Twenty-three players, more or less, failed to earn their paychecks through the Flyers’ first 25 games this season and as a result, John Stevens, a very good hockey man and a champion as a player and head coach lost his job.
Adhering to the sports bromide, “you can’t fire the whole team,” GM Paul Holmgren axed a friend and Flyer-lifer Dec. 4. In making Stevens the fall guy, Holmgren followed what seems to be a modern day tradition in Philadelphia (and elsewhere, unfortunately) to blame the coach first and maybe hold the players accountable later. The Flyers didn’t invent this approach, but since the firing of Terry Murray following a Stanley Cup final appearance in 1997 (remember Murray’s blasphemous accusation “they quit”) it appears Flyers coaches, much like Goldilocks’ problem with the beds in the bears’ house, are either “too hard” or “too soft.”
After the 67-game Wayne Cashman experiment in 1997-98, the Flyers employed “player-friendly” coaches in Roger Nielson and Craig Ramsay. Ramsay took over for Nielson 57 games into the 1999-00 season and went 16-8-1 down the stretch. He then led the Flyers to the Eastern Conference final before losing at home to the eventual Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils 2-1 in Game 7.
The following season, with the Flyers sitting at 12-12-4, Ramsay was perceived as too much of a “soft on players” coach and was shown the door. No-nonsense Flyer Hall of Famer Bill Barber replaced Ramsay and went 31-16-7 for the balance of the 2000-01 campaign. The Flyers were eliminated by Buffalo in the first round of the playoffs and Barber won the Jack Adams Award.
The following season, Barber’s team went 42-27-10-3 and opened the playoffs against Ottawa. The Flyers won the first game of the series 1-0 in overtime before losing four straight by a combined score of 11-1. The Orange and Black were shutout in three straight games!
Following the playoff ouster, Flyers players began whining to GM Bob Clarke and the media. Barber wasn’t an “X’s and O’s guy” and he “didn’t practice the power play.” The revolt worked and Barber was dumped. (He became my director of player personnel in Tampa.)
When Clarke hired former Stanley Cup champion Ken Hitchcock to replace Barber, some players had to wonder if they had gone from the frying pan into the fire. Hitchcock lasted until the start of the 2006-07 season when it was determined after eight games a more “player-friendly” approach was needed and Stevens was given the job. Stevens went 120-109-36 in Philly and was 13-11-1 when fired.
Once again, the Flyers have moved from a “good cop” coach to a “bad cop” coach by hiring the demanding Peter Laviolette, another Stanley Cup champion. Meanwhile, the players remain the same. In fact, Laviolette’s putative No. 1 goaltender now that Ray Emery is on the IR is the very same Brian Boucher who helped run Barber out of town back in 2002.
Terry Murray, Craig Ramsay, Bill Barber, Ken Hitchcock and John Stevens. Good men all jettisoned because players failed to do their jobs. Peter Laviolette is a good man, too: How long will he survive in Philly? Which player(s) will he anger and send fleeing to the GM or media for succor? How long until the employees demand a softer, more gentle touch?
Cue another “player-friendly” coach or, better yet, demand the players start turning their pointer fingers inward for a change. I wonder what would happen in Philadelphia if management decided to “fire” some of those guys next time?
Jay Feaster is a former GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he took over in 2002 and helped build the team into a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. As he did last season, he will blog on THN.com throughout the 2009-10 campaign. Read his other entries HERE.