Depending how you feel about finishing the season strong versus tanking to ensure the best chance at getting the #1 overall pick in this loaded draft, it was a pleasant reprieve to see the Flyers wallop the Canadiens 7-3 yesterday, including a Scott Hartnell hat trick, after scoring three goals total in the previous four games (all losses). Thanks to a friend’s generous offer, I was in attendance for last Thursday night’s listless 3-1 defeat to the Ottawa Senators. It was my first live, in-game viewing of the season, and the fans — the ones amidst the smattering of empty seats — were relatively catatonic throughout, save for Claude Giroux’s first period short-handed goal and the intermittent snickers (in which I partook) about how bad this Flyers team has been. The loudest ovation, by far and justifiably, was for the wounded army veteran who was featured on the video scoreboard. Then again, that’s probably how it is every game. If not for Ilya Bryzgalov, who played very well despite some trademark lackadaisical moments, and some fortuitous bounces in the first two periods, the final score could’ve easily been 7-1 or 8-1. This was a Senators team, mind you, that came in riding a five-game losing streak and perilously close to falling out of the Eastern Conference’s top-8 seeds. They played with matching desperation, with more energy, passion and want-to than the Flyers for the full 60 minutes. One team looked like it was fighting for its playoff life, the other like it was just going through the motions and had come to accept its fate after losing to the Islanders two nights prior. It was the final of the final nail in the coffin games. The next game in Buffalo against the Sabres, a 1-0 yawner, wasn’t much better and marked the first time in nearly 10 years the Flyers went four straight games scoring one goal or fewer in each.
I’ve gone back and forth on Peter Laviolette and whether he should remain the Flyers head coach for next season and beyond. For one, he’s infuriated me with his handling of Sean Couturier. How is a 20 year-old, who’s exceptional defensively but also has obvious offensive skills, supposed to properly develop with limited ice time and bottom-six grinders/fringe NHLers/bums flanking him on the wings? It’s not a coincidence that the Flyers went on their only winning streak of the season a few weeks ago when Couturier was getting substantial minutes with the top-six. Is there something going on behind the scenes with Laviolette and Couturier that’s influencing this bewildering allotment of ice time? Checking Couturier’s game log, the line of demarcation for the major dip in ice time is the end of February. In his first 20 games, Couturier played under 16:21 just three times. In his 20 games since, he has eclipsed 16:21 a grand total of ZERO times. Granted, there are three examples of 16:09, 16:17 and 16:16 (the latter two coming in the two most recent games). But still, you understand my point. So, what’s the explanation? Young players are going to make mistakes, and Sean hasn’t been perfect this season, but what about letting him play through those struggles? Especially once injuries started to mount. I don’t get it, nobody does. Well, except for those closest to the team (maybe), and I guess we’re supposed to give them the benefit of the doubt. Or something.
This dumpster fire of a strike-shortened season is certainly not all on Laviolette, as Paul Holmgren shares a healthy portion of the blame for his faulty roster construction and lack of viable Plan B — save for trading for Luke Schenn — after the Parise/Suter/Weber attempts didn’t work out. I don’t think Laviolette was equipped with a roster that catered to his preferred style of play, seeing as how something like one, perhaps two of the regular defensemen who started out the season on the roster could competently skate the puck out of his own zone. But isn’t part of being a good coach the ability to adjust to your personnel? Yes, Paul Holmgren gave something resembling an endorsement, if you want to call it that, of Laviolette yesterday when asked about the coach’s job security, but if you put any stock in that answer (and plenty of media lackeys did), I have a bridge to sell you. If you pay attention to the rumblings and rumors, the organization feels Laviolette has lost the locker room and that the team lacks structure and discipline. What I want to know: Did the team NOT lack structure and discipline last season? The Penguins were foolish and played right into the Flyers’ hands, but everyone remembers the embarrassing collapse against the Devils, right? Remember, this is a team that still can’t beat defensively-responsible teams that play smart hockey and effectively suffocate the neutral zone while taking away the forwards’ space to operate. It’s the reason Laviolette’s Flyers teams the past two seasons haven’t been able to beat the Devils or Rangers (5-21-1 and counting). Hell, last month they beat the Bruins for what, just the second time since the epic 2010 playoff series? Is it personnel? Is it coaching? As is typically the case, the answer is “both” and/or “somewhere in the middle.” Verdict: While I’ve soured on Laviolette this season, I don’t think it’s completely ill-advised to give him into next season to right the ship. If the Flyers are still sputtering and rudderless with similar plaguing issues in January/February, he’ll be fired and, for better or worse, Terry Murray will likely get the chance to replace him.
Tonight’s game is against the Rangers, which means it’s pretty much an automatic loss. Steve Mason will get the start and make his home debut.