In my previous post about the Flyers offseason, I discussed the broad view of the Flyers’ additions and subtractions via free agency, the draft, hirings, and where their moves put them with the salary cap. In the forthcoming second segment, I’ll be looking into the Flyers at forward. However, after considerable thought, one segment deserves its own position as it falls between the front office and the players on the ice…
A popular maxim states that a team is built from the net out, which is a misleading way of saying that the goaltender is the most important player on the team. An examination of that statement calls into question the manner by which a team is ‘built’. For a competitive team like the Flyers, the idea of developing a goaltender with sterling talent is apparently out of the question. The fact that the success of the Devils from the mid-nineties to the early-aughts coincided with the prime of Martin Brodeur is not a coincidence, but it is not all his doing. Playing the trap with a strong defensive-minded coach and strong defensive players in Scott Stevens, Scott Neidermayer, and Ken Daneyko made the team competitive for almost two decades. This style of play was not Brodeur’s decision. That honor belongs to Jacques Lemaire, and New Jersey has carried on in this style ever since.
I don’t think the coach is the most important part of a hockey team, but the impact of a great coach can change a team for a generation, something a goaltender cannot do. As far as the Flyers are concerned, Ed Snider’s decision to never have the Flyers be over-matched in toughness is important, but Fred Shero really forged the team’s identity. What was the last Flyers team not to use dump-and-chase as a big part of the gameplan?
Peter Laviolette may not be a perfect coach, but it’s tough to argue that his style of play meshes with the identity of the franchise. He likes aggressive play and doesn’t mind when his players mix it up, even when it’s Claude Giroux. Part of his method of success is having his players get into the heads of the opposition. Don’t believe me? Re-watch that legendary Flyers-Penguins playoff tilt in 2012 and tell me Laviolette didn’t have Bylsma’s number.
However, he does (or did, more on that later) have a blind spot. When confronted by his record against teams playing the trap or a modified trap in the 2011-2012 season, he flat-out refused to examine or discuss the issue, using the example of his 2006 Stanley Cup where his style was employed by the Hurricanes. Accepting that the Rangers, Devils, and Lightning played the trap or something like it, the combined record against these teams, including the playoffs, was 5-13-0-3. Losing 6 consecutive regulation games to the Rangers put sufficient nails in the coffin and losing in 5 games to the Devils buried it.
In fairness to Laviolette, his resistance to discuss this subject came at a sensitive time: the Flyers had just been wiped out, and no matter how hard they came out, they couldn’t beat the Devils and no adjustment seemed to work. An interview with Ed Snider seems to elucidate the feeling that Laviolette had some adjustments to make coming out of the lockout. Now, every team suffered from the truncated training camp and lack of a preseason, but it could be argued that the Flyers suffered the most. There were clearly changes to be made, but there was no time to implement them. They had possibly their worst free agency ever. They had to play the most games in the shortest period of time to start the season and had barely any practices. They ended up with the 3rd most man-games lost to injury. The blame can be ladled on the Flyers management, players, and just plain bad luck, but not Laviolette.
In the NHL, a coach lasts an average of 3 years with a team before getting the boot, and they always must work with what they’re given. Sure, they have discussions about players with the general manager, but the GM always has the final say, and certainly my opinion of the Flyers front-office moves being made regardless of the coach bear mentioning; Laviolette, and most NHL coaches, are not co-conspirators with general managers, they are employees who have to do what they can with what they have. If Laviolette is furnished with players that don’t work in his system (Mark Streit is my candidate), he bears the brunt of the blame.
Patience is a virtue that is non-existent in Philadelphia sports. Peter Laviolette got a lot of credit for taking the Flyers to a Stanley Cup Final in his first season as coach, and that leeway is being stretched to the breaking point. In the strike-shortened season, everyone from Snider to Holmgren cast a vote of confidence in Laviolette. Quite simply, that is the only way forward.
Whether you love or hate the decision to keep Laviolette on board, we can afford to wait another year. Flyers fans aren’t going anywhere, and though we despise the frustration presented by a lack of Stanley Cups, we’re weathered to the point where another year or two doesn’t matter and we can recognize that wholesale changes do not equal a championship. The strike-shortened season was a fluke, and given all the factors of the Flyers lack of success, it’s logical that the slate be wiped clean, but the team is running out of scapegoats. Laviolette will have a short leash next season, but so will Paul Holmgren.
My gut feeling is that keeping Laviolette was the right decision. This season will be much, much better than the last one, and Laviolette having a full training camp, pre-season, and a healthy complement of players will be a big part of that.