A “Flyer for life”, Berube tries to get Philly back on track


By David Strehle (@DStrehleTFP)

There was a lot of “It’s only preseason” heard during a 1-5-1 exhibition campaign, and it’s fine to have the attitude that “it’s only the first three games of the regular season”.

But the Philadelphia Flyers had seen enough after a second straight 0-3-0 start to a season. Paul Holmgren, who along with Ed Snider had given their coach a vote of confidence during the offseason, informed Peter Laviolette Monday morning that he had been fired.

“This is just a gut feeling on my part,” the GM said Monday at the press conference to announce the move. ” Right now we’re not playing the way we need to play, and that’s got to change.”

Craig Berube — who played seven of his 17 NHL seasons in Philadelphia and had just begun his seventh season as a Flyers’ assistant — was named the 18th coach in franchise history.

“I’ve been a Flyer my whole life,” Berube said, “whether I played for other teams or not, so it’s a great honor.”

When it was suggested by one media member that staying within the Flyers’ brain trust would maintain something of a status quo, the former enforcer wanted to make it clear he’s his own man.

“Just because I’ve been in this organization for a long time doesn’t mean I’ll do the same thing other coaches did,” Berube said at the press conference to announce his position. “I have my own way of how I want to coach. This organization has been very successful for a long time.”

Even though it seemed like a quick trigger, the fact remained the club had won just one time in 10 outings this year — and that victory was via the shootout route. So Philadelphia – in any incarnation in preseason or in its present form — had not managed a single win in regulation while, compiling a 1-8-1 record.

It wasn’t so much the losses, but more the manner in which the team looked in preseason that brought about a serious measure of concern throughout the entire organization.

“We all sensed it,” Berube said. “We didn’t play very well in preseason, whether you have a full lineup or not. We just didn’t see the competitiveness (from the players) or the team-oriented play that’s needed.”

“There’s no question in my mind that anybody looking at this from the outside looking in would say that three games is totally unfair,” said Flyers’ Chairman Ed Snider. “But training camp was a disaster. I’ve been here for 47 training camps, and I’ve never seen one that I thought was worse.”

Snider was quick, however, to point out that all of the blame was not being thrust upon the coach.

“That’s not talking about Peter, that’s talking about our players,” Snider said in reference to how bad the team looked in preseason. “And it carried right on into the first three games of the season.”

And as is always the case for professional sports teams, it’s much easier to fire a coach than to replace 23 players. That’s a point Snider made Monday.

Even with what the organization felt were three key pieces – Vinny Lecavalier, Mark Streit, and Ray Emery — being infused into the lineup, there were several ugly similarities to last year’s brutal first week during the opening three games of the new season:

Optimistic start, lousy finish – There was much hope for the new season for the Flyers in their opener on home ice. Last year it was the euphoria brought on by the end of the lockout and a hated opening night opponent in the Pittsburgh Penguins, this season it was new core members with a new beginning against the Toronto Maple Leafs. On both occasions the home crowd’s early-game glee ended in a 3-1 disappointment.

0-3-0 record – Last year was much more crucial to at least push games to extra time and pick up important points in the standings, and Philly found that out the hard way when they caught fire during the stretch run only to fall just short of qualifying for the postseason.

Power outage – The Flyers have managed the same three goals they scored in the first three outings last year. The current version has seen last season’s leading scorers Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek – as well as fellow top linemate Scott Hartnell – all held without a point. Giroux leads the team with nine shots, but Voracek (2) and Hartnell (3) have been almost non-existent. Voracek still doesn’t appear to be at 100% after suffering a back injury during the exhibition season, and a return to his 2012/13 form will be a necessary development. Hartnell came to camp in much better shape than he was last season, but so far that hasn’t translated into an improvement in his play on the ice. Only five players – Lecavalier, Brayden Schenn, Streit, Luke Schenn, and Kris Newbury — have notched a point.

Bad luck – Just as was the case in their second game of the year the previous season during their road-opener in Buffalo, the Flyers had a disallowed goal that should have counted. It cost them in a one-goal loss in 2012/13, and seemed to take away Philadelphia’s steam Saturday night against the Canadiens.

Five-on-five play – Last season’s atrocious even strength play has continued in the early schedule. Sunday’s game in Carolina saw Philadelphia post their first even-strength goal of the year, it’s just that they gave up two to the Hurricanes. The 2012/13 lineup was riddled with minus rated players, and that trend continues now. Adam Hall and Newbury – who was recently recalled from the AHL’s Adirondack Phantoms – are the only two skaters on the plus side of the plus / minus ledger, both sporting a +1. The line of Brayden Schenn-Sean Couturier-Zac Rinaldo was on the ice for both goals against in Raleigh, and the trio shares a team-worst -3 for the year.

Special teams – It’s well-documented just how bad the Flyers’ special teams play hurt the 2012/13 start, and the units haven’t gotten off to the best beginning in the first three contests. The power play – which dominated the first few man advantages against the Maple Leafs on opening night but yielded just one goal in seven opportunities by night’s end – is now 2-14, good for the league’s 19th-best success rate (14.3%). Penalty-killing got off to a rough start but improved after yesterday’s perfect 4-4 against Carolina, with a kill rate of 80% (12-15, 17th-overall).

Doing just enough to lose – While their offensive attack was sporadic at best and they were pinned in their own zone for long stretches of play against the Canes, the game was still winnable for Philly. Both goals allowed were on Flyer miscues. Goaltender Steve Mason was excellent in making 32 saves, but the soft wrist shot from the point that somehow squeaked through his pads in the first period was awful. Credit has to be given to Mason for being able to shake that one off and for standing on his head several times to keep the Flyers in the game. Luke Schenn’s late-second period blunder would prove costly, as his clearing attempt up the middle from behind the net clanked off of Jeff Skinner’s skate and directly to Radek Dvorak in the slot, who calmly picked the far corner over Mason’s glove for the eventual game-winning goal. There were many excellent performances from the now-departed Ilya Bryzgalov last year in which the exiled goalie suffered a similar fate due to lack of support at both ends of the ice.

There haven’t been many, but there have been some positives in the three outings:

The play of the goaltending – Based upon Peter Laviolette’s statement of going with the hot hand, the tandem of Mason and Emery has been expected to split time this season. While Emery yielded four goals in his one start – the victim of poor defensive zone coverage, a lack of offensive support, and an undisciplined team giving the Montreal Canadiens nine power play chances – Mason has been very sharp in his two losses. Outside of the weak Jay Harrison goal in Carolina, he’s kept his club in both games and made some outstanding stops along the way.

The second line – It was crucial for the club to develop a secondary scoring line after last season, and they just may have found one. The play of the Matt Read-Lecavalier-Wayne Simmonds line has been very good, applying the most sustained pressure during the first three contests of any Flyer lines thus far in the early going. Their only shortfall – as is also the case with the rest of the club’s lines – has been the ability to finish off a play. Creativity, hard work, and some much-needed cycling time has yielded high-quality scoring chances, but the opportunities have gone by the wayside by a shot going wide, a big stop by the opposing netminder, or missing the puck at the side of an open net by the length of half of a stick blade. You have to believe with more time to develop chemistry this line will do some serious damage during the year.

I had a chance to ask Snider if there was a matter of urgency in making the change now as opposed to risking further damage, and if he felt there was a chance the season could slip away.

“Yes,” Snider said without any hesitation. “It happened to us last year. It was a short season, but we got off to a terrible start and we never recovered.”

It appeared Laviolette’s message had lost its affect on the players, and the club at times appeared as if it was drifting aimlessly.

Berube stands to change that. “Chief” played the game as hard as he could to maximize marginal skills, and that hard work translated into more than 1,000 NHL games played.

It’s doubtful he’ll want his players to rack up anywhere near the amount of PIMs he had amassed – 3,149, the seventh-highest total in league history – but it’s not a stretch to think he’ll demand his players give more effort than what has been seen thus far in the early going.

In addition to paying more attention to team defense as opposed to Laviolette’s attacking game plan, he says he expects a harder work ethic and more accountability from his squad.

“When you play good hockey without the puck,” said Berube, “the team comes together and you do the right things to get the puck back and you keep the puck out of your net. Right now we need to stress that and do a better job of it. We need to take pride in it. Every player is accountable to his teammates, that’s basically what it boils down to. You’ve got to be accountable to your teammates and play hard.”

The new coach also had time to point out the strengths brought by his newly-formed staff.

“John Paddock has been around forever, he was actually my first pro coach in Hershey,” Berube said. “He’s a very smart guy, he knows the game really well, and has experience. Laperriere, we all know how ‘Lappy’ played the game with his heart. He put everything on the line every night. He brings a lot of positive attitude, so I am looking forward to having them both there.”

The Craig Berube era begins for the Flyers Tuesday night at home against the Florida Panthers, as the struggling club hopes it can get things turned around in the right direction.

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