Profiles in Excellence: Peter Laviolette

Peter Laviolette: Rank #45 – 16 points

Coaching Experience: New York Islanders, 2001-03; Carolina Hurricanes, 2003-08; Philadelphia Flyers, 2009-present

Regular Season W-L-T-OL: 272-208-25-39; Playoff W-L: 34-26

Southeast Division Title: 2005-06

Playoff Appearances: 2002-03, 2006, 2010

Stanley Cup Finals Appearances: 2006, 2010; Stanley Cup Victory: 2006

When the Flyers organization announced on December 4, 2009, the firing of head coach John Stevens and the hiring of former Carolina Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette to replace him, the general consensus among the Flyers fans and the Philadelphia sports press at the time was one of forlorn resignation and a symbolic writing off of the season.

The Flyers, picked by hockey experts to contend for the Stanley Cup, had instead underachieved and were moribund offensively and emotionally. Most felt that Stevens had gotten a raw deal and that it was the players’ collective fault.

No matter though, Laviolette was hired to replace Stevens, and, during the press conference where he was introduced to the Philadelphia press, Laviolette told reporters that he wanted the Flyers to be “moving forward, I’d like to see a very aggressive brand of hockey. Aggressive in the offensive zone. Get our D activated, get our D moving. I think you have to be tough on players. I want players playing hard. I want them running out the door and to play the game hard in a system that attacks the puck in all three zones. If you can get a team that works hard and if you can get a team that’s disciplined, not in the penalty box, but disciplined in their life, disciplined in the system you put on the ice. And if you can get a team that cares about each other, there’s nothing you can’t do.”

The Flyers lost eight of the first ten games coached by Laviolette and by Christmas time if anyone had suggested that the Flyers could actually finish with a winning record let alone contend for the playoffs and, ultimately, the Stanley Cup itself they would have been deemed insane. In truth, Flyers fans were already waiting for the 2010-11 Season to begin.

Then the impossible happened: the Flyers won eighteen of their next 26 games; playing the brand of hockey that Laviolette wanted them to play; playing with aggression, attitude, and violence that evoked memories of the Broad Street Bullies era of the 1970s. One wonders if the two-week layoff caused by the 2010 Winter Olympics had not taken place whether the Flyers streak could have lasted longer.

The layoff caused the Flyers to deflate and during the last month of the regular season, coupled with injuries to key players like Simon Gagne, Ray Emery, and Michael Leighton the Flyers struggled to remain in playoff contention. It took a shootout win over the Rangers in the last game of the season to get there.

Even then the consensus among Flyers fans was that the team would suffer a first round playoff defeat like they did the previous season. This was buttressed by the fact that their first round opponents, the New Jersey Devils who had the best defense and the greatest goalie in the NHL, had long been the bane of the Flyers in the playoffs.

Instead what followed was nearly two months of magic.

Even though the Flyers fell two wins shy of winning the Stanley Cup, what they did on the ice was one of the most amazing displays of team effort and character in the annals of hockey history.

During the first three playoff rounds, they beat the Devils in five; the Bruins in seven (after being down 3-0 in the series) and the Canadiens in five to reach the Stanley Cup finals. They did so with good goaltending, tight defense, and intense physicality but the most notable aspect of the Flyers playoff run was their ability to force the Devils, Bruins, and Habs to play undisciplined hockey.

This is vital because the Devils and Canadiens were coached by Jacques Lemaire and Jacques Martin, respectively: two of the greatest teachers of on-ice discipline in the NHL today. Claude Julien’s Bruins also possessed strong on-ice discipline yet they too repeatedly committed penalties which gave the Flyers power-play opportunities—which they converted ruthlessly (the Flyers finished second and third in the NHL in power-play offense and power-play percentage, respectively).

The second round comeback against the Bruins after being down 3-0 in the series was another test of character. No one would have blamed the Flyers if they had collapsed in Game 4 and lost the series, but they didn’t collapse. They rallied and forced a Game 7. Even that game was a stern test.

After six minutes of play they were losing 3-0 to the Bruins. Laviolette’s impeccable timeout call and pep talk to the team after Boston’s third goal will stand forever in the collective memories of Flyer’s fans everywhere.

The Flyers demonstrated the work ethic that Laviolette demanded (and still demands) from his players; when the final buzzer sounded at the TD Garden in Boston, the Flyers had won the game (and the series), 4-3.

When it came time for the Flyers to play the Blackhawks for the Stanley Cup, it was obvious that the Hawks were by far the stronger team in all the major categories, save for the power-play. One would have expected a four-game sweep of the Flyers, much like the Red Wings did to them in 1997 (the last time the Flyers had reached the Stanley Cup finals).

The fact that they forced the Hawks to six games is again a testament to the team’s character and desire. What’s even more amazing is that they were able to reduce the Hawks’ enormous offensive firepower and make the series competitive.

Indeed the Flyers had a chance to win the series but didn’t because the breaks didn’t fall their way. The key turning points were games two and six. The Flyers lost both games because they failed to shoot high on (now former) Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi but instead tried to force the puck down low—where Niemi is strongest. If the Flyers won game two they would have played game six in Philadelphia with a 3-2 game advantage which would have made an enormous difference to the team psychologically.

Many hockey fans thought the Flyers playoff run a fluke but to do so is erroneous. In truth the Flyers fulfilled their pre-season prediction of Stanley Cup contention because they found the right coach to ignite the team to play at their full potential. Laviolette did the job he was hired to do and that was no fluke. Yes, the Devils and Bruins were better in the regular season than the Flyers but the mark of a great team is to win the games that needed winning. Obviously the Devils and Bruins (and the Canadiens) failed to do so—a far greater shame than the fact that the Flyers beat them.

When one looks at the background of Laviolette then it becomes obvious that the Flyers decision to hire him was an inspired one. Laviolette is the third most successful NHL coach (after Mike Babcock and Dave Tippett) to come from the class of the 2000s. He is also the second winningest American born coach in NHL history (a close second to John Tortorella). He led the Carolina Hurricanes to their only Stanley Cup in 2006.

Laviolette comes from the greater Boston area and grew up a devoted Bruins fan (ironic considering last year’s victory). He was a defenseman who played NCAA hockey and went undrafted by the NHL. He spent most of his playing career in the Rangers and Bruins farm systems—enjoying a brief cup of coffee with the Rangers during the 1988-89 Season. His highlight as a player was competing for the U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey teams in the 1988 Calgary and 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympiads (He coached the U.S. Men’s Hockey team at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics).

In 1997 Laviolette quit playing and took up coaching and by 1999 he was coaching in the Bruins farm system. During the 2000-01 season he was an assistant coach for the Bruins serving under Pat Burns and Mike Keenan during that season. The following season saw him manning the helm of the New York Islanders who had finished last in the Atlantic Division.

Laviolette wasted no time making his mark as a winning coach. He led the Islanders to a winning season; a 44-point improvement in team points; and their first playoff appearance since 1994. Laviolette again had a winning season and post-season appearance but was let go by the Islanders.

Thirty games into the 2003-04 season he, the Carolina Hurricanes hired Laviolette to succeed long time coach Paul Maurice. Laviolette played out the string that season and then had to wait for the 2004-05 NHL Lockout to end.

When hockey play resumed in 2005, Laviolette led the Hurricanes to their greatest season in franchise history. Getting an All-Star performance from Eric Staal and solid defensive work from veteran Rod Brind’Amour, the Hurricanes were the fourth best team in the NHL.

In the playoffs, Laviolette showed nerve and resolve by replacing veteran goalie Martin Gerber with rookie Cam Ward. Ward won the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy and led the ‘Canes to victory over the Edmonton Oilers.

Laviolette in 2006 (like he would later do for Philadelphia in 2010) took a team which had consistently underachieved and got them playing like champions. His 2006 Carolina team was far weaker in terms of overall talent than his 2010 Flyers team yet he got them to excel—something which his predecessor Paul Maurice could not do in 2002 when they were annihilated in 2002 Stanley Cup finals. However, Laviolette could not sustain his success.

Despite posting two more winning seasons, the ‘Canes failed to reach the playoffs. When Carolina got off to a mediocre start in the 2008-09 season Laviolette was fired, and replaced ironically by Maurice. One year later he became the Flyers head coach.

Laviolette’s teams have always been strongest in overall offense, power-play offense, and especially in short-handed offense (Laviolette’s teams always have a superb transition game. Right now the Flyers lead the NHL in short-handed offense).

His emphasis on the two-man fore-check has cost him defensively throughout his coaching career. As one long-time ‘Canes hockey blogger Bob Wage observes, “the argument against him was that his system was weak defensively—watch the odd man rushes coming at you—and once the rest of the league figured it out, he did not have the ability to change it or adapt.”

Still Laviolette’s system succeeded with the Flyers because his blue-line corps was much stronger than the one he had with the Hurricanes.

The big question which remains is whether Laviolette can create a sustained winning atmosphere which will allow him to stay with the Flyers for a lengthy period of time. Both Terry Murray and Ken Hitchcock led the Flyers far into the playoffs only to falter afterwards and be replaced as coach. The fact that he has made two Stanley Cup finals appearances in the last five years speaks volumes of his coaching ability. (The only other NHL coach to do so is Babcock).

The 2010-11 season–until the All-Star break–was a reaffirmation of Laviolette’s excellence as a coach. The Flyers have been competitive and, for a time, dominated the Eastern Conference and just before the All-Star break were in a position to vie with the Vancouver Canucks for the President’s Trophy but since then, the Flyers’ position has become precarious. Even their primacy in the Eastern Conference has become vulnerable. During this final stretch the Flyers lost a golden opportunity to supplant Vancouver for the President’s Trophy.

The Flyers’ play has been inconsistent and complacent. The injury, surgery, and rehab of Chris Pronger will be a blow to their chances at being the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. The big question is whether Pronger will be a hundred percent effective when he returns in four weeks.

Another major question mark will be the Flyers goal-tending. Despite the success of rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, Bobrovsky has struggled with inconsistency. His talent and upside are considerable but he is still a rookie who’s being forced to mature very quickly.

How and who Laviolette will choose to handle the duties during the playoffs will be a major challenge for him but consider this: the Flyers are in a much stronger position this year than they were last year and they still made it to the Stanley Cup finals last year despite their weaknesses.

And even if the Flyers don’t reach the Stanley Cup finals this year it will be intriguing to see when Peter Laviolette will make his next Stanley Cup final appearance?

I would not be surprised if it takes place in 2014 (the year of the next Winter Olympics). After all he was in the Cup finals in 2006 (year of the Turin Winter Olympiad) and 2010 (year of the Vancouver Winter Olympiad).

One wonders if he will remain true to form and whether he will still be coaching the Flyers by 2014.

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