Saturday December 5th, 2009

If John Stevens had finished out the campaign with Philadelphia, he would have passed Paul Holmgren and Mike Keenan to rank second for games coached in Flyers' history.

Looks like he'll have to settle for being No. 4.

Stevens became the season's first coaching casualty Friday afternoon when the axe that had been poised over his neck for the better part of a year finally fell. The move was made with the Flyers mired in a 1-6 slump that saw the preseason Stanley Cup favorites slide from sixth to 10th place in the Eastern Conference.

Despite the team's maddening inconsistency, it was a difficult decision for Holmgren. "It was a hard walk for me today to walk to John's office. A hard walk," he said at a Friday night press conference. "It might have been the hardest thing I've ever had to do."

After spending 15 years working his way up the organizational ladder with Stevens, he knew this wasn't entirely a mess of the coach's making. Injuries played a role in the skid, with Simon Gagne, Danny Briere and Blair Betts out for extended stretches. The AHLers called up to replace them hit the ground stumbling. The goaltending ran hot and cold -- isn't that always the way it is in Philly? -- and several players counted on to be key contributors developed the jimmy hands. Jeff Carter had goals in just two of his last 11 games. James van Reimsdyk was blanked through seven. Chris Pronger had one assist in his last nine games. Opposing goalies appropriated the nightly First Star award, and not because they discovered their inner Terry Sawchuk.

It will probably be forgotten that the Flyers played pretty well over his final two games. They outshot the Thrashers 34-18 and outchanced them by an equally wide margin in a 1-0 loss, then came on strong in the final two stanzas against Vancouver, launching 29 shots over those frantic frames in an effort to dent Roberto Luongo.

Fair to say this wasn't a team that gave up on its coach, but trying doesn't count for near as many points in the standings as winning. And the 13-11-1 Flyers weren't doing enough of the latter to justify his continued employment.

The consensus is that Stevens proved himself to be a bright, thoughtful coach with a solid understanding of the game during his three-year tenure, but that his muted style was better suited for a young, developing team. That's a description that no longer fit a max-cap Flyers club that aimed straight for the Cup with the summer acquisitions of Pronger and Ray Emery.

Peter Laviolette, named as Stevens' replacement, is a similar coach in some ways but with a more disciplinarian edge. He's also a proven closer at the NHL level. Midway through 2003-04, he took over a Carolina team that was loaded with experience, grit and depth up front but had lost its focus under Paul Maurice. Laviolette proved to be the right hand on the till. Eighteen months later, they were skating the Cup in the RBC Center.

No guarantees Laviolette can do the same for Philly, but he'll bring that fresh voice that spurred the Canes.

For all his talents, Stevens simply had run out of things to say. It was time for him to go.

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