Flyers hope Laviolette has answers Stevens couldn't provide

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There was a time when Philadelphia Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren would have given John Stevens a chance to coach his way out of a losing streak, but two months into the 2009-10 season, that time had passed.

The Flyers have performed below expectations all season long, and the bubble finally burst Friday afternoon when the club announced Stevens had been relieved of his head coaching duties. At the time of the dismissal, his team was outside of the playoff picture and had just suffered its seventh loss in eight games. A first-time NHL bench boss when he was hired to replace Ken Hitchcock less than a month into the 2006-07 campaign, Stevens has now joined the ranks of ex-coaches, a reality that not even the finest of leaders can escape.

At times Philadelphia achieved great things under Stevens, none more impressive then when the club made it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals one year after finishing dead last in the NHL in his first season on the job.

The Flyers hope Peter Laviolette, pictured, will succeed where John Stevens failed.
But things soured quickly following a disappointing first-round exit in the playoffs last spring, and suddenly the Flyers front office needed Stevens to prove that he still had the team headed in the right direction. Instead, the club found itself mired in prolonged slumps and the head coach didn't seem to have the answers necessary to turn things around.

When Stevens took over back in 2006, it appeared that the club had a long road back to respectability, but his early success seemingly ended the need for a rebuilding phase. But with the evidence mounting that the club now has to take a step back before moving forward, it's obvious that Stevens cannot be the man to lead the Flyers on that journey.

Just a few hours after word of Stevens' firing circulated, the Flyers announced that Peter Laviolette, head coach of the 2006 Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes, would be given another shot at leading an NHL club to glory. Naturally, the Philly brass believes Laviolette will succeed where Stevens failed, but if the players flounder under the new coach as well, then the organization will be faced with the much more serious question of whether or not they have what it takes to compete for a championship.

After all, it's been nearly a quarter-century since the Orange and Black have given their fan base a title to celebrate and it's safe to say that the natives are restless. The passionate masses were given hope when Holmgren traded for former league MVP Chris Pronger this past summer, but that move hasn't been nearly enough to stop the Flyers from playing like a last-place team so far this season.

Everyone has been waiting for the franchise to make good on the promise of the 2008 playoff run, and, while the Flyers are closer to making that a reality then they are to reliving the lows of the 2006-07 season, the present uncertainty of what lies ahead has become reason enough for some to despair.

That's why the timing for Stevens' firing was right. Left with no other way to generate hope, Holmgren opted to make a change in leadership. The new coach's Stanley Cup-winning past will serve as a comfort to Philly's title-starved fan base, but the fact that Laviolette wasn't able to get Carolina back to the playoffs in two straight seasons after winning it all should not simply be glossed over.

Laviolette claims to have learned a great deal from his dark final days as Hurricanes coach, and Carolina's 2009-10 struggles under Paul Maurice lead one to believe that coaching isn't the only problem with the hockey club in Raleigh.

Philly's first game under Laviolette proves that the Flyers are currently a team without a great deal of confidence. The Flyers had a home test against Washington on Saturday, and even though the Capitals were without superstar winger Alex Ovechkin, the visitors were able to dominate in a comically easy 8-2 victory at Wachovia Center. Not exactly an ideal first impression on the part of the existing roster, especially goaltender Ray Emery, who has gone from clear a No. 1 to the team's most glaring weakness in the span of a few weeks. Getting Emery back on track should be a top priority for Laviolette, because a lengthy slump in net could prove to be fatal to the team's playoff hopes.

The blowout loss was troubling for many reasons, but most of all because one would assume that the Flyers players wanted badly to show that they are not a lost cause. Instead, the team fell behind early and had to suffer through an embarrassing loss that ended with the home fans raining boos down on the club.

If anything, the bad first step shows how much work there is to be done in getting this team back on track. After all, Laviolette will need hours and hours of practice time to implement new strategies, a fact that always makes mid-season reclamation projects hard to pull off.

Laviolette's status as a Cup-winning coach will ensure that he gets plenty of time to turn things around in Philly, and the way his club plays in the coming months will determine how Holmgren will attack the task of creating a winner going forward. However, if it turns out that the players were the problem all along, then Holmgren may soon join Stevens in the ranks of the unemployed.

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Dan Di Sciullo
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