VINNY LECAVALIER wasn't holding his breath.
Deep down, he had a sense that the final 10 games of a miserable season would whimper away without him in the Flyers' lineup, barring an injury.
"I can't really predict what would have happened," Lecavalier said. "To tell you the truth, it crossed my mind, yeah. Nothing I can control or predict. You can't go crazy over it, I'm not the one making those decisions."
He will rejoin the lineup this afternoon against San Jose. But even with Wayne Simmonds joining R.J. Umberger on the season-ending injury list, Lecavalier did not pretend he would finally be given a shot to play on the top two lines.
"Even if I hope or whatever, it's pretty clear from all year where my spot is, where he's been putting me," Lecavalier said, referring to his fourth-line role, as determined by coach Craig Berube. "We'll try to finish strong as a line and play well as a line."
Lecavalier, 34, appears to be a man at his wits' end.
He acknowledged yesterday he entered training camp with the Flyers in September after a "tough summer because of all the uncertainty" and two trades that "didn't happen."
For whatever reason, Lecavalier and the Flyers seem to go together like oil and water. Three games into his first season, Peter Laviolette was fired as coach. Three games into this season, he broke his foot.
October feels so long ago, it's tough to remember Lecavalier actually began the season with three points in as many games.
He missed seven games, scored in his first game back, and hasn't come close to even sniffing a top-six role in the Flyers' lineup.
The notion that Lecavalier has not been given a fair chance in his lineup is wrong, according to Berube, even though the line combinations and minutes doled out would dictate otherwise.
"I don't think he's gotten an unfair shot," Berube said. "That's your opinion. You can write it that way.
"He hasn't produced. He gets power play time, too. He hasn't produced."
The amazing thing is that, even while playing out of position on right wing, Lecavalier actually did produce with two guys who had never been full-time NHLers before this season.
Berube made the highest-paid player in NHL history a healthy scratch for the first time in his career on Dec. 2 in San Jose. Lecavalier then sat six additional games in a row, the same time Michael Del Zotto was scratched and mismanaged.
When he returned, skating with Chris VandeVelde and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, the fourth line clicked. In a 20-game span between Dec. 21 and Feb. 5, that line combined for 12 goals and 10 assists at even strength.
In the same 20-game span, Jake Voracek and Claude Giroux combined for four goals and six assists at even strength.
The fourth line's production slowed at a certain point, Lecavalier committed a particularly egregious third-period turnover against Columbus that led to a goal, and he was out of the lineup again two games later against Nashville on Feb. 21 - one of the teams close to trading for him last summer.
"It was frustrating, but I wasn't that surprised, because of what happened 10 games before that," Lecavalier said. "I thought I was playing my best hockey in a few years. The production was up and down, things were going in. The minutes or opportunities didn't seem to go up much."
If production was Berube's qualification for ice time, his options to replace Lecavalier were puzzling. Lecavalier has been frequently subbed out for Zac Rinaldo, who has eight goals in 216 career games. Even during that 20-game hot stretch, Bellemare has one goal and two assists, compared with Lecavalier's five and five.
"We weren't out there to just try and kill time," Bellemare said. "We had a game that we were not at our best level, and Vinny was the one who paid the price, when, especially me, it wasn't my best game. It's a tough situation.
"I've definitely learned a lot from him. He played his whole career at such a high level, and this year, everybody knows has been such a difficult year. He still comes to the rink every day with a smile and works hard."
Berube said he didn't put Lecavalier at center this season because "it's a lot of work; you have to really skate to get back and play both ends of the ice, and it takes a lot of effort." Then, in his next breath, Berube said Vinny did not have "an effort problem."
"I said it's a lot of work to play both ends like that," Berube said. "That's all."
He was a little more blunt in an assessment of Lecavalier at a "town-hall meeting" with season-ticketholders on Thursday night. When asked about Lecavalier, Berube said "older players' skills diminish."
Lecavalier thinks he is closer to the 30- to 40-goal scorer he was earlier in his career. Judging by 17 games as a healthy scratch, Berube thinks Lecavalier is closer to the country club than the former.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, nearer the 20-goal campaign Lecavalier posted last season, despite a lower-back fracture.
"I feel like I can still produce in this league," Lecavalier said. "I'm 35 years old, I feel like I trained my whole career to extend those years and still feel good. It's not a matter of not having legs or anything like that. I was never a really fast guy. I've always had the same speed.
"I feel good. Maybe it's just a better opportunity that I need."
Will that be in Philadelphia next season? Lecavalier still has 3 years left on his $22.5 million deal, at a $4.5 million salary-cap hit.
The Flyers' first preference would be to trade him, particularly to a small-market team looking for value, since $12 million of his contract has already been paid.
Another option is a standard contract buyout. Such a move would cost the Flyers approximately $1.75 million in dead space on the salary cap for the next 6 years (two-thirds of the salary owed over double the term), but make Lecavalier a free agent. The buyout period begins 48 hours after the Stanley Cup final ends.
His other alternative is to retire. With nearly $130 million earned in pure salary, money isn't an issue for Lecavalier. That would, of course, prevent him from continuing the career he still thinks is ahead of him.
"I don't know what's going to happen," Lecavalier said. "It's not even something I really want to talk about right now. I still believe I can produce in this league. I want to play. I want to honor the rest of my contract. It's definitely not my decision, even if I were to ask [to be bought out] or not ask. You know, it is what it is. I don't want to bash anybody. [Berube] does what he thinks is best for the team. I love this team. I love this organization. For sure, I'd like to come back. I still think I can do a lot more than sitting."