With the Philadelphia Flyers history as far as bold, sometimes reckless personnel decisions at any point during a season or offseason, when the team started 0-3 one could not help get the sense that something drastic was on the horizon. It wasn’t so much that the Flyers lost their first three decisions by a combined 9-3 margin, there just seemed to be a general lack of intensity or even interest among a roster that is generally looked upon as one of the more talented in the NHL. Sure enough, early Monday morning, upper management made as strong a statement as they could, sending a shockwave around the hockey community.
Laviolette has been replaced as coach source says
— Tim Panaccio (@tpanotchCSN) October 7, 2013
As more of the professional hockey media arose, the reaction to yet another drastic decision made by the Flyers brain trust only intensified. Despite only being three games into the season, many of the problems that had plagued the Flyers over the past few seasons as they struggled for consistency appeared well before the season began. During their seven-game preseason schedule, which is generally seen as a more legitimate exhibition compared to NFL preseason, the Flyers struggled to a 1-5-1 record. Even with the notable free-agent additions of the offseason on the roster, the same schematic issues that had been exposed by strong defensive teams in the past were as apparent as ever. The inability of the defensive unit to engineer an effective breakout from the defensive zone led to lengthy struggles in the Flyers’ own end, often times resulting in premiere chances for the opponent. The team’s supposedly gifted crop of forwards fumbled over themselves as they tried to engineer scoring chances, often coming up empty-handed. Even the team’s power play, which was still a strength despite Philadelphia’s disappointing 2013 campaign, was not the crisp, efficient unit it had been in the past. As the Flyers regular season schedule inched closer, their struggles in the preseason increased the sentiment that the team’s difficulties may just be beginning.
When the Flyers opened their season at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs, it looked like their issues in the preseason were just a matter of circumstance. They came out strong in all areas of the ice against Toronto and, had it not been for a scintillating performance by goalkeeper Jonathan Bernier, the Flyers may have come away with an opening night win. However, when they were unable to build upon a 1-0 lead, the team’s old problems started creeping up on them. When finally stared in the face by a talented, disciplined, physical Maple Leafs team, the Flyers withered and eventually crumbled in defeat.
The next two games were far less inspiring than the first. Penalties and lack of discipline was the tune of defeat in the Flyers second game in Montreal, where former fan-favorite Danny Briere got the better of his old club in his new barn. Finally, Sunday evening, the Flyers faced a Carolina Hurricanes team that was also looking for their first win of the season. Once again, the Flyers came out extremely flat and allowed the Hurricanes to blitz starting goaltender Steve Mason with 17 first-period shots. Trailing 1-0 and only registering five shots against another team that did not make the playoffs was not a solid indicator of a team with the intensity to turn around a bleak situation. Even when defenseman Luke Schenn tied the game up and seemed to inject some life into the Flyers bench, the momentum was short-lived when a Schenn turnover allowed the Hurricanes to score the eventual game-winner. Even with an entire third period to try to muster a comeback, the Orange-and-Black managed only three shots on net and fell by just a 2-1 margin. It was a one-goal defeat that felt like a seven-goal massacre. Clearly, Flyers owner Ed Snider had seen enough and acknowledged that something drastic had to occur.
The team announced an 11 A.M. press conference with news to be announced. While the news about Laviolette’s firing came down well before the availability, everyone was still interested to see how Snider, General Manager Paul Holmgren, and new coach Craig Berube would come off regarding the news. Needless to say, there was a substantial air of disappointment in the legendary owner of the Flyers, as he spared little by way of softening any blows when he discussed how he felt about the team under the now-former coach.
Ed Snider is back out. He says Flyers had “one of the worst training camps I’ve ever seen.”
— Dan Gelston (@APgelston) October 7, 2013
Elsewhere in the press conference, when confronted in terms of what many think to be an aged perspective when it comes to winning in today’s NHL, Snider snapped back at the collective media, defending the approach that has gotten him to the point where he is today.
Ed Snider says “We dont need a fresh perspective”
— John Clark NBC10 (@johnclarknbc10) October 7, 2013
In addition to the formal announcement of the termination of Peter Laviolette, Holmgren and Snider also announced that former assistant coach Craig Berube would be hired as the full-time coach of the team, effective immediately. Prior to the press conference, many speculated whether Berube would hold the label of interim coach while the team searched for a more high-profile replacement. That was put to rest when, in the wake of the Laviolette news, it was made clear that Berube was the man for the job moving forward.
When it comes to Laviolette, it can be tough to be critical considering what he was a part of when he started out in Philadelphia. Peter Laviolette took over for a disappointing Flyers team a little less than a third of the way through the 2009-2010 season. After a difficult adjustment period, the Flyers carried late season momentum into a playoff-deciding showdowns with the Rangers on the last game of the season. In as memorable a regular season showdown as one can remember, the Flyers won in a shootout, with their head coach’s fiery reaction on the bench becoming one of the images to associate with one of the more special teams in Philadelphia sports lore. The following playoff run may stake claim as the most memorable in this city without resulting in a championship. Laviolette and the Flyers navigated their way through devastating injuries and shaky goaltending all the way to a 6-game defeat in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Chicago Blackhawks.
In the Flyers now-legendary three games-to none comeback against the Bruins in the conference semi-finals, Laviolette’s time out call when the team was down by three goals in game seven became as legendary a coaching decision in Philadelphia history. Had the Flyers gone on to win the Stanley Cup, one could argue that Laviolette would have had more to do with his team’s championship than any other coach in the city who had won a title.
The team had an extremely successful 2010-2011 campaign, as they built on the previous seasons success securing the second seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. After a hard-fought first round victory against the Buffalo Sabres, the Flyers faced the same Bruins team that they had made an unfortunate part of history the year before with their miraculous comeback. There would be no miracle that season though, as the eventual champion Bruins swept aside the Flyers in four games, and the winds of change started swirling.
After awarding both players with long-term contract extensions, the Flyers traded away captain Mike Richards and assistant captain Jeff Carter to the Kings and Blue Jackets, respectively. In return, the Flyers received prolific prospects: Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, and Jake Voracek, as well as the 8th pick in the upcoming draft. When the Flyers selected Sean Couturier, a player many thought was as NHL-ready a player as there was in the draft, many saw the trade as a way to re-energize a team that may have reached a plateau. The drastic offseason continued when, even on the heels of an extremely impressive rookie season by goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, Ed Snider and the organization decided they had waited long enough on finding a top-talent goaltender. In what is now considered the worst personnel decision in Flyers history, the team inked Phoenix Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to a ludicrous 9-year/$51 million deal. Many felt that Laviolette was not the biggest fan of the young Russian netminder, as he showed little faith in him when faced with adversity in the team’s 2011 playoff exit. The future Vezina trophy winner would be moved to the backup role behind the eccentric Bryzgalov by the start of the 2012 season.
Early on, it looked as if the Flyers offseason makeover may have paid off in both the short and long-term. While Bryzgalov was far from a world-beater, many of the Flyers young talents were producing at a blistering pace, well beyond their expectation at the time. Claude Giroux was a player who seemed poised for stardom, as his dazzling play paced the Flyers success. The team, and perhaps most notably Laviolette, achieved cultural significance on the HBO series 24/7 in their preparation for their Winter Classic showdown with the Rangers. Laviolette’s fiery, no-nonsense attitude made him an instant favorite on the show and he, among several others, burst themselves into prominence.
As the 2012 playoffs approached, hockey fans around the country began salivating over the impending matchup between the Flyers and their in-state rival Pittsburgh Penguins. In multiple games towards the end of the regular season, the games would become marred with fighting and penalties. In perhaps its most intense moment of the regular season, Laviolette responded to a late-game hit on Danny Briere by reaching over the divider between both team’s benches in an attempt to exchange pleasantries with Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. Laviolette proceeded to call Bylsma, “gutless” and the entire world got what they wanted when the playoff matchups were released and showed the Penguins and Flyers playing each other in the first round.
In a series that can only loosely be described as ‘good hockey’, but was as entertaining a sequence of games as one can remember, the underdog Flyers came out on top of the star-studded Penguins in six games. Despite being seemingly overmatched in both terms of talent and experience, the Flyers appeared as the cooler team, often forcing the Penguins into foolish penalties and erratic play while the Flyers young group of skill players lit up Marc-Andre Fleury. Fueling the fire, Laviolette proclaimed forward Claude Giroux as ‘The Best Player in the World” following his heroic performance in game six, dispatching of one who many feel is the deserving holder of that title, Sidney Crosby. While the Flyers series win over the Penguins was entertaining on the surface, I feel as if it was the beginning of the end for this era of Flyers hockey.
The Flyers were eliminated by the New Jersey Devils in five games. After a dramatic game one victory that mirrored some of the games against the Penguins, the Flyers aggressive, free-wheeling style became their own worst enemy. The disciplined Devils waited out the Flyers and pounced on mistakes. For four straight games, the Flyers young contributors looked more and more like their age as their poised, albeit perhaps less-talented, opponents surged ahead. The Flyers were eliminated in five games, going down with a whimper in front of their home crowd.
When a lockout shortened the 2012-2013 campaign, many seemed to forget the troubling nature of how the Flyers lost to the Devils. That paired with the fact that the team went winless against a very similar Rangers team during the regular season was overlooked while optimists gushed over the team’s win over the Penguins in the first round. All of this seemed to blind people to the fact that the Flyers were coming off a highly unsuccessful offseason, in which they came up empty in the pursuit of several high-profile free agents to try to mask some of their glaring problems. They also decided that having a backup goalie the profile of Bobrovsky was unnecessary, and that the team should try to get value for him while it was still high. They traded the young netminder to the Columbus Blue Jackets for three draft picks (none in the first round). They opted for a cheaper Brian Boucher to back up Bryzgalov as he became the unquestioned starter. Very quickly, it was realized that nothing was going to hide the fact that the Flyers were a flawed team. The promising group of young players, with the exception of Voracek, regressed at varying levels and the makeshift defensive corps struggled in front of an inconsistent Bryzgalov. Despite managing to win some games on talent and grit alone, the team’s major problems were magnified against superior competition and very often the Flyers looked downright embarrassing in defeat. As it became clear that the team would not make the playoffs, many wondered if Laviolette would be retained at season’s end. A late-season surge aided by the play of newly acquired Steve Mason arguably saved Laviolette’s job.
In yet another drastic offseason, the Flyers decided to cut ties with two of their more notable players. Ilya Bryzgalov and Danny Briere were given their walking papers, along with a collective sum of just under $50 million. The team acquired free agents Mark Streit, Ray Emery, and Vincent LeCavalier to try to bolster what they thought to be a roster with the talent to contend. While several coaching vacancies were filled by intriguing names around the NHL, the Flyers used a full offseason to try to get things back under the right direction under Laviolette. It is clear now though, that no one in this equation had a prayer and to have brought Laviolette back at all was a mistake that the organization is months too late in admitting.
Despite being a genuinely likable coach from a fan and media standpoint, Laviolette’s style and scheme has extreme flaws. When Chris Pronger was unexpectedly lost due to injury during the 2012 season, a major wrench was thrown into the plans for the team. Pronger covered up so many issues that the team had in all phases of the game, and the roster has struggled to fill the void left by him. With the skill-level of opposing team’s defenseman increasing on a yearly basis, the blitzkrieg strategies of Laviolette seem to hurt the team more than help, as they are often passed by quickly when attempting to forecheck and leaving themselves vulnerable to odd-man rushes. After hearing some of what both Snider and Holmgren had to say regarding the team looking stale and underachieving, its clear they saw the same problems.
By giving Craig Berube the vote of confidence to not wear the ‘interim’ label when it comes to his new position, the Flyers management are showing they still feel they can win this year. While Berube is not the sort of high-profile candidate that Patrick Roy or Lindy Ruff was, make no mistake, he is well-regarded in coaching circles. He was involved in the Washington Capitals recent search for a coach, before bowing out to Adam Oates. He has served as an assistant for the Flyers since 2008, a year after being the head coach of the Philadelphia Phantoms. Despite having served alongside Laviolette for his entire tenure with the Flyers, many expect Berube to make notable adjustments to the team’s style of play and how they go about their day-to-day operations. Whether or not the former Flyers enforcer has the chops to make it as a head coach in the NHL remains to be seen. One thing is for certain, with Laviolette out the door and newly hired assistant GM Ron Hextall waiting in the wings, all the pressure is on Paul Holmgren now. If the team does not start to produce in the near future, with the season already well underway, there is very little that Holmgren can do that he already hasn’t. Save for an in-season trade, Holmgren and the Flyers are stuck with who they have. Many felt that it was a roster that had what it took to contend in a competitive division and make it back to the playoffs. With Laviolette no longer in charge and the grind of the regular season already baring down on the Flyers, we will find that out very soon. For Paul Holmgren’s sake, he better hope they turn things around or Monday won’t be the last surprise news conference the team announces this season.