by Clark Groome
As events surrounding the firing of Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette unfolded last week, there seemed to be an uncertainty about why this happened when it did and how the choice of long-term Flyer Craig “Chief” Berube would play out for a team that was clearly sleep-skating through the last eight periods of its first three games.
So far the decision, which was likely made for reasons having little to do with the outgoing head coach’s abilities, hasn’t generated the turnaround that Flyers’ management hoped for. The players simply aren’t playing the way their talent and history would indicate that they should.
Let’s take a look at some of the possible reasons for that and for general manager Paul Holmgren’s pulling the trigger on Laviolette.
Coming off a disappointing lockout-shortened season that left them out of the playoffs for only the second time in 18 years, it’s likely that the players were simply trying too hard rather than just settling in and playing their natural game. Last season was diminished by a horrendous opening schedule, a number of injuries to key players and some sophomore slumps by players who had done well the year before.
In addition, the team doesn’t really have the depth of leadership it had a couple of years ago. Losing future Hall of Famer Chris Pronger to a career-ending injury and Jaromir Jagr to awkwardly handled off-season activities left the team without two of its most respected leaders. That all happened before last season. This year they’re also without Danny Briere, whose contract was bought out at the end of last season.
Jagr and Briere were major influences on the young players, both on and off the ice. Their absence, coupled with the hard-nosed Pronger’s, is clearly a huge part of why the team is floundering. The only veteran leader left is Kimmo Timonen. That’s one as opposed to four. It makes a difference and is one of the reasons the Flyers signed veteran center Vincent Lecavalier and veteran defenseman Mark Streit, both captains of their previous teams.
On the plus side we’re beginning to hear now just how much more relaxed the team is with its two current netminders than it was last year when the underachieving – and spacey – Ilya Bryzgalov was in goal.
As this season began, the team was healthy. It had engaged some new leadership. The goalie situation looked to be in order. So when it got off to a terrible start, something had to be done.
It was the night after the Flyers lost their third straight game, on the plane back to Philadelphia from North Carolina, that Holmgren made the decision to fire Laviolette. Since coaches, especially in hockey, have expiration dates, many thought it was an inevitable move. You can’t fire the players and a new voice is often helpful in getting a team on the right track. It worked when Laviolette replaced John Stevens mid-season and took them to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Flyers owner Ed Snider is best known for two things: his loyalty to those who work for him and his impatience when things don’t go well. During the press conference announcing the coaching change, the 80-year-old Snider made it clear many times that he wasn’t the general manager, that he left these decisions up to his GM. He also noted that he couldn’t fire the coach but could fire the GM. Holmgren had to know the boss was unhappy.
In late summer the team hired former Flyer goalie and front office advisor Ron Hextall to be the assistant general manager and director of hockey operations. He came from the LA Kings and had been widely expected to be a GM in his own right sometime soon.
Could it be that Holmgren, looking at the boss and his assistant (who’s widely thought to be his heir apparent), decided that what clearly was an almost inevitable decision should be made sooner rather than later? It’s a possibility.
So Peter Laviolette is out and long-time Flyer Craig “Chief” Berube is in.
And so far, after Berube’s first three games, the team hasn’t been much more successful than it was under Laviolette.
It will take time for Berube’s new style to take hold, to be sure. The fact that Lecavalier and Scott Hartnell are both out for significant periods (Lecavalier at least a week and Hartnell at least two to four weeks) with injuries suffered against Phoenix last Friday doesn’t make it any easier.
Was this the right decision? Was Berube the right choice? Stay tuned.