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Monday, October 23, 2006
Flyers eager for fresh start under new coach Stevens

Associated Press

VOORHEES, N.J. -- John Stevens saw Ken Hitchcock as a mentor. He thought he could absorb Hitchcock's decades of experience and mold that into his own long career.

The Philadelphia Flyers hope John Stevens is the answer to their early season woes.

Well, things move fast.

Just months into his first NHL assistant's job, Stevens was made coach of the Philadelphia Flyers after Hitchcock was fired.

Still, on such short notice, he was ready with new ideas Monday in his first full day in charge -- lines were shuffled; players handled the puck more in drills.

The noticeable difference for the NHL-worst Flyers may be this: Many of the younger players that load the roster no longer worry about how every mistake might cost them playing time or get them an earful from an angry Hitchcock. These Flyers are bit more relaxed.

"When I had Hitch the first year, it was my fourth year in the league and it felt like my first year, so it was pretty tough," leading scorer Simon Gagne said. "He's very tough, very demanding on you. Sometimes it's very tough to play under that kind of pressure. Maybe with John Stevens as the coach, I think he'll give more chances for the young guys and to let them make mistakes."

Stevens already has a natural trust and respect with many of the second- and third-year Flyers from coaching them with the team's AHL affiliate, the Phantoms. Stevens led the Phantoms to the Calder Cup championship in 2005 with current Flyers like center Jeff Carter, goalie Antero Niittymaki and defenseman Freddy Meyer.

"I think there's a fine line between holding people accountable and letting them play," Stevens said.

To fill Stevens' spot, the Flyers made Craig Berube assistant coach. Kjell Samuelsson was promoted to replace Berube as the Phantoms' coach.

Center Mike Richards played only 14 games with the Phantoms in 2005, all in the postseason when he scored 15 points, but said Stevens was more of a player's coach than the always-demanding, sometimes-stubborn Hitchcock.

"He's a quieter guy on the bench," Richards said. "He'll tell you what you need to do, but he's not going to yell at you. He's a pretty positive guy.

"He's not the type of guy who's just going to bark and bark at you until he's blue in the face. If something needs to be said, he'll tell you or show you on video."

The Flyers hope thawed player-coach relations leads to improved production on the ice. The Flyers are off to their worst start in 17 years with a 1-6-1 mark and the fewest points in the NHL. They have only 15 goals in eight games -- five by Gagne -- and have allowed a whopping 32.

That led to a seismic shakeup Sunday in which Hitchcock was fired and general manager Bob Clarke resigned. Chairman Ed Snider acknowledged the Flyers had tuned out Hitchcock and his demanding style

"Nobody felt good about yesterday," Stevens said. "We can't sit around and feel sorry for ourselves."

Stevens wasted little time making an imprint, tinkering with the lines, notably moving Gagne around and even trying Meyer at forward. Stevens met with coaches to figure out the unsettled goalie situation and did not name a starter for Thursday's game against Atlanta.

Niittymaki and Robert Esche believe they should start. Esche is winless in two starts this season and allowed all the goals in a 9-1 loss at Buffalo last week that triggered the drastic moves.

While all the Flyers said all the right words Sunday about how much they'd miss Hitchcock, their tone changed a day later after their second practice in two days with Stevens.

"We need to start all over again," Gagne said. "We can't keep going the same way the team was going before. You need to do some change. I like the way he's thinking. I had a great talk with him today. I'm a little bit impressed with the way he talked to me."

Richards said the rookie coach's words carry more impact because he picks the right spots to deliver his message.

"There's different styles of coaching, different styles of players, leaders," Richards said. "Some people are very soft-spoken like Johnny is. When he talks, people listen."