Four games. One win. Peter Laviolette, the erstwhile Philadelphia Flyers coach, ends the season winless, and Craig Berube, his replacement, is undefeated.
Supposedly the decision to replace Laviolette began as a fleeting impulse in the 2012-2013 offseason, and was upgraded – remarkably fast – to a gut feeling that led to canning three games into the season. Several sources bemoan the decision, and appropriately so – if Laviolette was going to be replaced, it made the most sense to do so with the new coach getting a full training camp to transition his troops. If not, a sample set of ten, or at least five games would show prudence and patience. But it can’t be taken back now.
The first impression from the game has nothing to do with the Flyers. It’s all about Tim Thomas. Did anyone honestly think he could hop back into game action after a year’s hiatus and dominate as he did in Boston? I have no doubt he was juiced enough to win his first game by sheer will, but his style of play puts him in the same ballpark as Dominik Hasek, but not the same league; Thomas flops around in the net, throwing everything he has at making the first save. At least Hasek stays in the crease. On the Boston Bruins, Thomas had probably the best defense corps in the league ready to clear rebounds and dive in front of shots if he was tested, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or even a McDonald’s employee, to tell you the Florida Panthers don’t have that kind of coaching, skill, or solidarity. The Bruins blueline also had 7 years to get used to him, and he to the defense.
Of course, this same argument applies to why Bryzgalov was chased out of Philadelphia. But I digress.
The first thing I noticed about the new-look Flyers, after applying some early forechecking pressure, was that three men were lined up across the neutral zone on the backcheck as the Panthers forwards advanced. Craig Berube intimated in one of his first interviews that he was intent on instituting a better defensive system, and when the Florida forwards started gunning for the back of the net, the Flyers players – to a man – started dropping on the ice to block shots. It’s not that they’ve never done it before, as the Flyers averaged 16 blocked shots per game in the first three games. In Craig Berube’s first game the volume of players on the ice willing to do so, whether they blocked it or not, was absolutely increased – to the tune of 19 blocked shots. The sacrifice is laudable, but one must be good at blocking shots if they’re going to take themselves off their feet for a few crucial seconds.
Similarly, the defensive players collapsing on the crease when the Florida forwards pressed into the slot was something that was not a trademark during the latter half of Laviolette’s tenure. The presence of the Flyers’ players in the middle of the ice when defending was also notable.
Second, the offense looked more structured. There’s no stat for that. They were outshot by the opposition until the third period, and though they ended up being outshot 34-30, 13 of their shots came in the third period, which, if you read my previous article, is a place where they’ve had difficulty over the last two years. Both of the Flyers’ goals could be chalked up as fluky since they both came from broken plays, but their work ethic was less concerned with cycling and more concerned with getting shots on zone entries.
The goal against was not the fault of the defensemen, nor was it the fault of the goaltender; Wayne Simmonds was mesmerized by the play and lost his coverage of Brad Boyes. A regrettable error, of course, but elegant backchecking is one of the few areas missing from Simmonds’ game. If he is made address this on a regular basis, he could easily be one of the best power forwards in the league.
The powerplay was nothing to write home about; with five chances including a five minute major, the Flyers only had one instance of sustained puck control in the offensive zone. It’s both worth mentioning and a cause for future concern as their power play has not been particularly noteworthy in the preseason or the first three games, and prior to Laviolette’s firing, Berube ran the power play dating back to John Stevens’ tenure.
So, was it a perfect game? Certainly not. Recent history shows us that the Flyers have traditionally either played in squeakers with a new coach, as is the case with Craig Berube, John Stevens, and Ken Hitchcock, or been blown out, as in the case of Peter Laviolette. All things considered, a slim margin of victory was probably more healthy for the team at this point, and Berube will have two days of practice to build on his limited success before Friday’s faceoff against the Phoenix Coyotes.
How does Craig Berube rate as an NHL head coach? With only one game, it’s too early to tell, but there’s only two things that could happen during his tenure: the first is that the Flyers are reinvigorated enough to become the perennial playoff contender every fan expects them to be, and the second is that the Flyers end up being the middling team they were last year, miss the playoffs altogether, and force the firing or resignation of Paul Holmgren as general manager. I can’t imagine a fan who wouldn’t prefer the former or at least be satisfied with the latter.