It's Stanley Cup or Bust for Laviolette
Right now, there just isn't time.
"Getting to know the players, getting to learn about their families, has always been very important to me," Laviolette told FanHouse over the phone during a rare spare ten minutes in his new schedule. "It's a big part of the culture I've always tried to establish wherever I've been. But I can't kid myself, and don't want to put on an act for the players -- the little time we have we'll spend on creating our identity as a team."
After a 3-1 loss in Montreal on Monday night, the Flyers are back at it Tuesday at home against the Islanders. Laviolette is now 0-2 with Philadelphia -- including a 9-2 embarrassment at home in his debut -- but it's hard to see him failing at his latest challenge. The facts are clear: Laviolette has been successful wherever he has been. And with each head coaching position, Laviolette has been a master of revivals.
Start with his first job with the Wheeling Nailers of the East Coast League in 1997-98. As player personnel director, Laviolette changed half the roster. As coach, he led the Nailers to a record of 37-24-9 and the conference final. The next season he took over as head coach of Providence and led the Bruins' AHL affiliate to a 56-15-4 record and the Calder Cup championship.
When Boston broke his heart by choosing Robbie Ftorek over him to coach the big club, Laviolette earned his first NHL head coaching job with the New York Islanders in 2001. While Laviolette's timing was good -- the Islanders began investing in talent for the first time in a while -- the coach made them an immediate winner. The Islanders started off the season 11-1-1 and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1994.
Of course, Laviolette made his name in Carolina, where he led the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup in 2005-06 -- his first full season with the club. Hiring him mid-season, as Laviolette was in Carolina, the Flyers are hoping for the same magic. But here's the interesting part: Philadelphia, without argument, is a more talented team than the Hurricanes squad he inherited in 2004.
"There isn't any question this team has the capability to succeed, and with the tradition and accountability of the Flyers franchise 'succeeding' means winning the Stanley Cup," said Laviolette.
The Flyers have stumbled so badly this season, it's easy to forget they were re-constructed over the summer to challenge Pittsburgh and Washington for supremacy in the Eastern Conference. Instead, they are a .500 team, which is why general manager Paul Holmgren made the decision to fire his friend John Stevens and give the reins to Laviolette, one of the few available coaches with a Stanley Cup ring.
Now Laviolette faces the daunting task of instilling his system and attitude one-third into the season while meeting the mandate of getting the Flyers into the playoffs. The little coaching time he's had with the Flyers at one practice and a pair of morning skates has been spent making adjustments to the Philadelphia forecheck.
"What he's creating is a lot of one-on-one confrontations," said defenseman Chris Pronger, whose offseason acquisition started all the Stanley Cup talk. "We need to bear down and win more of them. In the last few games, we haven't won very many and it's cost us a lot of goals. At the end of the day, playing aggressive, playing a tight gap...you're essentially man-on-man in the neutral zone, you're being aggressive with your forecheck and that's going to create a lot of turnovers.
"Our transition game needs to be much better. Guys need to be moving their feet and moving around on the ice. It makes for a more up-tempo, aggressive style of game."
That's Laviolette hockey, but could the coaching change blow up spectacularly on the Flyers? You cannot completely rule that out. Laviolette does not seem to fit the classic mold of the Flyers, who more than 30 years after the Broad Street Bullies won the Cup still employ more frequent fighters than any team in the league.
Then there's the question of goaltending. The Flyers have not had superior netminding since the days of Ron Hextall and Pelle Lindburgh in the mid-80s, and Bernie Parent a decade before them. The surprise offseason addition of (former?) hothead Ray Emery has not been the problem so far, but he has not been the answer either.
After Laviolette took over the Hurricanes midseason, they were 13-4-3 in their final 20 games. It was not good enough for Carolina to make the playoffs, but set the course for the Stanley Cup-winning season to follow. In Philadelphia, Laviolette will not be forgiven if he fails to make the playoffs this season. The pressure to win Philadelphia's first title since 1975 would really kick in next year.
"I know the Flyers saw what we accomplished in Carolina," he said with a slight laugh. "They'd just like to get it done a little more quickly. Believe me, so do I."
Looking at his coaching history, Laviolette's a tough guy to bet against.