems odd, especially for a team led by a former fan-favorite enforcer in Craig Berube (the franchise’s ninth-all-time leader in penalty minutes), and the NHL’s all-time leader in goaltender PIMs, Ron Hextall. But it’s part of a recent trend throughout the league, where teams are phasing out goonery and pugilism on their fourth lines in favor of speed and skill.

This season, the Flyers started with Zac Rinaldo and Jason Akeson on the fourth line, centered by newcomer Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. With a foot injury to Vincent Lecavalier, Bellmare’s seen time on the second line, though Lecavalier’s expected to return to the lineup early next week.

Akeson’s also spent games against Dallas and Chicago in the press box, as a healthy scratch, but returned to the lineup Wednesday against the Penguins. Blair Jones has played in his place on the right wing. Jones has established himself as a gritty, two-way forward with some scoring prowess during his time in the AHL, but at the pro level with Tampa Bay and Calgary, he’s never been anything more than a bottom-six player. Jones has just three fights in his NHL career (including the notorious Vancouver/Calgary line brawl this past January), while Akeson hasn’t dropped the gloves at the professional level.

The feisty Rinaldo may be the closest to an enforcer the Flyers have, but at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, he’s no heavyweight. In his first full season in 2011-12, Rinaldo accrued 232 penalty minutes, but last year, he finished with 153 -- a stark decline.

You may remember Rinaldo’s reputation when he was first pressed into NHL duty during the 2011 playoffs against Buffalo. He spent that season in Adirondack with the Phantoms, and had more suspensions (four) than goals (three) in 60 games played. Rinaldo played just two games in that playoff run –- one against the Sabres, one against the Bruins –- and finished with no points, a minus-1 rating and 12 PIM.

Aside from the stark decline in penalty minutes, Rinaldo’s looking for further ways to elevate his game. One such way is through drawing penalties. He’s drawn between 1.2 and 2.3 penalties per game in his three seasons, with his best coming in 2011-12, when he drew 2.3 per game. Additionally, he’s taken between 2.3 and 3.1 penalties per game, with his best coming, again, at 2.3 per game in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. In seven games this season, he’s taken 3.7 penalties per game while drawing just 1.2, coupled with six penalty minutes.

Aside from Rinaldo, the Flyers have the ever-capable fists of Wayne Simmonds and the Schenn brothers, if need be. Back in their first Flyers seasons in 2011-12, Rinaldo and Simmonds actually led the team in fighting majors, with 15 and 10, respectively. The Flyers also iced two other guys who could drop the gloves that season in Tom Sestito and Jody Shelley, who finished with seven and six, respectively.

This season, just two Flyers -- Luke Schenn and R.J. Umberger -- have dropped the gloves. That number will certainly change as the season goes on. Under Laviolette and Berube a season ago, they amassed a total of 45 fighting majors last season, 10 of which came from Rosehill. They may not meet that number again this season, but given the unpredictable nature of non-staged fights in hockey, anything is within the realm of possibility.

Regardless of how you feel about enforcers and fighting in today’s NHL, the phasing out of the enforcer’s role was all but inevitable. It's not a total deterrent, however. John Scott was picked up by San Jose from Buffalo, and, while the Bruins dumped Shawn Thornton, the Bruins entered the week having racked up the most penalty minutes in the league with 108.

The Orange and Black may not have a true heavyweight on their roster this year, but they have players who have proven to be more than willing to drop the gloves when the time comes. They also have players in waiting up the road in Allentown in case they’re needed. Sure, the Flyers have a storied history and tradition of pugilism – it’s essentially what the team was founded on and whose exploits become distorted with the mythos as the years go by. But in this era of the NHL, speed and skill wins.

The Flyers’ decision to forgo a true enforcer on the roster, for now, represents strides they’re taking to drag their organizational philosophy into the 21st Century.
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