Meltzer's Musings: Laviolette and Balancing the Revisionist History
Congratulations go out to former Philadelphia Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette for leading the Nashville Predators to the team's first Stanley Cup Final berth in franchise history. The Preds are the third NHL team that Laviolette has guided to the Final, following the Cup-winning 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes and the 2009-10 Flyers team that came agonizingly close before losing a Game Six overtime heartbreaker. He also got the New York Islanders to overachieve for awhile during his first NHL head coaching opportunity.
Indisputably, Laviolette is very good NHL head coach. He has a very strong belief in his attack-based system, which requires a lot of energy on the forecheck, clean breakouts and relentless back pressure to create the desired opposition turnovers and extended puck possession needed for it to be successful. It is a misnomer to say that Laviolette does not coach his teams to play solid defense. He wants his team to play the right way without the puck -- for instance, he exhorts his players to pay the necessary price to block shots and box out -- but he tries to minimize the situations in which his team is on the defensive.
Many of the players who played for Laviolette in Philly have said that, although he can sometimes teeter on being a little too intense and in-your-face to the point of burning out his troops, it is downright fun to play in his system. Danny Briere, for example, has said that Laviolette is the only coach he ever played for who directly coached the offensive part of the game. Most coaches are hyper-focused on structured play without the puck and, in terms of risk management, stressing safety-first on things such as how the puck gets moved through the neutral zone and seeking an offensive zone entry.
When Laviolette's system clicks, it's highly entertaining to watch and has proven effective. However, when his players don't have their feet moving, get out of synch with one another (such as lapses in gap control) or if his roster does not have a sufficient puck moving capabilities, things can get -- and remain -- pretty ugly.
In Philadelphia in particular, and throughout the sports world in general, there is often a tendency for fans to engage in revisionist history that is either devoid of its original context of why things (trades, hirings and firings, etc) took place at a certain time or else it simply changes the facts to fit an overly simplistic, black-and-white narrative. This phenomenon has been especially pronounced this past year.
Many of the same group that incessantly whined about the Flyers "giving up" on Sergei Bobrovsky are now leading the "Flyers never should have fired Peter Laviolette" bandwagon. They are either unaware or simply choose to ignore the fact that there is a lot of self-contradiction in trying to espouse both sentiments.
By the way, where was the "pining for Bob" crowd last year during Bobrovsky's injury-plagued 2015-16 down season in which he posted the very same .908 save percentage that they pilloried Steve Mason for throughout his staccato 2016-17 campaign? Where have they been this month after Bobrovsky followed up his likely Vezina Trophy-winning regular season with a rough playoff series against Pittsburgh?
Oh, right. Now they have shifted to pining for Lavy instead of, or in addition to, Bobrovsky. For those who have forgotten, Laviolette's almost panicky handling of his goalie rotation in the 2011 playoffs hastened the late Ed Snider to demand the organization bring in a proven veteran and directly contributed to the acquisition and subsequent huge contract of Ilya Bryzgalov.
Although Bobrovsky was around for one additional season as an unhappy young backup, his Flyers future basically ended the day the organization signed Bryzgalov -- although both then-GM Paul Holmgren and goaltending coach Jeff Reese believed Bobrovsky was going to blossom into a very good NHL starter. The reality was, though, that neither Mr. Snider nor the fan base at large was willing to wait for that to happen. Bryzgalov was a year removed from being a Vezina finalist at the time. One year later, Bobrovsky quietly demanded a trade, under threat of going back to Russia. In the meantime, Bryzgalov clashed repeatedly with Laviolette for two seasons before being bought out during the post-2013 lockout's salary cap amnesty opportunity.
Another big-picture reality: Peter Laviolette's tenure in Philadelphia can pretty much be divided into two segments. The first segment, spanning from his hiring in December 2009 through the Flyers' upset win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2012 playoffs was marked by considerably more success than failure.
The second segment, spanning the New Jersey Devils in the second round of the 2012 playoffs until Laviolette's dismissal three games into the 2013-14 season, was a disaster in which Laviolette, while certainly not fully responsible, held his share of responsibility. In fact, a much stronger case could be made for why the Flyers waited too long to let Lavy go rather than being too hasty in pulling the trigger.
Let's keep in mind again that hindsight is always 20-20, but let's also be honest about the warning signs that popped up as Laviolette's shelf life as Flyers' coach expired. While he is a very good coach, he has not thus far been one is who is conducive to long tenures of sustained success. There's been a definite burn out effect after awhile, plus some inflexibility on his part.
First, though, here are the obvious positives of his tenure in Philly. On the 2012 summer day when the team announced a three-year contract extension for Laviolette, he was 100 percent deserving of it. His track record up to that point, apart from hiccups in the 2011 stretch drive and playoffs and the second round of the 2012 playoffs, was stellar.
At that point, Laviolette’s Flyers teams had posted a regular season record of 122-73- 26, including back-to- back 47-win seasons; the most wins the Flyers had in a two-season period since 1985-87.
Dating back to his hire through the end of 2011-12, the Flyers owned the third-most wins in the Eastern Conference (122), behind only Pittsburgh and Washington (127 each). Over the two previous full seasons, the Flyers were second in the Eastern Conference and third overall in the NHL in standings points (209) and in points percentage (.637).
Moreover, the Flyers enjoyed unprecedented success on the road under Laviolette up that point, winning a franchise-record 25 games in 2010-11 and matching the next campaign.
Beyond the Flyers’ remarkable playoff run in 2010 to the eighth Stanley Cup final in franchise history, Laviolette’s overall postseason record in his Flyers tenure was enviable. The Flyers were the only team in the NHL to reach the second round of the playoffs (or further) in each of the last three seasons through 2011-12. In that span, the Flyers participated in eight playoff series; more than any other team in the NHL.
In terms of his career track record, Laviolette’s teams in Carolina and Philadelphia had taken part in a combined 12 playoff series since the 2004-05 lockout: the third-most by any NHL coach in that span after Mike Babcock (17 with Detroit up to that point) and Joel Quenneville (13 with Colorado and Chicago).
However, at the very same time, there were some warning signs that Laviolette's effectiveness in Philadelphia was starting to wane. Much of it was because the injuries and abrupt career ending post-concussion issues suffered by Chris Pronger plus the somewhat related and gradual but also noticeable latter-season wearing down of Kimmo Timonen as he aged severely complicated matters for the Flyers and hastened the closure of the team's Stanley Cup window under Laviolette's system.
That was certainly not Laviolette's fault. What was his fault was the mishandling of the goaltending rotation in the 2011 playoffs --- the constant flip-flopping of goaltenders and the sudden reintroduction of Michael Leighton back into the picture as Bobrovsky went from Game One and Two starter in the first round to being a healthy scratch. A year later, after the Flyers pretty much expended all of their emotion and energy in stepping up to beat the Penguins, they had no answers for the New Jersey Devils. There were few adjustments made on retrievals and breakouts, even as the Flyers realized New Jersey was exploiting their lack of a right handed defenseman. The Flyers also got picked apart in the neutral zone. The result was there was way too much defending and too little attacking in Games 2, 4, and 5 of the New Jersey series.
By this point, there was a leaguewide blueprint moving forward for how to beat Laviolette's Flyers and their very aggressive left-wing lock. The idea of making changes to better suit a changing (and somewhat less offensively deep than year one and two) personnel group was at first resisted by Laviolette. On locker cleanout day after the New Jersey series, Laviolette was asked if the team’s ultra-aggressive attacking system provided enough defensive structure to challenge for a championship in the current-day NHL.
Laviolette himself went on the defensive that day.
“Do you think that attack systems have ever won Stanley Cups before? Do you think that attack systems have ever gotten to the Finals before?” the coach shot back.
Meanwhile, in Holmgren's press conference the same day, the GM talked about the need for said adjustments in team defense as well to add some righthanded-shooting defensemen to counteract the way New Jersey exploited the defense corps. This priority, along with a need for more physicality, played into the thinking behind the one-for-one trade of James van Riemsdyk for Luke Schenn (who, it should also be added for the sake of fairness, played pretty well for Laviolette during the 2012-13 lockout season before struggling with consistency over the remainder of his time with the Flyers).
In hindsight, that should have been a red flag that the vision of the team was starting to move in different directions. However, Laviolette was always so confident in his ability to make things work -- so fired up that the team could win pretty much every game if players were motivated to step up -- that it was hard to shake the notion that things would start clicking again.
Eventually, as injuries piled up and the shortened 2013 season quickly got away from the Flyers, Laviolette made some half-hearted adjustments to where forwards were stationed in the defensive zone. It did cut back somewhat on the big lapses that too often left the goaltenders (whether Bryzgalov, Bobrovsky, Brian Boucher, Ray Emery or Leighton) in need of miracle saves. However, it also combined with the reduced overall puck-moving capabilities of the guys on the back end to cut down on the Flyers' chances to break out with speed through the neutral zone. An even bigger issue, though, was that the changes always smacked of being an unenthusiastic compromise.
Now the Flyers were, collectively speaking, a slightly improved by basically average-at-best defensive team but they were playing way too often without the puck at five-on-five and had become too stationary. As a result, the offense suffered. In the meantime, it was clear that Bryzgalov and Laviolette were still having problems coexisting, because both were very hard-headed and not about to bend much to what the other felt was needed for team success. This was kept out of the public eye while it went on, but was painfully obvious to any one paying attention during portions of 2011-12 and pretty much all of 2012-13.
For what it's worth, my sympathies were always more with Laviolette than Bryzgalov. It's the goalie's responsibility to be successful within the team's system, and not to try to dictate the system himself as if he were himself the head coach.
I will also say that I felt Reese got caught in the middle of a strong-willed coach and strong-willed goaltender who were clashing. He tried to nudge Bryzgalov toward making his own set of adjustments to find what would work for him within Laviolette's preferred style, such as in terms of shot blocking in front of the goalie, but Bryzgalov never really embraced his own need to adapt. Bryz preferred complaining that his goalie coach didn't have his back and that Laviolette was closed-minded to what had worked for Bryzgalov in Phoenix.
In hindsight, the Bryzgalov-Flyers marriage was pretty much doomed from the beginning -- and that is not even weighing how Bryzgalov responded to the high-pressure, the-goalie-is-always-to-blame nature of a large portion of the fan base or the "sound bites and drama sell more than hockey analysis" nature of modern media coverage that exists everywhere but stands out more in bigger markets due to increased exposure. Strictly in hockey terms, Bryzgalov and Lavy's Flyers were too often not on the same page.
Laviolette was not blameless in that, either in what preceded Bryz coming to Philly or how things unfolded while he was with the team. Again in hindsight, if he had simply either stuck with Bobrovsky's rookie jitters in the 2011 playoffs or else stuck with veteran Boucher in 2011 as he continued grooming Bobrovsky to be the full-time starter in 2011-12, the saga might have unfolded quite differently for Bobrovsky's tenure in Philly (and, by down-the-road extension, would Steve Mason still have ended up with the Flyers and rebuilt his career?). We'll never know.
With the benefit of hindsight, the time for the Flyers to part ways with Laviolette came after the lockout season. It was understandable, however, why he was brought back. There had been so many injuries in the lockout season and the 48-game nature of the season made it tough to recover from a tough start. The team started trending upwards again late in the season; too late for it to matter that year but enough to suggest that, with some roster changes, the team could get right back in the playoffs.
What followed was an awful training camp in Sept. 2013. Again, Laviolette was neither solely to blame nor was he blameless for the disorganized mess and the resulting appearance that the team was not well-prepared to start the season. The biggest reason was that the Wells Fargo Center (where the Flyers had to hold camp while the Skate Zone was being renovated) was not really conducive to ideal training camp conditions. There were also too many players in camp in the early going, so there was no continuity. Where Laviolette's share of the blame came in was how listless the sessions looked and how it carried right over throughout the exhibition slate.
Thus, when the Flyers started out the season 0-3 -- playing decently in an opening night home loss to Toronto and then looking bad in a road loss to Montreal and worse in a meek effort in Carolina -- the trigger was pulled and Laviolette was fired.
Laviolette's shelf life as Flyers coach -- not as a fine NHL coach, but with the group he had at the time in Philly -- had passed its expiration date. In reality, though, if the coach's leash was that short after the lockout season that a rough training camp and an 0-3 start were enough to bring about his dismissal, the breakup would have been healthier for all parties if it happened in the summer instead of October.
Has it been a surprise that Laviolette has done a fine job in Nashville? Not at all. David Poile has good pieces assembled -- just as Holmgren did at the time Lavy took over for John Stevens -- and the roster is well matched to being successful playing Laviolette's preferred style. The Preds are capable of giving whoever emerges from the East (most likely Pittsburgh) a real run for the money in the Final, and winning the series would not be a big upset in my book.
Whether Lavy will still be as effective with the Predators a couple years down the line is history that has yet to be written. Longevity in one organization will be a future hurdle to clear. Right now, it's all about pushing for a Stanley Cup.
If Laviolette collects his second Cup ring this season, I'll be happy for him. He is a bright and energetic hockey mind, a proven motivator in big-game situations and I think his teams are often a breath of fresh to watch. While he's not a warm-and-fuzzy type with the media, he is a fundamentally decent and straight-shooting person.
That does not, mean, though, that the Flyers made a mistake in parting with Laviolette. I don't think the team would have rebounded in 2013-14 the way it eventually did under Craig Berube that year. I also don't think the roster personnel of the last three seasons would have been the right groups for Lavy to coach, either.
In speaking about Terry Murray's hiring and firing in Los Angeles, Dean Lombardi said in Flyers at 50, "Sometimes the reason you need to fire a coach is the same reason you needed to hire him in the first place." That perfectly describes not only Murph in LA but Lavy in Philly and the stories between many, many tenures.
To me, the biggest what if scenario isn't whether Laviolette was still the right coach for the job in 2013 to 2017. Rather, the what-if is what could have happened if the Flyers' farm system then had been where it is now, with numerous players either in the NHL or about to graduate to that level who have games that would have been well-suited for Lavy's system. That's a moot question, though, because that was not the reality of the time.