Josh Kaz takes a look at what went wrong this season as the Flyers look to hire their third coach in four years.
By Josh Kaz
The Philadelphia Flyers capped a disappointing 2014-15 season with a home defeat that sent the Ottawa Senators into the NHL postseason.
It was the second of the last three years in which Philadelphia has failed to qualify for the NHL playoffs, something the team had done in 16 of 17 seasons prior to its 2013 miss.
There’s always enough blame to go around in every locker room, but the man asked to shoulder it on Friday was Flyers head coach Craig Berube, who was dismissed by the team.
“In the end it’s more collectively as a group, it’s getting the most out of each individual and then collectively pulling that effort together, and in the end squeezing the most out of your team,” Flyers GM Ron Hextall told CSN Philly.
“And that’s the part that I just felt like in the end, it wasn’t enough.”
When concepts like consistency, leadership, and effort are on the table, all signs point to a coaching change–especially for a coach who talked about mental toughness as a key to victory at the start of the season.
Philadelphia proved it could be a dangerous team, just not consistently so.
Players must be held accountable, but for a team that just lost two assistant captains–Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell–in one season, and whose average age is younger than 28, its coach must be the strongest voice in the room.
The team went 12-2-6 in its last 20 games against teams in the playoff hunt and 4-9-6 against teams that weren’t.
In five of their last six games, the Flyers defeated playoff-bound Pittsburgh twice and the New York Islanders once, and then lost to Carolina, the fourth-worst team in the league, twice.
The lack of leadership was evident in the decline of a penalty killing unit that had been top-10 in 2014 (#7) and in 2015 was bottom-five (#26).
The penalty kill is one of the most heavily practiced situational drills in hockey; when it goes wrong, with different players in place for an entire season, coaching is called into question.
The absence of Timonen was a big factor, but the Flyers allowed a third-worst-in-the-NHL 61 power-play goals, 37 on the road (the second-most in the league).
Only three teams in the NHL had fewer road wins than Philadelphia this year, in their worst road season (10-21-11) in 23 years (1992).
The Flyers, who won 23 games at home, scored 118 goals at the Wells Fargo Center while giving up just 96 (plus-22) ratio. On the road, Philadelphia only scored 94 goals while allowing 127 (minus-33). Last year the team was 18-16-7 on the road; not great, but respectable.
Home games are easy to get excited about and to prepare for. Players have home-cooked meals, they are close to family and friends, they are sleeping in their own beds, and, most importantly, they have a stadium packed with fans helping get them pumped up.
On the road, it all comes back to having a strong voice in the locker room. Captain Claude Giroux is still young, and prefers to lead with his on-ice play.
Meanwhile, Mark Streit and Wayne Simmonds, in just their first seasons as assistant captains, were among the most veteran players on the team. (Only two Flyers are older than 32: Vinny Lecavalier, who at 34 was a healthy scratch for several games, and Mark Streit, 37, yet in only his ninth NHL season). They needed their coach to be their leader.
The absence of veteran leadership and a consistent coach also showed in the Flyers’ overtime/shootout record.After regulation, the Flyers earned the extra point in only eight of 26 opportunities: they were 5-7 in overtime and 3-11 in shootouts. Those 18 overtime/shootout losses led the league by far, with a league-worst 11 coming on the road; their eight wins were tied for seventh-worst.
The shootout has long been a struggle for the Flyers, and the story was no different this year. In 14 shootouts, only two Flyers scored in more than one of them: Jake Voracek (5 for 12) and Wayne Simmonds (4 for 7). The rest of the Flyers who participated in at least one shootout (7 total players) combined for just three goals on 34 attempts; notable underachievers were Claude Giroux (1 for 12), Sean Couturier (1 for 8), and Matt Read (0 for 5).
The center lock
Berube was not a terrible coach, and did do many good things.
His system, which he called a ‘Center Lock’, was defensive-minded and actually worked throughout the season. During even-strength play, the Flyers allowed the ninth-fewest goals (137), better than some of the best teams in the league, including the New York Rangers, Anaheim Ducks, and St. Louis Blues.
The problem with this system is that it doesn’t create a whole lot of offense. During the same 5-on-5 play, Philadelphia only scored 138 goals, the seventh-fewest in the NHL.
Behind the ‘Center Lock,’ a system that relies on a physical and defensive-minded center, Claude Giroux only scored 11 even-strength goals, his lowest total since 2009-10 (excluding the lockout-shortened season).
Losing the locker room
Players may take responsibility for the outcome of such a season, telling the media not to blame the coach. But that wasn’t the message from most of them during their exit interviews on Monday.
Many players talked about leadership issues, consistency, and some even questioned their roles.
There were a few bright spots, including the emergence of Jake Voracek, rookie Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Chris Vandevelde, and Michael Del Zotto.
Voracek had a career high in assists and points, Bellemare and Vandevelde jelled on a fourth line that proved not to need enforcers, and Del Zotto’s ice time and point production both increased drastically after a slew of healthy scratches got him back on track.
Other players simply didn’t thrive under the coach. Matt Read went completely backwards this year, his worst season as a pro. After scoring 20 goals in two of his first three seasons (the third being the lockout-shortened season in which he scored 11 goals in 42 games), Read scored a lowly eight goals.
Read was thrown into a same defensive role with the struggling Sean Couturier, and despite these troubles in even-strength, power-play, and penalty-kill play, Berube kept the pairing together for much of the season.
Couturier, who scored just 37 points this year mentioned in his exit interview that he wants to be known as more than just a defensive center; Berube never quite gave him that opportunity. Vinny Lecavalier, who also felt misused by the coach, said he didn’t know if he could play for Berube next season.
Atop this all looms the Steve Mason story. Whether or not Mason was mishandled, Berube certainly did not show a whole lot of confidence towards his goalie, who was arguably one of the best Flyers all season.
Despite defensive troubles and a poor penalty-killing unit, Mason still put up the third-best save percentage in the NHL (.928).
Yet Berube was stingy with praise for his goalie.
On March 19, Berube pulled Mason after he allowed just two goals. Some coaches do this to send a message to challenge the team to be better in front of its goaltender; however, after the game, Berube blamed Mason for not being able to see through a screen and for simply not playing well.
Details like these contributed to the overwhelming narrative that seemed to indicate that Berube lost the locker room.
Filling the void
According to Darren Dreger of TSN, two coaches will be the Flyers’ main targets: Mike Babcock and Todd McLellan. However, both are still employed by their respective teams (Detroit and San Jose). It is rumored that since Babcock’s contract is up at the end of the season, he is going to move on from the Red Wings organization. McLellan, on the other hand, may mutually agree to leave or be let go by the Sharks organization after they failed to make the playoffs this year.
Other rumored choices include Dan Bylsma (formerly with the Pittsburgh Penguins), Benoit Groulx (coach of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Gatineau Olympiques), Dave Tippett (if he is let go by the Arizona Coyotes), Claude Julien (if fired by Boston Bruins), Peter DeBoer (former New Jersey Devils head coach).
Hextall stated that he would like to have a coach in place before the draft on June 26. The Flyers could draft seventh or eighth overall, but have a small (6.5-percent) chance of landing the first-overall pick, thanks to a revised lottery system.
Josh Kaz writes about the Flyers on DropthePuck.org.