Thursday, January 22, 2015

Ronnie's folly has run out of time

Once upon a time, not too long ago, I was taken to task by someone who used to roam the Philly radio landscape, but has since been relegated to internet streams, about questioning the hockey intelligence of Flyers head coach Craig Berube.

Here is but one example of how Chief is constantly plotting against success: Zac Rinaldo's existence in the lineup and how often he's used.

In short, the naked stats tell one side. Since arriving in 2011, his overall point production has dropped from nine in 66 games, to five in 32, then four in 67 last year and now a sparse two assists in 36 contests.

This year, Rinaldo has seen double-digit total ice time in seven contests, including three in a row against the Devils, Canucks and Sabres. In fact, if he hadn't been kicked out of Tuesday's game for the hit on Kris Letang, his 3:53 TOI over the game's first 15:36 would have easily translated to another 10-plus-minute track.

At the time of his ejection, Rinaldo had logged more ice time than the NHL's leading scorer and super secret bad-ass, Jakub Voracek, against an opponent who might have dressed some bleep-stirring fourth-liners but who was running rings around the hosts with a heavy shot advantage until that hit knocked the Pens off kilter.

In Saturday's win at Buffalo, Rinaldo clocked in at a season-high 13:41, outpacing Vincent Lecavalier (10:22), P-E Bellemare (12:42), and Michael Raffl (12:59) in total TOI among all forwards. It should be noted that the Flyers were only engaged on special teams six times in the contest, three on the advantage and three times shorthanded, so refraining from using an even-strength player is no excuse.

The debacle with Vancouver saw everyone's favorite heart and grit skater appear on ice for 13:03 after sitting out 11 of the previous 12 games, more than Pebbles (11:28), Chris VandeVelde (11:48), and only eight seconds short of Lecavalier (13:11) and 48 seconds back of Michael Raffl (13:51). This, against a Canucks team which no longer employs the likes of Max Lapierre, Aaron Volpatti or Dale Weise.

Against Carolina on Dec. 13, in a 5-1 win against a team that couldn't intentionally stir up trouble if they wanted to provide a jolt, Berube chose to play Rinaldo what was then a season-high 13:01, again more than VandeVelde (12:46), Bellemare (12:50), and just 15 seconds less than Voracek, who posted a goal and an assist.

Jason Akeson spent 12 games here, admittedly miscast by Chief, and failed to record a point despite the old eye test proving he supplied better speed, puck movement and positioning. His top TOI was 11:27 in the Flyers' home-opening loss to the Devils, and he only hit double digits twice more, topping out against the Panthers at 10:16.

And though his 75 combined PIM through 36 games amounts to 2.08 per contest -- the lowest average of his brief career despite usage -- he has drawn a mere fraction of penalties this season against 22 committed. It's a similar scenario from last year, when he was responsible for 3.0 penalties taken per 60 minutes while drawing on average just 1.7 on other teams.

Plus, you can't even put the puck in his hands to try and generate offense. According to a piece on Pattison Avenue released earlier today, Rinaldo fails to control the puck once entering the offensive zone in almost 22 percent of his carries -- a failure rate higher than his other line mates and the worst of any forward on the club. If it's obvious to stats people, and it's obvious to this "Neanderthal," then it must be obvious to the reclusive Ian Anderson -- and we're left to wonder how much influence he holds with the front office so early into his tenure with the club.

And, the kicker, as Craig Forsythe (formerly of Flyers Faithful) pointed out yesterday, Rinaldo is one of just 11 forwards in NHL history to have played over 200 games and produce 20 points or less. He is the only one still drawing an NHL paycheck. Others still floating around on professional contracts are Cam Janssen of the Albany Devils and Ryan Hollweg of HC Plzen of the Czech Extraliga.

Ultimately, Berube is doing what he is forced to do night in and night out: given the players on his roster in sickness and in health, he's trying to cobble together some semblance of order and match up as best he can with the opposition. Which isn't great, but there's one man at the top of the totem pole most responsible for keeping the Zac attack in Philadelphia.

General Manager Ron Hextall.

Among all the talk of patience and growth and development and the welcoming of analytics to the new front office era as he took over last Spring, Hextall's first actual contract addition was a slap in the face to all that rosy rhetoric.

When Rinaldo's two-year extension was announced on Sept. 2, it essentially hamstrung the club from a personnel standpoint. A guy on a multi-year deal can't just sit on the bench or be an excessive healthy scratch, but since Hextall already had Jay Rosehill on the second year of his extension buried with the Phantoms and Zack Stortini picked up off the scrap heap in Allentown, sending Rinaldo to the AHL would be a case of too many "energy" guys spoiling what was supposed to be a reformed and more dynamic roster than the one sported in Glens Falls.

While we wait and wonder and fans begin to speculate wildly on which Flyer is most likely to be jettisoned for cap reasons or performance and what value can be returned, Hextall's wait-and-see attitude on the development of the season is detrimental. No. 36 objectively and statistically the most useless regular player on this roster, and should be parted from the franchise -- not in a rush of bloviation the wake of an ill-conceived hit or repeat offenses which result in league discipline.

Forget about graceful explanations about emotion vs. stupidity, there is little defense in keeping Rinaldo for nebulous intangibles. Even if it's equally ridiculous to keep a Stanley Cup winner and owner of a multi-year extension in Lecavalier pinned to the bottom-most of the bottom six, the former Lightning captain's skill set is light years ahead of Rinaldo's.

Hextall can publicly justify the painful Hartnell-for-Umberger swap as one for cap relief down the road, but there's no accurate defense for re-upping Rinaldo. His first order of business in any roster reshaping is to undo that mistake. The sooner, the better.

And whether Rinaldo's gone or not, there's no sense in hand-wringing, soul searching and pointed questioning of team or league culture.

Two in a Million

Despite the satisfaction of beating the Penguins at home, the Flyers hit the All-Star break with a "losing" mark of 19 wins, 22 regulation defeats and seven losses beyond regulation. It's the first time since the disastrous 2006-07 season that they've been behind the eight-ball record-wise at this point in the schedule.

Only nine times in the club's 47-season history did they start slow enough that they stood below the .500 mark by the time the league paused to salute its best players. And only twice before have they emerged from that valley to reach the peak and snag a postseason berth.

The results are as follows:

1968-69: 11-23-11 finished 20-35-21, 3rd place West Division. Lost in first round.
1969-70: 10-17-15 finished 17-35-24, 5th place West Division. Did not make playoffs.
1970-71: 17-20-6  finished 28-33-17, 3rd place West Division. Lost in first round.
1971-72: 13-24-8 finished 26-38-14, 5th place West Division. Did not make playoffs*
1989-90: 18-23-7 finished 30-39-11, 6th place Patrick Division. Did not make playoffs &
1991-92: 14-21-9 finished 32-37-11, 6th place Patrick Division. Did not make playoffs.
1992-93: 18-26-8 finished 36-37-11, 5th place Patrick Division. Did not make playoffs.
2006-07: 11-31-5 finished 22-48-12, 5th place Atlantic Division. Did not make playoffs.

* - Lost in Buffalo on final day of regular season where a tie would have secured a playoff spot.
& - Eliminated on the second-to-last day of the regular season

The only two seasons in which the Orange and Black recovered enough to play beyond early April occurred in the aftermath of the NHL's expansion beyond the Original Six. In both '69 and '71, the top four teams in each division were guaranteed postseason spots. In the former year, eight of 12 teams made the playoffs and eight of 14 in the latter.

According to Hockey Reference, the Flyers currently have as much a chance to play beyond April 7 as Lloyd Christmas had to romance Mary Swanson. Their playoff-berth probability sits at 2.8 percent and their chance at a wild card is slightly worse at 2.5 percent. Of teams analyzed, only the New Jersey Devils (0.6%) and Arizona Coyotes (0.1%) had a lesser chance at the postseason.

Shorthanded Mass Murder

Before an unexpected 6-for-6 performance against Pittsburgh two days ago combined with Buffalo's futility, the Flyers' penalty kill was 30th out of 30 teams in the NHL. It was at such a loss of function that the 1993-94 Ottawa Senators started to creep into the conversation. Now, a potentially historic failure is simply terrible at 74.4 percent efficiency.

The Sens were a second-year club back then, while the Flyers are established. And besides, these two poor PKs don't compare with the worst of the worst in league history.

That distinction belongs to the 1979-80 Los Angeles Kings. They of the famous "Triple Crown Line" and donners of the all-gold home uniforms and all-purple road duds. LA actually made the playoffs that season (as 16 out of 21 teams were selected) with a 30-36-14 record before a four-game preliminary-round loss to the eventual champion Islanders, but killed penalties at a stupefying rate of 67.7 percent.

Next worst, the 1982-83 Kings, who fell from the upper echelon of the Smythe Division early in the season to last place (27-41-12) thanks to a 68.24 percent rate. Here's the rest of the worst:

1978-79 Washington Capitals (24-41-15) 70.25 percent 5th place, Norris Division. Did not qualify.
1984-85 Vancouver Canucks (25-46-9) 70.53 percent 5th place, Smythe Division. Did not qualify.
1978-79 Colorado Rockies (15-53-12) 70.62 percent 4th place, Smythe Division. Did not qualify.
1981-82 Los Angeles Kings (24-41-15) 71.29 percent 4th place, Smythe Division. Lost in 2nd round.
1974-75 Washington Capitals (8-67-5) 71.34 percent 5th place, Norris Division. Did not qualify.
1985-86 Los Angeles Kings (23-49-8) 71.7 percent 5th place, Norris Division. Did not qualify.
1977-78 Vancouver Canucks (20-43-17) 71.74 percent 3rd place, Smythe Division. Did not qualify.

The bolded year represents the season where the Kings lost one-third of the Triple Crown Line in Charlie Simmer for most of the regular season, got him back for the playoffs and beat the first-place Oilers in a high scoring five-game Smythe semi which included the "Miracle on Manchester." However, in that era, the top four clubs in each division gained playoff berths regardless of record.

Philadelphia's single-worst, season-long penalty-killing performance occurred during the 1981-82 season, when a team split between Pat Quinn and Bob McCammon behind the bench operated at 74.3 percent. Those first Cooperall-wearing Flyers surrendered a team-record 102 power-play goals in 397 short-handed chances during a super-charged era for offense.

The only other seasons they dipped below 80 percent on the kill are 1978-79 (78.8), 1979-80 (79.3), 1983-84 (76.9), 1984-85 (79.8) and 1992-93 (77.4). Common denominator among these lean years is strong play while down at least one skater, with short-handed goals in those years being 16, 15, 16, 23 and 15, respectively.

By the way, the fewest SHGs in one full season occurred in 1990-91 (2) when the kill performed at 80.9 percent.

A Final Thought

After careful deliberation, I've decided to cement the partnership between myself, Tim Panaccio (CSN Philly), Rob Parent (Delco Times) and Sam Carchidi (Inquirer) -- heretofore known as the Four Horsemen of the Idiocalypse -- and hold monthly meetings of the Plus-Minus Club. We'll be in the press commissary for a combined 120 minutes from 6 to 6:30 yakking over spring mix, grilled salmon and blondies, topped off with Sierra Mist.

In case you're wondering, Randy Miller has applied for membership but he's under review.

If you recall, on Monday, the good folks who helmed the Broad Street Hockey account decided to waste time with an ultra-didactic post detailing why plus-minus is a bogus stat, lumping me in with the other three beats who may or may not have a grip on certain things, based on single tweets from each. 

The genesis of this firestorm was a completely sarcastic note, which they practically begged for after whining about a pretty awful set of circumstances for one player, and then manually RTed as if it I were completely serious. Bless you guys, and your pointed little heads. That "fact" had a long way to travel in a parabolic arc to zoom right over and past the noggin of whoever was the admin that day.

Collin, Travis, and to whom it may concern, you managed to do more for me in a span of several minutes than I've been able to do in weeks, which is simply amazing because neither of you nor the BSH account even hate follow anymore. I should be stupid more often. Give me some advanced warning next time, when in your humorless zeal, you decide to try and mock the mocker, so I can brace for the welcome spike in followers and well wishers.

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