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Flyers give Zac Rinaldo contract extension, seem destined to have ineffective fourth line

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Zac Rinaldo's contract extension doesn't bode well for those who would like the Flyers to roll four consistent, effective forward lines on a nightly basis.

Elsa

A full summer before he was set to hit restricted free agency, the Flyers have signed Zac Rinaldo to a two-year contract extension. It's a slight raise over the $750,000 he earns per season on his current contract, and when it comes to money, it's not really a concern. At the absolute worst, the Flyers can just ditch him in the AHL at no cost. So whatever.

But there are two big questions here: Why were the Flyers in such a rush to sign him, and what does his signing mean for the team and the construction of their fourth-line both this season and beyond? Or, more so, their philosophy regarding how they intend to use their fourth line?

Rinaldo's contract doesn't expire until next summer, and it's not as if teams will be clamoring to offer sheet him next June. But we all know how much the organization likes Rinaldo -- he's been a favorite of theirs and a fourth-line staple for going on three years now, ever since his debut in the 2011 playoffs -- largely because of his attitude and his hitting ability, which is certainly among the tops in the NHL.

But even the quote from Rinaldo in the team's official press release shows that he wasn't expecting this contract extension to happen so soon, and hints that he's not the quality of player he thinks he can be.

"I'm surprised that we'd even started to talk about it so early, but I am thrilled," Rinaldo said. "Philadelphia is where I started my NHL career and this is where I want to be so I am really happy.  This definitely gives me a lot of confidence by the Flyers showing that they have confidence in me.  I know they want to see me get better as a player, and this is the place to do it."

"I know they want to see me get better as a player."

He's not a good player (yet?)

Here's the thing about Rinaldo: he's talked all along about how he thinks he can be a more-effective player, how he thinks he can be more than just a human wrecking ball. He says he can be a penalty killer and a positive even strength hockey player and a goal scorer and whatever else, and admits that he needs to be better than what he currently is, despite his high hit totals and "energy" attributes.

Yet everything that happened last season goes contrary to his ultimate goal of becoming more than just a fourth-line plug. We got into this more in-depth a few months back when we reviewed Rinaldo's 2013-14 season, but the basic idea is this:

The best teams in hockey right now are not afraid to give regular shifts to their fourth-line players, because those players are more than old-fashioned "energy" or "heart-and-soul" guys -- they're guys who bring actual skill to the table. The Flyers have at least a handful of players who can fit that description to a T, including some of their young, promising ones. Can Craig Berube and Ron Hextall really look someone like Scott Laughton in the eye this September and say "we're going to send you to Lehigh Valley because we need to keep Rino on the team"?

If they think that they can, then go for it. Work with him and pray that he learns something. Rinaldo's just 24 next year, he's got a great work ethic, and he's got the physical tools to be a productive fourth-liner if his head's in the right place. But after a step-back year in terms of discipline, they need to be really sure about his head being in the right place.

And if they aren't? Then Rinaldo should have to fight for his spot on the roster in training camp just like everyone else on the fringe. Because another season like this one he just had won't cut it, and the Flyers need him to be better -- no matter how much fun he is to watch.

This isn't to say that Rinaldo doesn't have value, or that a guy who delivers more than two hits per minute he's on the ice doesn't have any value on the ice. This isn't to say that a guy like that doesn't have value on the bench or in the locker room or on the team plane or at team dinners or whenever the hell else.

But Rinaldo himself is admitting he needs to be a better player, and on the ice, we saw him get worse as a player last season by just about every metric: possession, offensive production, discipline, minutes played per game, etc. He's basically admitted that he's currently not a player who can be a member of an effective fourth line.

Effective fourth liners help win Cups

To my eye, Rinaldo has a lot of work to do just to prove that he belongs on the roster this coming season, let alone that he's deserving of a two-year contract extension. With guys like Scott Laughton, Jason Akeson and maybe some others (hopefully) in the mix for a roster spot, is what Rinaldo provides really more valuable than having a fourth-line that's capable of playing a regular shift every night?

No matter how much you like Rinaldo (and I do like him, and think he's a really fun part of watching the Flyers night in and night out), you have to admit that he's not a player who can play a regular shift on an effective fourth-line akin to those on recent Cup-contending teams like the Kings, Blackhawks, Rangers or Bruins. Not in his current undisciplined, off-the-handle form.

Just look at this chart of how teams use their fourth-liners. Look at the purple lines. The Flyers are ranked 24th in the NHL in terms of minutes given to their fourth line. The Blackhawks are second, while those other recent Cup finalists are all very high as well. It's not a one-to-one comparison where bad teams are at the bottom and good teams are at the top, but I don't think you could argue that a) those recent Cup contenders haven't had strong fourth lines or b) that rolling four lines effectively is in any way a bad thing.

fourth lines

And it makes sense: if your fourth line can contribute, you're going to win those battles. It's not like those 8-to-12 minutes per game are meaningless, and we saw in the first round of last year's playoffs how the Rangers fourth liners ripped the Flyers to shreds. In fact, the Rangers fourth line was a huge reason why they made it out of the conference and into the Final.

More than anything, I want the Flyers to win the Stanley Cup, and it's been proven in recent years that deep teams with four strong forward lines have the best chance at winning. I'm afraid that by committing to a guy whose game is counter to that strategy means, they're admitting that the players who can help create a competitive, effective fourth line have less of a chance to make the roster this year and in future years if their competition is an "energy" guy like Rinaldo.

I hope that's not true. I hope this contract extension doesn't mean that, and that Laughton or Akeson or whoever else will still have just as good a chance to beat Rinaldo for his roster spot as they otherwise would. That, if he's not one of the best 12 forwards on the team in camp, he won't be one of the top 12 forwards on opening night.

But knowing the Flyers and their history, both recent and ancient, I'm not really optimistic.