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Fleischman: Now, It's Up to the Players

Saturday, 12.05.2009 / 5:10 PM / News
By Bill Fleischman  - philadelphiaflyers.com
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Fleischman: Now, It\'s Up to the Players
Ken Hitchcock was too demanding and abrasive. Bill Barber wasn’t an X’s and O’s coach. John Stevens was a players’ coach, but fans perceived him as not bringing enough heat to the Flyers’ locker room. It makes you wonder when the Flyers players will find a coach who suits them.

This just in: Peter Laviolette, who replaced Stevens on Friday, is a demanding coach who will ask a lot of his players who have underachieved lately. He has the credentials to prove that his way works, at least for a while. Laviolette won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. He also coached the ’06 U.S. Olympic team.

Credit several Flyers for admitting it was their fault the Flyers were in a 1-6 slump when Stevens was fired. Danny Briere noted the Flyers aren’t getting to loose pucks in front of the net. “We have a pretty big team, big bodies up front,” Briere said. “I just think we’re not using that to our advantage. We’re always a step behind, or a defenseman gets a body or a stick on us.”

Injuries have cost the Flyers the contributions of Simon Gagne, Darroll Powe and Blair Betts. The Betts-Ian Laperierre-Dan Carcillo combination was a very effective fourth line. With Powe and Betts sidelined, Laperierre has been centering Andreas Nodl and Jon Kalinski. The drop off as an on-ice force has been noticeable.

All teams have injuries, though. My sense is, some established Flyers realize there are few Phantoms pushing them for jobs. Pro athletes often think they are playing hard, but they frequently are a half-step behind the play.
Peter Laviolette runs the Flyers' pregame skate, his first as head coach, on December 5, 2009 at the Virtua Center Flyers Skate Zone. (Flyers Photos)
 
General manager Paul Holmgren says he made the coaching change because he thinks the Flyers need a “different voice.” Stevens’ voice was fine earlier in the season when the Flyers started 12-5-1. They were expected to continue winning after they began a western swing with a victory in Los Angeles on November 18. However, they followed by losing three in a row. Since defeating the Islanders at the end of the road trip, the Flyers have dropped three consecutive games. In those three losses, they’ve scored a mere two goals.

With games in hand, the Flyers aren’t collecting points that would keep them on pace with Pittsburgh and New Jersey. Holmgren decided he couldn’t wait to see if the team would resume winning under Stevens. At firing time, the Flyers are tied for 11th in the Eastern Conference, three places out of playoff participation. Since the Flyers were a pre-season Stanley Cup contender, failure to make the playoffs would be unacceptable.

I’ve known Holmgren since he was a Flyers player. He’s a good man and a good hockey executive. Critics say Holmgren paid too much to sign Briere, but remember at the time the Flyers needed more creative forwards with speed.

I know it pained Holmgren to fire Stevens, a friend. “It might be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Holmgren said. But he did it in an effort to jump-start the Flyers. For the sake of Holmgren and the Flyers, Laviolette better be the right choice.

Laviolette’s teams play an aggressive style. He also believes in discipline, on and off the ice. About his taskmaster reputation, the Massachusetts native said, “I think that you have to be tough on players. I also believe in the human side of things. If you can get to the human side, then you can be tough.”

Many sports writers won’t acknowledge the fact, but they often judge a coach by how he handles media relations. Stevens was as cooperative as any coach I’ve dealt with. When I’m at Flyers practices, I try to stay out of the way of the beat writers who are gathering information for their daily stories. When Stevens finished with the beat writers, he always had time for my questions.

That said, the important criteria for a coach in professional sports is how many games he wins. Stevens’ record as Flyers coach was 120-109-34, which these days in the NHL is almost Scotty Bowman-ish. Remember, that record includes the Flyers franchise-worst 56-point finish in 2006-07 after Stevens replaced Hitchcock early in the season. The following season, the Flyers rebounded with a remarkable 95-point season, reaching the Eastern Conference finals. So Stevens knew what he was doing, then.

Laviolette, 45, said all the right things at his introductory press conference: working for the Flyers was at the top of his list; he’s aware of the high expectations for the Flyers; he wants the Flyers to play aggressive hockey. He also made a classy remark about whatever success the Flyers have in the future “John Stevens had a hand in that print and the path we took.”

Holmgren has placed a Stanley Cup-winning NHL coach behind the Flyers bench. Now it's up to the players to deliver.


Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1982, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.

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