After laying down my prediction for the first round against Washington, then seeing the series drag out to a thrilling Game 7 overtime, I wanted to wait after the whole business was finished before I made another comment because the ride has been pretty sweet up until now.
Following Joffrey Lupul’s ascent into Flyers folklore on April 22, I never dreamed the club would win the following round against a supposedly superior opponent, and do it in such a spectacularly efficient and entertaining manner.
The course of the last 17 games reminded me of the first time the franchise climbed out of the doldrums and shocked the fan base back into a sense of confidence and entitlement.
Just like in mid-June 1995, when the Flyers bowed to the upset-minded New Jersey Devils in the conference finals after five seasons out of the playoffs, expectations for next season will be very lofty.
Unlike 1995 with Terry Murray at the helm, however, the Flyers do not have a head coach who can rise to the occasion and take the team to the mythical Next Level.
John Stevens was given the reins back in October 2006 in a win-win situation, taking a loose bunch of kids and castoffs and guiding them through the worst season in franchise history without the burden of expectation.
Now, though, these “kids” such as Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Braydon Coburn, R.J. Umberger, Lupul, The dueling Scotts, Randy Jones and Lasse Kukkonen will find that they have become bona-fide veterans almost overnight.
Plus, the unnatural acceleration from worst in the league to one of the NHL’s final four in only one season demands an upgrade in leadership. They need a steadier, wiser, more experienced hand to guide them through what should be the next steps toward greatness. John Stevens is not the head coach who can do so.
Flyers fans can ask the question, “Doesn’t Stevens deserve a shot to stay with the team?”
I say, deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
The organization has demonstrated a pathological need to stick with people who have “paid their dues” and worked their way up to the top spot, instead of going for the brass ring and the coach who has the pedigree. You can blame the end of Mike Keenan’s tenure 20 years ago for that.
Like chairman Ed Snider once said during a long-ago rant on WIP, the name of the game is to win. W-I-N. Even the most ardent orange kool-aid drinker can figure out that promoting from within is not a guarantee of ultimate success.
Stevens has won a Calder Cup as a Phantoms head coach. But how well did that work out for Bill Barber? One of the main points stemming from the revelation of the 2002 playoff mutiny was that Barber failed to implement a plan beyond a basic framework. And I think this is what Stevens has shown he is incapable of providing.
Case in point is the listless way the club reacted during multiple home games, the most glaring times during the six-game skid and 10-game losing streaks.
Also notable was the careless way their tempo seemed to drift after opening up two-goal leads, the most egregious being Game 6 against Washington. You can’t say that Stevens and his coaching staff didn’t have ample time to work on altering a game plan based on evolving game situations.
If you look at the Penguins series, the difference between the clubs was not really size, or skill, or finishing ability, but the system in place.
During Games 1 and 2, the Flyers missed at least half a dozen loose pucks because Stevens’ system dictated his players back check immediately after giving up possession or on line changes and that limits overall puck awareness.
By Game 3, the gap was totally evident. Every time the Flyers tried a dump-and-chase or to work the puck towards the net, there was a Penguin skater already anticipating the play. Pittsburgh’s ability to read a deliberately-paced attack plan and transition to offense was the real killer, along with Philly’s seeming total lack of energy and commitment to use home ice to their advantage.
Naturally, with their backs to the wall in Game 4, the rigid plan went out the window. Forechecking pressure, passion and energy guided the team to a 3-0 first-period lead before a series-saving 4-2 win.
Unfortunately, the system returned in Game 5, and the Penguins gained two quick first-period goals and control of the game thanks to the Flyers sitting back and waiting for the game to come to them.
Steve Downie’s miscues? Don’t blame the player, blame the man who decided to put him into the lineup two games for which he made two killer series-turning, unforced mistakes. Failure to call valuable timeouts to regroup after the team got behind early in all but Game 4? Not the captain’s call.
Nothing in the wildly fluctuating regular season or the playoffs has given indication that Stevens can change, or even step back and see how his old ways need to be tweaked. He’s another in a long line of Philadelphia coaches relying on what got him here and content to lose by sticking to his guns instead of acknowledging the need for thinking beyond the bounds of his respective sports’ interior logic.
As in 1985 and 1995, the growth spurt of the on-ice product has jumped beyond projections. The future is now and the front office must take the right step to ensure progress. The first step is to bid adieu to John Stevens.
Ron Wilson is available. So is Pat Burns and Bob Hartley. Wilson has made it to a Cup final while Burns and Hartley have won. Marc Crawford – who won with Colorado in 1996 – may become available soon because he may be the first to be let go of the fiasco that is the LA Kings.
Flyers faithful, sleep well for now and hold the memories of the last six weeks dearly. You’ll need to rest your vocal cords for the spate of off-season drama to come.
Just make sure you let it be known in the right circles that the success you crave for your team must include the hiring of a better head coach.
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