Cross Checks: Paul Holmgren

The Flyers have fired coach Peter Laviolette. Can former tough guy Craig Berube turn the ship around? Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun have an idea.

Scott Burnside: Well, my friend, that didn't take long. You confirmed Monday morning through sources that the Philadelphia Flyers fired Peter Laviolette as head coach after the team lurched to an 0-3-0 start, scoring just three goals over that span. I watched some of the Flyers' 2-1 loss to Carolina on Sunday and they were not really a factor, dominated in the first period and managing just three shots on goal in the third when they needed a goal to tie. Overall, they had just 18 shots on goal.

So, is that a function of coaching? No question a team with Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Jakub Voracek, and newcomers Vincent Lecavalier and Mark Streit should be generating more than this. But the firing, for me, also illustrates the fact this is a team that has been in an almost perpetual state of upheaval since going to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010.

Top players such as former captain Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have been traded. The Flyers signed a big-name free agent netminder in Ilya Bryzgalov, which fell to pieces with the team buying the netminder out in the offseason, and now they've fired their head coach after just three games. Lots of questions about whether longtime Flyers assistant Craig Berube is the right guy to get Philadelphia back where it needs to be, but the bigger question is what comes next, especially if the team continues to struggle?

Pierre LeBrun: I do know Berube is beloved by the players and I think that's where it has to start: re-establishing a trusting relationship between the players and the coach. A source told me Monday morning that Laviolette and the players were no longer on the same page, and that's not shocking when you saw how they played in the opening three games. The players seemed to be waiting for the coach to be fired. It makes you wonder why the Flyers didn't make this change last spring, after the Flyers missed the playoffs.

In my conversations with GM Paul Holmgren during the offseason, Holmgren was wary, generally speaking, of overreacting to a lockout-shortened 2013 season. But it was clear Laviolette would be on a short leash to begin this season, and now we see Holmgren meant it.

Burnside: Listening in on the Monday press conference to announce the change, it was clear Holmgren felt the team was not truly a team at this stage. We've seen this kind of change go both ways. Joel Quenneville came on for the popular Denis Savard four games into the 2008-09 season, and the Chicago Blackhawks went to the Western Conference finals the following spring before winning the Cup in 2010. In 2007, the Atlanta Thrashers fired Bob Hartley after an 0-6-0 start and the Thrashers stumbled to a 14th-place finish in the Eastern Conference with Don Waddell behind the bench.

Are the Flyers more Thrashers than Blackhawks? Probably not. But how good are they, really? The goaltending has been OK, but there needs to be more from the offense. Is this about structure and scheme or is it about personnel? If it's about personnel and the team continues to struggle, does it not stand to reason that Holmgren is next out the door?

The dominoes were in place for such a move the moment owner Ed Snider brought in longtime fan favorite and assistant GM Ron Hextall from Los Angeles. Holmgren said he made the decision to fire Laviolette on the flight home from Carolina on Sunday night, and a testy Snider said the GM made the decision and the owner approved it. But one has to imagine that the team is going to have to show immediate improvement or the pressure will continue to mount to remove Holmgren, even though it’s unusual to see a GM replaced in-season.

LeBrun: I believe one factor in Laviolette’s firing was an organizational concern that some young players on the team -- namely Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn -- were not developing properly, or as rapidly as anticipated. The Flyers traded away Carter and Richards because they truly believed Couturier and Schenn were capable of supporting star center Giroux as the team redeveloped its core. It just hasn't worked out that way so far.

Moving Berube into the head coaching role will be interesting, not only because the players really like him, but also front-office men Ian Laperriere and John Paddock move behind the bench to Berube's staff. Laperriere will also be well-liked by the players, and Paddock is a key with his loads of coaching experience. His voice will be important for Berube in helping reshape the team's identity. His addition to the staff is the move I like most.

As for Holmgren, it's pretty obvious with Hextall in place that if the team doesn't turn this thing around, it's only a matter of time before a GM switch happens. But a GM change usually is best left for the offseason or when the season is obviously lost, and it's still early in this season.

Burnside: OK, so now what? Yes, the players say they love Berube. And Holmgren went on glowingly about what a smart hockey man the former NHL tough guy is, but is he ready to be an NHL head coach in a market that is starved for a winner? I agree with your assessment of the changes to the staff, but if Holmgren had strong misgivings about Laviolette after missing the playoffs last spring, he did a disservice to the coach and the franchise by not acting in the offseason when candidates John Tortorella, Alain Vigneault, Dallas Eakins and Lindy Ruff were available.

Berube's the man now, though, and everything falls on him. As for Laviolette, I always feel a bit bad for a coach who gets axed because of an underachieving team, because the stink of failure rarely adheres to the players who are, for the most part, responsible. Laviolette, who is an assistant to Dan Bylsma with the U.S. Olympic team, is a good coach and will get another job. And now that he's available, it ups the ante for other teams off to rocky starts, as was the case when Bruce Boudreau was let go early in Washington a couple of years back and quickly took Randy Carlyle's job in Anaheim.

LeBrun: The biggest challenge now for this team is to re-establish an identity. Coaches talk about that all the time, and it's true. You have to establish who and what you are as a team. The Flyers have been lost for more than a year. There is no swagger and there hasn't been for a long time. Berube's task it to make this a team that's hard to play against, and a team that uses its speed to create turnovers. We've seen very little of that from this squad for a long time.

Never a dull moment in Philadelphia, right?
With the Flyers about to miss the playoffs for only the second time in 18 seasons, the focus in Philadelphia turns to what has to be done for the team to avoid a similar fate a year from now.

This isn't a town where missing the playoffs is taken lightly. Owner Ed Snider wants to win -- now.

Having said that, there's the danger of overreacting to a lockout-shortened season when a lot of strange and surprising things happened around the league.

"There's a fine line between winning and losing in our league, that's how tight it is," Flyers GM Paul Holmgren told ESPN.com Monday. "You don't have to look very closely at the standings to recognize that. There's a few teams that had runaway years, you look at Pittsburgh and Chicago in particular, but everybody else is fairly close.

"I look at our team, it's amazing that's where we're at with the power play and penalty killing near the top of the league; but 5-on-5 goals, we're way down. That's probably what did us in, more than anything."

Indeed, it's hard to believe a team that Monday morning sat third overall on the power play and sixth on the penalty kill will miss the playoffs. However, when you look at the 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio (one of my favorite stats), the Flyers sit 28th overall at 0.82, just ahead of the Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers.

"We changed the way we played a little bit in our end and I think it affected us offensively," Holmgren said. "We didn't really get the hang of how we were trying to play, I think."

Not re-signing Jaromir Jagr last season has been pointed out by many as a mistake, as the future Hall of Famer meshed very well with Claude Giroux last season. Trading James van Riemsdyk to the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer has also been linked to the Flyers' offensive struggles.

Losing Scott Hartnell for a month early in the season to a broken foot was a huge loss to the top line. It was the beginning of a long list of injuries to the Flyers in general that certainly impacted the team.

"Obviously losing people at different times of the year doesn't help," Holmgren said. "But you have to find ways to fight through that stuff, and we didn't."

Another key factor: The Flyers had hoped that second-year forwards Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier would take their games to another level, and that simply didn't happen.

"We rely a lot on Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, they both played significant minutes this year," Holmgren said. "They probably had similar years than they had last year in terms of numbers if you pro-rate it, but obviously when you're playing those minutes maybe you expect a little more. Maybe our expectations were a little bit too high for those young guys. I think they're both good young players; they're going to continue to grow and get better. Sometimes you can't speed up that process no matter what you do. You just have to let time take care of it."

Sometimes when young players don't develop as quickly as the team had hoped, the coaching staff feels the heat.

And certainly with the pressure to win in Philadelphia, missing the playoffs is usually a dangerous thing for a coach. But when asked about the future of Peter Laviolette, Holmgren denied the speculation about the coach being in trouble.

"I've never even thought along those lines," Holmgren said. "I think Peter's a good coach, I think our coaches have done a good job under the circumstances. Nobody's happy with the position we're in and not being in the playoffs. We need to sit down at talk at the end of the year and figure out a way to get back in. That's what we do."

There's been just as much if not more speculation about the future of Ilya Bryzgalov, who is wrapping up Year 2 of a nine-year, $51 million deal with the Flyers. Some believe the proper thing to do with the Russian netminder would be to use one of the two compliance buyouts the NHL offered up in the new CBA which don't count against the cap. All it would cost is money, as in $23 million over the next 14 years according to capgeek.com, if the Flyers were to buy him out.

That talk intensified at the trade deadline after the Flyers acquired goalie Steve Mason. But as Holmgren put it Monday, he was only trying to strengthen the team's depth of the position, not replace Bryzgalov. People should not have read more into it than that, the GM said.

"Steve is a guy that we've liked. When the opportunity came up to make the trade for him, it was the intention of having good goaltending," Holmgren said. "I think right now with Ilya and Steve, we've got good goaltending moving forward. Any talk of anything other than that I think is out of bounds."

The point, Holmgren said, is to protect Bryzgalov next season so he doesn't have to play too many games.

"Ilya played a lot of games this year, but he's not going to play 82 games next season," Holmgren said. "You need a guy that can go in. Steve's a young guy still, he's had some success at an early age in our league. I think working with (goalies coach) Jeff Reese he can get back to a good level. He certainly has the right attitude about it. He's been great since he's been here."

To be clear, I asked Holmgren if there was any basis at all to the speculation of a Bryzgalov buyout.

"No," he said.

But there is offseason work to be done for a Flyers team that is just three years removed from a berth in the Stanley Cup final.

"Now we have to figure out a way to get back in the thick of things," Holmgren said. "I like our group moving forward. We'll look at a number of different things through the draft and through the rest of the summer and come up with something that will help us get back in the mix."
The day after the trade deadline is often like the day after a big family wedding. Lots of stuff to sift through. Maybe you'll find an unexpected and unopened gift, or maybe you'll be reminded that the gift you thought stunk the day before still stinks today.

Speaking of gifts, could the New York Rangers have scripted their big day any better? After unloading their top pure scorer in Marian Gaborik to the Columbus Blue Jackets in an effort to redefine their personality, the goal-starved Rangers poured six past the Pittsburgh Penguins en route to a 6-1 shellacking of the Eastern Conference leaders. And wouldn't you know it: Three newcomers, Ryane Clowe, Derick Brassard and John Moore, figured prominently in the win by combining for four goals and four assists -- and this after racing from Columbus and, in Clowe's case, San Jose to join their new team.

The goals were the first two of the season for Clowe, who illustrated the sometimes bizarre nature of the trade-deadline period as he became one of the hottest properties available in spite of the goose egg in the goal column. No more. And now the Rangers hope this makeover in midstream will carry them not just to the postseason but to something more grand come playoff time. Certainly the earliest returns are sparkling, as they jumped into seventh in the conference, although they have same number of points as the eighth-place New Jersey Devils and ninth-place New York Islanders.

Speaking of the Penguins, that’s two lopsided losses in a row for a team that began the week on a 15-game winning streak and with an eye toward making history. Didn't happen, of course, as they were whipped 4-1 by the Buffalo Sabres at home Tuesday, then were spanked at Madison Square Garden after GM Ray Shero added another piece to the Pens' arsenal in the form of veteran forward Jussi Jokinen.

Probably not a bad thing to have a few stinkers down the stretch, just in case anyone in that locker room was thinking the 15-game win streak meant they could just throw their sticks on the ice and come away with a W. We were in Chicago recently and talked to some there who weren't all that disappointed to see the Blackhawks' record 24-game point streak come to an end, what with all the media attention.

Sometimes it's easier for a coach to get his team's attention when it's facing a little adversity. But the twin Pittsburgh losses also highlight the challenges in integrating a handful of new, prominent faces into your lineup with a dozen or so games left in the season. The Pens are also battling the injury bug, with captain Sidney Crosby out indefinitely with a broken jaw, Kris Letang recuperating from a toe injury and defenseman Paul Martin out until playoff time or longer with a hand injury.

Lots of moving parts for coach Dan Bylsma to figure out in the next 3½ weeks.

The curious case of Steve Mason


It wasn't the classic Paul Holmgren "holy cow" move, a la obtaining Chris Pronger or moving Mike Richards or Jeff Carter, but the Philadelphia Flyers GM did not disappoint Wednesday, even if the move he made was a little more subtle. The acquisition of former rookie of the year Steve Mason from the Blue Jackets for Michael Leighton (remember him from Game 6 of the ’10 Stanley Cup final?) and a third-round pick has the potential to create an interesting ripple effect in Philly.

Never mind the roller-coaster Mason has been on since bursting onto the scene with 10 shutouts in his first season (2008-09). In fact, if you're a fan of irony, one of the reasons the Blue Jackets were surprise buyers Wednesday was the play of former Flyers netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, who was dealt to Columbus in the offseason. Bobrovsky may win the Vezina Trophy and the Blue Jackets may make the playoffs, so Mason was deemed expendable. Go figure.

Now Holmgren is going to give Mason a look in the final weeks of the season as he wrestles with a rather huge decision regarding Ilya Bryzgalov, who has been OK this season. With two amnesty buyouts available to him, Holmgren will have to look hard at what remains on Bryzgalov's nine-year, $51 million contract. There were multiple reports Thursday that Mason was on the verge of signing a new deal with the Flyers, which means Holmgren's plan is to give Mason a chance -- if not as a starter than certainly to replace the depth that went out the door with the Bobrovsky deal.

If Mason impresses, does it change Holmgren's mind about Bryzgalov?

For the record, Bryzgalov got the win over the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night, as the Flyers kept their playoff heart beating faintly. They were four points out of eighth place with 12 games remaining heading into play Thursday.

Kudos to Sharks GM Wilson


We have often been critical of the San Jose Sharks for their inability to capitalize on what is a perennially talent-laden lineup. But you have to tip your hat to GM Doug Wilson, who appears to have navigated the competing waters of trimming fat and maintaining a competitive team with great skill. The Sharks are the hottest team in the NHL with six wins in a row, the latest coming Wednesday night over the Minnesota Wild. The win moved them into a tie with the Wild and Vancouver Canucks with 44 points and gave the Sharks a good shot at getting home-ice advantage in the first round as the conference's fourth seed, something that seemed implausible even a month ago.

Meanwhile, Wilson got good return for Clowe: a second-, a third- and a conditional second-round pick from the Rangers. He also obtained a fourth-round pick from Chicago for Michal Handzus, and got two more second-round picks from Pittsburgh for Douglas Murray (the second of which is conditional). And then Wilson added some grit and tenacity in the form of Raffi Torres.

The moves give Wilson all kinds of options in terms of assets with which to help restock a barren prospects cupboard, as well as additional cap space. That doesn't even take into account the potential for a long playoff run. That's a pretty good bit of work.

Can Sullivan restart Devils?


If ever there was a team that's all about bringing things full circle, it's the Devils. And so it was that GM Lou Lamoriello brought home veteran winger Steve Sullivan almost 19 years after the team selected him with the 233rd pick in the 1994 draft. Sullivan played in 16 games for the Devils in 1995-96 and 33 the next season before he was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade that would see iconic Leafs captain Doug Gilmour and defenseman Dave Ellett go to the Devils. Gilmour would go on to finish a Hall of Fame career while Sullivan, 38, continues his hockey odyssey after being dealt for a seventh-round pick by the Phoenix Coyotes on Wednesday.

We've had the opportunity to catch up with the Timmins, Ontario, native (dubbed by some the "Timmins Tornado") at various stops along the way, and he has proved to be unfailingly upbeat even in the face of injuries that threatened his career a few years back. Although it hasn't been a banner year for Sullivan, who signed with the Coyotes after a one-season stop in Pittsburgh and had just five goals in 33 games, there's something about the Devils' culture that allows guys like Sullivan to thrive. He'll need to, as the Devils are sliding their way out of the playoff picture without the injured Ilya Kovalchuk.

No easy answers in Buffalo


Say what you will about the state of the Sabres, but GM Darcy Regier did well to maximize his return for captain Jason Pominville on Wednesday. He coaxed a first- and a second-round draft pick and two prospects out of Minnesota (the Wild also got a fourth-round pick from the Sabres). That's two years in a row Regier has done a nice job in making the most of what has become an unsightly mess in Buffalo by bringing in young players and draft picks.

But there's the rub, no? Who made the mess?

It's not just Regier; every year, a GM of an underachieving team sets about trying to restock the shelves with picks and assets after plans go awry. If it's a blip on the radar kind of thing -- as we saw with playoff bubble teams Phoenix and Nashville shedding assets in recent days after being competitive playoff teams the past few years -- that's one thing. But what if it's a systemic kind of thing?

Given that the Sabres fired longtime coach Lindy Ruff already this season and look likely to miss the playoffs for a second straight season, there is an expectation that owner Terry Pegula will finish the top-end makeover by relieving Regier of his duties after the season. If that's the plan, then where is the logic in having Regier make these kinds of significant moves (he also traded Robyn Regehr to the Los Angeles Kings)? It's not easy to replace a GM in midseason, although the Blue Jackets showed it can be done with impressive results.

Buffalo is not unique in dealing with this dynamic, and there are certainly lots of problems that will be left over for a new GM to deal with if a change is made. But it remains an annual curiosity in the NHL as some GMs' final moves may end up having significant long-term impacts on teams they're about to part company with.

SPONSORED HEADLINES