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.
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.
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.