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John Stevens' firing by Flyers not unexpected as Laviolette takes over

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"Five Hole" logoThe winds of change are swirling again in South Philadelphia.

John Stevens is out  as head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. Peter Laviolette is in.

The Flyers announced this change officially at a press conference late Friday evening, officially signaling the end of what was an overall solid, but unfulfilling three-year run for Stevens as head coach. Stevens had two playoff berths during his tenure, including one berth in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2008. But quite frankly, this move comes at a good time for a struggling Flyers squad.

And even more frankly, this is a move long overdue.

Laviolette, a Stanley Cup winning coach from his days behind the bench for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, boasts an impressive resume that includes him amongst the winningest American born coaches in NHL history. Laviolette, who was the coach of the 2006 U.S. Olympic hockey team, is from Norwood Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Interestingly, it is Laviolette, not Stevens, that will lead his Flyers team into Boston’s Fenway Park on New Year ’s Day to face the Bruins for the NHL’s annual Winter Classic. It will be a sort of homecoming for the Flyers new coach, but more importantly it will be an early chance to stamp his imprint on a national stage.

In his three plus seasons as coach, Stevens helped turn around the worst Flyers team in club history and led them to the Conference Finals the very next year. Impressive, but as time wore on, it became apparent that his lack of outward fire was being mimicked by his players. Unlike his predecessor Ken Hitchcock, Stevens’ calm demeanor never made for much of a press conference. However, his stoic presence behind the bench seemed healthy for a group of players who flatly bailed on one of the league’s finest coaches in Hitchcock. Moreover, his serenity behind the bench was infuriating to fans who have watched the Flyers transform into the league’s most penalized team.

Never the type to light up a room with color and vivacity, Stevens was sold to the Flyers fan base as a passionate, dedicated, up-and-coming coach with a penchant for player development. His lack of experience at the NHL level was not a concern due to his success as the head coach of the AHL Phantoms right here in Philly, where his team of youngsters including Jeff Carter and Mike Richards brought home a Calder Cup during the NHL strike season of 2004-2005. It was this existing rapport with these young stars that catapulted him into a position in which I personally never felt suited him best.

I am not one to call for someone’s head, but I do honestly feel as if this change is both necessary and beneficial to the future of the franchise. The move this past summer to acquire an aging difference maker such as Chris Pronger indicated that the Flyers felt they had the personnel to win now. They are loaded with young talent and a steady bunch of defensemen. But this team was going nowhere fast with Stevens and his timid demeanor and constant line juggling. His inability this season to find one combination to provide steady scoring has reared its ugly head, especially in the last two games- both shutouts. This team simply should never go eight days and eight periods without a goal. This is just unacceptable, and it ultimately became the nail in Steven’s proverbial coffin.

There were just too many crucial games in which his young team not only failed to win, but failed to show up. For example, game six of the of the 2008 playoff series against Washington in which they failed to come close to eliminating the Capitals on home ice. Or last year’s regular season finale against the Rangers, a third period debacle that cost the Flyers home ice advantage against the Penguins that would eliminate them just two weeks later.

The time for a change was now, if not before. I felt it coming this season if this team struggled at all, which they have done in the last few weeks. I sensed that GM Paul Holmgren and Ed Snider, the fiery, no-nonsense owner and czar of the franchise, would take a page out of the book of last year’s Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins by getting some new blood in here. The great thing is that Laviolette is much more than just new blood. He brings a Stanley Cup back behind the Flyers bench, something they have been missing since they fired Ken Hitchcock in favor of Stevens.

Just two months ago I indicated that the job status of John Stevens was one of the “Things to Watch” during the upcoming season. I described the job of an NHL coach as fickle, and today provides even more truth to my assertion. Unbelievably, Stevens reigned as the sixth longest tenured coach in the NHL. Only five coaches in the league have been coaching in excess of three years in the same city. This is astounding and is truthfully more of a statement about the modern NHL than it is about John Stevens.

Truth be told, I was not in love with the hiring of Stevens in October of 2006. Conversely speaking, I am happy about the hiring of Laviolette today. He is a winner and no nonsense coach with a strong desire to return to glory.

In February of last year, I witnessed first hand as the Flyers lost a heartbreaking Saturday matinee at the Wachovia Center to a Pittsburgh Penguins team led by their brand new coach “Disco Dan” Bylsma. The Penguins were a talented but injured, struggling team going nowhere fast until Bylsma rescued their sinking ship. That game gave me the experience of watching a team rise from the ashes toward an eventual Stanley Cup parade, leaving the Flyers in their dust along the way.

The ultimate hope for this season is that lightning strikes twice in the Keystone State.