The 4 Recurring Problems of Peter Laviolette's Flyers Tenure

The 4 Recurring Problems of Peter Laviolette's Flyers Tenure

The 2013 NHL season was about as frustrating as it gets for the Philadelphia Flyers, digging themselves an early hole that proved to be too big to climb out of in a shortened schedule. On top of that, the team was hit with a bevy of injuries, particularly on the blue line, and the roster full of young players simply wasn't equipped to turn things around quickly enough.

Without question, those factors made Peter Laviolette's job extremely tough, and as it became more and more evident that the Flyers were not going to make the postseason for just the second time in more than two decades, the murmurs of his job security began to emerge.

Ultimately, we know Peter Laviolette was not fired and won't be fired before the start of the 2013-14 NHL season, and rightfully so. He's been extremely successful in this nearly four seasons as coach, leading the Flyers to within two victories of the Stanley Cup after relieving John Stevens in year one and then following that up with back-to-back 100-plus point seasons before the struggles this year. One underachieving year should not push him out the door.

However, that does not mean Peter Laviolette should be absolved from all Flyers sins. After all, the team has failed to approach any semblance of that first-year playoff success since, getting trounced and muted in the second round in consecutive postseasons, first by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins and then by the New Jersey Devils last year. Then you have the season that just unfolded, and it does make you take pause.

One of the things I have found alarming even amid the success of the Flyers under Laviolette — this season notwithstanding — is the recurring issues with his teams. These four problems in particular have seemed to almost define the negatives of Laviolette's teams while manning the bench for the Orange and Black.

Too many defensive breakdowns

While we all know the Flyers have not had the most reliable men between the pipes over the years, the goaltender's job is exponentially more difficult when he's constantly facing odd-man rushes and/or unmarked shooters. Peter Laviolette's aggressive forechecking system, which calls for defensemen to pinch whenever they can, has led to an awful lot of odd-man rushes going the other way, leaving the Ilya Bryzgalovs and Brian Bouchers (and Michael Leightons, Sergei Bobrovskys, Ray Emerys, et al) of the world out on an island.

Worse still is the amount of defensive breakdowns that routinely occur in the defensive zone when there is no odd-man rush to speak of. How many times over the past three seasons in particular have we seen two players head to the puck, leaving an opposing offensive player all alone? Or a forward (Zherdev) failing to backcheck? Too many to count, that's for damn sure.

This wasn't an issue when Chris Pronger was healthy and Kimmo Timonen was a few years younger, as Pronger and Matt Carle were a shutout tandem along with Timonen and Braydon Coburn. Now with Pronger injured, Timonen slowed, Carle departed and Coburn overworked, the Flyers have been more discombobulated in their own end than ever. It's a problem that has been routine for the past few seasons and one that proved lethal with so many injuries and inexperience on the blue line.

At some point, the coach needs to adjust his system to his personnel, yet Laviolette has never really reined in his aggressive style in favor of a more conservative game plan with more defensive responsibility for all his players on the ice, particularly the forwards coming back to help out in their own zone.

Face-off struggles

A staple of the Flyers teams from the Eric Lindros days up until the changing of the guard to the Mike Richards/Jeff Carter era was the dominance in the face-off circle. Lindros himself was an excellent face-off man, as were Rod Brind'amour (one of the best face-off guys of all time) and Joel Otto, all the way down to Keith Primeau. Any time the Flyers had an important defensive-zone draw in the third period, you'd see one of those guys out there to take and more often than not win the draw.

That has not been the case with the Flyers since Laviolette has taken over, and it's one of my biggest pet peeves for the organization. Just like there have been more defensive breakdowns than anyone can take, there have been countless times we've seen the Flyers lose an important face-off and in turn surrender a goal. That can be crippling. To top it off, it hurts in the offensive zone as well, where possession is necessary to, you know, score.

In his first season, the Flyers weren't terrible in the circle, winning just over half of their draws and sitting at 13th in the league. However, it's been ugly since, dropping to 17th in 2010-11 and then really falling off with the departures of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter — both average guys in the circle but then the best on the team — dipping to 24th in the league by winning just 48.3 percent of draws last season and staying about the same this year, finishing 23rd in the NHL at 48.5 percent.

To his credit, Claude Giroux did improve in the circle this past season and looks poised to continue to get better, and it certainly isn't easy teaching guys how to win draws. But it is incumbent upon the coach to find a way to get his centers more adept at the dots and to teach his wingers to help out more, whether it requires bringing in a specialist or working on it hard at practice or whatever else. It's tough to be a consistently good team if you're always chasing after the puck.

Slow starts

Admittedly, this problem is much more specific to the past two seasons, not Laviolette's entire tenure. In fact, in Laviolette's first full season on the bench, the Flyers scored the third most goals in the NHL in the first period (76) and surrendered the seventh least amount of goals (59) in the opening 20 minutes. However, it's been a huge problem the past two seasons, and the Flyers actually only scored six more goals in the first period in 2009-10 than they surrendered.

Last season, the team continually got off to a slow start and dug themselves holes, surrendering the second most goals (78) in the first period in the entire NHL. In fact, even with the team's potent offense during the 2011-12 season, the Flyers surrendered more goals in the first than they scored — which was a lot: 74 to be exact, fourth in the league.

Those struggles reappeared this season, with the Flyers yielding the fifth most goals in the first period this season (46) in the first 20 minutes. Oftentimes, it looked as though the Flyers simply weren't ready at the drop of the puck and didn't get moving until someone scored on them. It was infuriating. And with all the effort it took to play catch-up, the Flyers were often winded in the third, which led them to give up the fifth most goals in the third period (52) this season as well, something that wasn't the case in years prior.

It's something that's been a trademark for this team two years running now, coming out flat before turning it on. And that's something you simply can't do over the long haul for sustained success. Somehow, Laviolette has to do a better job getting his players prepared to play before falling behind.

Too many penalties

There are simply no caveats to this one. Over the past four years, the Flyers have taken more penalties and been down at least a man more than any other team in the NHL, with 2010-11 the only time the team showed any discipline whatsoever. The numbers don't lie:

2009-10: 402 minors, most in the NHL; 80 majors, most; 9 misconducts, ninth most; 4 game misconducts, third most; 496 total penalties, most; 1,350 penalty minutes, second most; 16.6 penalty minutes per game, second most.

2010-11: 347 minors, ninth most; 49 majors, middle of pack; 11 misconducts, ninth most; four game misconducts, seventh most; 416 total penalties, ninth most; 1,119 penalty minutes, seventh most; 13.6 penalty minutes per game, seventh most.

2011-12: 382 minors, most; 58 majors, third most; 21 misconducts, most; 2 game misconducts, 10th most; 472 total penalties, most; 1,318 penalty minutes, most; 16.1 penalty minutes per game, most.

2013: 213 minor penalties, most in the NHL; 35 major penalties, second most; three game misconducts, third most; 270 total penalties, most; 755 penalty minutes, second most; nine bench penalties, most; 18 bench penalty minutes, most; 15.7 penalty minutes per game, most in the league.

The past two seasons have been particularly egregious, with the Flyers committing an absurd amount of penalties, amounting to nearly a period's worth of penalty minutes per game. That's a lack of discipline on the team, plain and simple, something that has never been corrected. As a result, that has led to the Flyers being shorthanded entirely too often, which not only wears out your penalty-killers and top defensemen — not mention puts more pressure on what has been a tenuous goaltending situation — but it screws up your lines and shift rotations as well. Oh, and it gives the opposition better odds of scoring or at least tilting the ice in its favor.

It’s hard to get momentum going and pucks in the net when you’re on a parade to the box.

While it's true that each season brings a new team and new challenges, it is the coach's job to fix recurring mistakes. The Flyers certainly have had a huge number of roster shakeups, quite literally changing the entire makeup of the franchise in Laviolette's tenure. Given that, he's done a very fine job as the head coach. Still, these recurring trouble areas, no matter the team, are cause for concern, and if the Flyers get off to a slow start the way they did this season come the fall, they very well could put Laviolette's job in peril.

Reverend Paul Revere, aka Joe Boland, is a sports blogger out of Philadelphia whose life revolves around sports 365 and a quarter days per year. Keep up with Rev at his own personal blog, The House That Glanville Built and on Twitter.

NFL Notes: All-Pro safety Eric Berry to report to Chiefs Sunday

NFL Notes: All-Pro safety Eric Berry to report to Chiefs Sunday

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- All-Pro safety Eric Berry plans to report to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, giving him two weeks and one preseason game to prepare for the start of the regular season.

A person familiar with his plans told The Associated Press that Berry will join the team after its preseason game Saturday in Chicago. The person spoke on condition of anonymity Friday because he was not authorized to discuss Berry's plans publicly.

Berry was given the franchise tag early in the offseason but has not signed the deal, which means he could skip all of training camp without being fined. Once he signs the one-year contract, he will make just over $10.8 million, making him the league's highest-paid safety.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey have said all along they expect Berry to report ahead of the regular season, but it was never clear when that might happen.

Kansas City plays its first regular-season game Sept. 11 against San Diego.

"I think it's important to see what kind of shape he is in and then gradually bring him back into the football speed of things," Reid said Tuesday, when asked what Berry will need to do to get up to speed. "I don't think it's the end of the world if he doesn't play in the last preseason game (see full story).

Falcons: 1st-round pick Neal to have knee surgery
ATLANTA -- Atlanta Falcons rookie strong safety Keanu Neal, the team's first-round pick and a projected starter, will miss the beginning of the season with a knee injury.

Neal will have arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Monday and is expected to miss three to four weeks, according to the Falcons. Coach Dan Quinn said he is encouraged Neal avoided a more serious injury that could have kept him out longer.

"Hopefully it's a shorter-term injury where we're looking at two and hopefully the worst would be three games," Quinn said, adding that he knows Neal will work for a quick return because "he's kind of just built that way."

Wide receiver Julio Jones is expected to be limited in practice after leaving Thursday night's game in the second quarter with an ankle injury. Quinn said he the injury is not expected to threaten Jones' status for the regular season.

Neal hurt his knee in the first quarter of the Falcons' 17-6 preseason loss to the Miami Dolphins. He had to be helped off the field but walked to the locker room without assistance (see full story).

Ravens: Former Navy star Reynolds finds NFL life 'humbling'
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Keenan Reynolds' foray into the NFL has overwhelmingly altered his perspective of the game.

As a standout quarterback at Navy, Reynolds was revered in Annapolis. He ran for an NCAA-record 88 touchdowns, went 4-0 against Army and finished fifth in the 2015 Heisman Trophy balloting.

However, his prowess at running the triple option is of no help in his quest to make the Baltimore Ravens. Fighting for a job as a backup receiver and special teams contributor, Reynolds is just another rookie buried deep on the depth chart.

"It's very humbling," he acknowledged. "I'm just trying to make the best of it."

At Navy, Reynolds ran, handed off or threw the football. His job now is to catch it.

"I have a lot more respect for the position of wide receiver," he said, "especially after being a quarterback."

Chooch was 'a fireball,' says Ryan Howard, last of the '08 Phillies

Chooch was 'a fireball,' says Ryan Howard, last of the '08 Phillies

NEW YORK — Phillies players were greeted by a message from Carlos Ruiz when they entered the visiting clubhouse at Citi Field on Friday.

“I will miss all of you guys. Good luck the rest of the season. Love you all, Chooch! Gracias,” (see story).

Ruiz did not actually write those words on the whiteboard by the entry to the clubhouse, but they were his. He reached out to visiting clubhouse manager Tony Carullo and asked that the message be written in just that way.

Ruiz, 37, was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday, ending an 11-season run with the Phillies that included five NL East titles, a World Series championship, an All-Star Game, a slew of clutch hits, many words of praise from the pitching staff and a million calls of Choooooch from fans in the stands (see story).

“Everybody loved Chooch for a number of reasons,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He’s the kind of guy you loved seeing every day, a hard-working, humble and appealing human being.

“I’d like to think when he’s done playing, the Phillies might have a place for him.”

Mackanin paused and laughed.

“As long as they don’t make him manager and he takes my job.”

Ruiz’s exit leaves Ryan Howard as the only member of the 2008 World Series championship team still with the club. Over the last few seasons, Howard has seen Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and Chase Utley depart.

It’s a topic that Howard seems to have grown weary of talking about.

“I've had to hear about it every year,” he said. “It's again the same thing. You play with guys your entire career and now you see them in different uniforms. It's definitely going to be something to get used to but that's baseball. That's the business aspect of it. Teams make moves and that's what happens.”

Like the rest of the core of that team, Howard, 36, has been available for trade the last few seasons, but there has been no real interest because of his decline in performance and huge salary.

So he will play out the final six weeks of his contract and try to hook on elsewhere next season.

Howard saluted his former teammate, Ruiz.

“I'm trying to think of the right words,” he said.

“The thing about Chooch — he was the quarterback in a sense. The way he handled the pitching staff, the way he prepared himself for games with the pitchers, from the defensive standpoint knowing different situations, knowing what guy you want to beat you, what guy you don't want to beat you. Just the way he played the game, he was a fireball. He was a fireball out there. I'm definitely going to miss him. I hit him up yesterday a little bit after I found out. I was happy for him and wanted to wish him the best.

“Chooch, he was always very, very positive. Always trying to help guys out, trying to pick guys up when he can and it carried over onto the field. That was his mentality.”

The Phillies acquired veteran backup catcher A.J. Ellis, minor-league pitcher Tommy Bergjans and a player to be named later for Ruiz (see story). Ellis is due to join the team Saturday. In the meantime, the Phillies added prospect Jorge Alfaro from Double A (see story). He will be the backup catcher Friday night, then return to a talent-rich Reading club that has the best record in minor-league baseball and a date with the Eastern League playoffs.

Jordan Matthews sticks up for beleaguered Eagles wide receivers

Jordan Matthews sticks up for beleaguered Eagles wide receivers

Jordan Matthews is probably the only Eagles wide receiver you feel remotely good about right now.

Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff are draft picks who haven’t accomplished much yet. Rueben Randle and Chris Givens are veteran offseason pickups who’ve shown little this preseason (see story). Dorial Green-Beckham is a former second-round pick whose first team gave up on him after just one year.

It’s not a group that inspires a whole lot of confidence right now. 

Potential? Sure. But opening day is 16 days away, there’s only one preseason game left for the starters to play, Sam Bradford has two guys to throw to — Matthews and Zach Ertz — and potential is a scary word at this point.

Matthews isn’t a superstar at this point. He’s a solid pro who seems to be getting better. His 1,862 yards are 10th most in NFL history after two seasons. 

But compared to the Eagles’ other receivers, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

He's got credibility and because of that the 24-year-old Matthews has become a spokesman for the entire group. And this past week, two games into the preseason, he found himself in the position of having to defend this entire beleaguered bunch of wide receivers the Eagles have put together.

“The funniest thing is last year [the receivers] played extremely well in the preseason, got into the season, didn’t play well, and everybody’s like, 'Preseason doesn’t matter,'" Matthews said.

"Then the first preseason game we don’t play well, everybody’s like, 'The preseason matters, you guys suck!' Hold on … I thought it didn’t matter. You know what I’m saying?”

What he's saying is it's too early to write this group off. Maybe Huff and Agholor and Randle and Givens — or whichever among them makes the team — will turn it on once the regular season begins.

But going into the Colts game Saturday evening at Lucas Oil Stadium, the numbers are not pretty.

Huff and Randle both have three catches for 13 yards. Agholor has two catches for 30 yards. Givens is 0 for 0.

Matthews hasn’t played yet in the preseason because of a knee injury, and the next four receivers have a combined 56 receiving yards in two preseason games.

Paul Turner, an undrafted rookie, leads the group with nine catches for 78 yards. 

Improvement? Matthews sees it.

“I take this approach,” Matthews said this week. “Every rep counts. And so if every rep counts, what are we trying to do? We’re trying to do better the next rep, and I felt like guys took steps forward for the next rep. And that’s the main thing you always want to see, that improvement.

“I understand it’s the NFL, I understand obviously people are going to say you get paid a lot of money to do one thing, but I’ll tell you what, I know the guys in that room, they want to do well. None of those guys went into that game wanting to mess up or not put their best foot forward.”

Probably no recent draft pick has infuriated Eagles fans as much as Agholor. Well, other than maybe Marcus Smith and Danny Watkins. And Lane Johnson maybe.

But it’s tough for some to be patient with Agholor when Jeremy Maclin had 773 yards as a rookie, DeSean Jackson had 912 and Matthews had 872.

Heck, even Reggie Brown (571 yards) and undrafted Hank Baskett (464) were factors as rookie wideouts.

Agholor’s 283 yards last season rank tied for 27th out of 32 wide receivers drafted in the first round over the past 10 years.

But he has a big-time supporter in Matthews.

“I felt like the jump he made from the first game to the second game [was significant]," Matthews said "Even the stuff you don’t see. Blocking? [Darren] Sproles caught a short pass and Nelson turned his route around … he ran a great route, got open, turned around, blocked and probably sprung Sproles for another 10, 15 yards.

“He had another bubble situation where he had to block for Josh and he did. Definitely better than the first game, and that’s what you want to see. That’s the biggest thing. And it gets lost in the shuffle.”

That Sproles play, a 21-yard gain, was called back because of a penalty on rookie guard Isaac Seumalo.

But Matthews is passionate when he talks about how Agholor’s lack of production as a rookie doesn’t mean anything moving forward.

“I don’t know if y’all know this, but I love Jordy Nelson (Packers Pro Bowl receiver),” Matthews said. “I love him. One of my favorite receivers. Jordy Nelson didn’t have 1,000 yards till Year 4.

“Let’s put it in perspective. Guys get better. And I feel like that’s what I want to see from my group. Are guys getting better?

“There’s two things that I really look for from my group — attitude and effort. And do Nelson and Chris and Josh and those guys bring great attitude and effort?

“Yes. That’s what I want to see, and I feel that’s what we’ve shown.”