Questions Facing the Flyers: The First Full Season Under Lavvy

Questions Facing the Flyers: The First Full Season Under Lavvy

Despite a surprisingly disappointing 2009-2010 regular season, the Flyers came together at exactly the right time and gave us a great run to the Stanley Cup Finals. As the 2010-2011 season approaches, we’ll take a look at some of the questions currently facing the team—questions which, should they be answered positively, could get them that one huge step further. Today, it’s what the impact of a full training camp, preseason, and regular season under head coach Peter Laviolette will mean.

John Stevens was a popular coach both with his players and within the organization, all the way to the top. He’d won a Calder Cup as a Phantoms player and as coach, the latter while guiding a few future stars in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Stevens also helped to quickly turn around a Flyers team that in 2006-2007 endured its worst-ever season, winning just 22 games. The following year, benefiting from a busy summer in trades and free agency, Stevens led the Flyers back to the playoffs and into the Eastern Conference Finals. However, after bowing out to the Penguins in back-to-back postseasons and getting off to a sluggish, uninspired start in 2009-2010, Stevens was fired after 26 games because the club thought it needed a change.

Some of Stevens’ players acknowledged that their play was the reason he’d lost his job, and they had a point. But what became clear after he was fired, even as the club continued the whole season at about the W-L pace it had set under Stevens, was that this particular group of players needed a different set of lungs behind the whistle at practice and a different voice behind the bench in games. 

Even before Stevens was fired, Peter Laviolette’s name was being whispered as a possible successor in Philadelphia. He’d already won a Stanley Cup in Carolina, but was currently out of coaching after being fired by the Hurricanes upon missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons after their Cup-winning campaign. Twenty-five games into the 20008-2009 season, Laviolette was relieved of coaching duties with a 12-11-2 record; Stevens’ record when fired by the Flyers in 2009-2010? 13-11-1.

That about sums up how it works for coaches in the NHL. Keep winning, or a new voice will be sought.

Looking for that new voice, Paul Holmgren went with a man considered in some ways to be a polar opposite to Stevens and hired Laviolette out of the broadcast studio. Lavvy had no history with the franchise or these players. He owed them nothing individually. He was known as a fiery presence, a stark contrast to Stevens’ perceived (at least in public) stoicism and quieter ways. And he was also known as a strict coach with a high regard for conditioning and hard practices. With a team that was dramatically underperforming for both its skill level and salary commitment, all of this sounded to be exactly what the Flyers needed, although even after his firing, many fans continued to believe that the team’s shortcomings were not the fault of Stevens.

The team lacked chemistry, and stretches of dominance were followed by a few putrid games that would undo any progress and confidence. If a coaching change didn’t work, an off-season overhaul was increasingly likely.

Perceived as a coach who had little tolerance for lapses in discipline, and according to some who followed him in Carolina, no interest in fighting, it wasn’t immediately certain that Laviolette was going to be a perfect fit with this group of players. There were questions as to whether some guys (Dan Carcillo) would be watching from the press box or soon shipped off in a trade, as well as questions as to how the team would respond to seeing their friend-coach fired an outsider brought in.

Soon after Lavvy’s arrival came reports of strenuous practices and immediate implementation of a new, more physically demanding system. However, in his first appearance behind the Flyers’ bench, the team was dismantled by the Capitals, who benefited from a 9-minute powerplay at the hands of Carcillo. Meet the new boss…

Obviously, it was too early to judge Laviolette, but it was telling that Lavvy didn’t get rid of Carcillo or even rip him publicly. He knew it would take significantly longer than a few days to implement a new system and a new set of expectations, and he also knew how quickly a coach can lose his team. Lavvy won’t soon be mistaken for patient when it comes to losing games or making mental mistakes, but he had to endure both of them as the season went on, as well as a devastating slew of injuries. The Flyers were unable to keep a goalie healthy all season, and their record under Laviolette was actually a game under .500 if you count OTL’s as what they are—L’s.

Despite the disappointing run leading up to the final game of the regular season, Lavvy became very popular in Philadelphia. His penchant for calling timeouts, which are seldom used in hockey, at just the right moment showed his feel for the game and his ability to motivate players on a moment’s notice. Given the well-documented issues another coach in town has with using timeouts, this factor alone was enough to gain Lavvy immediate praise.

But heading into that final game of the season, some fans were actually hoping the Flyers wouldn’t make the playoffs. No one wanted them to back in, of course, but some thought there would be more of a spur to make more changes if the team were to miss the postseason (and its revenues) altogether, rather than be summarily dismissed in the opening round. Despite the knowledge that anything can happen once the second season starts, the team’s play as the season wound down wasn’t exactly inspiring.

But after a dramatic shootout win put the Flyers into an opening round series with the Devils, a new team came out of the tunnel. Perfectly happy to be the underdogs on paper, the Flyers knew they’d had the better of the Devils on the ice all season. We all know what happened from there.

The injuries that plagued the team in the regular season continued in the postseason. Centers, goalies, you name it. And yet with each trip to the press box or surgeon, another face would step up and fill the void immediately. Much of this speaks to the makeup of the guys in the jerseys, but given how uninspired these same guys previously were, it was apparent that they were playing for Lavvy as much as for themselves. It was one of the greatest postseasons in franchise history, even drawing praise for its place in history from hockey's most historic figure.

The question facing the team now is, was this a factor of the intensity and magic, if you will, of the NHL playoffs? Or was this a team finally clicking in a new system after several months of practicing and playing within it?

If it’s the latter, we could be in for a hell of an outstanding season.

It has been reported that the team was not in sufficient physical shape to play within Laviolette's system when the new coach arrived, requiring an intense in-season conditioning program. With a full off-season, camp, and preseason to command a different expectation of “game shape,” will the Flyers be that much better in 2010-2011 based on improved conditioning alone? If so, it would ideally be the solution to their tendency to wilt in games and in long stretches of the regular season. But it’s no given that the players will respond the same in October as they did in April, nor that the new faces will gel with the old. It all sounds great in theory, but after missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons after his last trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, Laviolette would probably be the first to tell you how hard it is to get back the next season.

Hopefully the veteran coach has learned from his previous experiences in this regard, and his veteran players will build on theirs.

What do you think? Will a full season under Lavvy be the biggest key to another successful run, maybe one that results in a Cup?

(Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

BOX SCORE

Brett Brown was ready to do it Wednesday night. The matchup against the Kings presented an opportunity to experiment with playing Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together. That pairing had to wait two days, though, after the Kings game was postponed

On Friday, Embiid and Okafor shared the court for just under 13 minutes in the Sixers' 105-88 loss to the Magic (see Instant Replay), who also rolled out a duo of bigs in Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic. 

“I thought we had our moments,” Embiid said. “We shared the ball, we made shots. Obviously we need to play more together and learn how to play with each other.”

Embiid and Okafor first played together for 5:29 in the second quarter. They scored all of the Sixers' 12 points during that time, including a pair of threes by Embiid. They also combined for five boards. The Sixers outscored the Magic, 12-9, with the bigs in together.

The benefits of the floor spacing was apparent. Oftentimes in the game, Okafor could be seen open at the basket with a hand up for the ball while Embiid was also getting looks from long range. 

“I liked our spacing, I liked the high-low stuff we were doing,” Brown said. “I think when you post Joel, that Jahlil is going to play sort of hide-and-seek on the other side of the floor, and work that low zone, and become — I hope — a potent offensive rebounder. When you post Jahlil, Joel has the ability to space to three.”

Brown turned to Embiid and Okafor again in the fourth. At that point, the Magic had a 23-point lead. Their next 7:25 together was a chance to give them a long run in live game action. They combined for another 12 points and four rebounds. All of their buckets were layups, dunks or free throws. Both teams scored 19 points with Embiid and Okafor in that segment.

Both Embiid and Okafor finished the game with double-doubles: 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists for Embiid; 16 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks for Okafor. 

“I thought they played well together,” Vucevic said. “I thought it was tough to guard them because they’re both really good offensively.”

Okafor credited his friendship with Embiid, which dates back to high school, as a key to coexisting well on the court. Both emphasized their off-the-court relationship would help them in a game situation. 

“I think the communication piece went really well,” Okafor said. “He was talking to me, I was talking to him.”

Scoring and communication always seemed to be the easier parts of the pairing to tackle. Defense, though, was the challenge given that one of the centers would have to guard the four spot. Okafor noted their transition D as an area that needs improvement.

“We’re both used to going right to the rim,” Okafor said. “I think I had a couple easy buckets. That’s something we’ll be able to fix.” 

Brown had based his decision of when to play Embiid and Okafor together on the matchups. While the two could boast their own edge on the offensive end, Brown didn’t want to play them in a scenario in which they’d be at a huge defensive disadvantage. 

“It’s not offense to me, it’s defense. That’s the thing that is most challenging,” Brown said. “We want to play fast. We want to put points on the board. You don’t want to play in the 80s. You don’t want to do that, that’s not our sport anymore. So you want to make sure that you're capable of guarding the opposition.”

Vucevic noticed the challenge from an opposing perspective. He understands the necessary changes since playing alongside Biyombo.  

“It takes time for them to get adjusted, especially for the guy that will be playing the four defensively,” Vucevic said. “They’re not used to that because they always back down to the paint guarding the fives. It’s a different look. They have to work on it, communicate, and I think they’ll be fine.” 

On a night with few highlights in a 17-point blowout loss, Brown was able to take away a positive from this anticipated duo.

"I thought Jahlil and Joel did a really good job," he said. 

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Joel Embiid didn’t see four quarters of basketball from the Sixers in their 105-88 loss to the Magic Friday night (see Instant Replay). Their efforts were inconsistent as they fell flat in long stretches and allowed the Magic to build up double-digit leads as high as 29 points.

The Sixers gave up a 16-0 run in the first and shot just 6 for 26 (23.1 percent) in the quarter. The Magic, who had lost a one-point game to the Grizzlies in Memphis the night before, rallied together to seize this opportunity.

“They just made a lot of shots that we didn’t,” Embiid said. “That’s the game, but we didn’t play hard all 48 minutes and we need to do a better job next time.”

The Sixers didn’t break 30 points until 4:33 to go in the second and attempted just two free throws in the first half. By the end of the third, the Magic had a 21-point lead which they held on to with in ease in the fourth. 

The Magic outshot the Sixers on all areas of the floor: 47.4 percent to 37.9 from the field and 50.0 to 28.1 from three. While the teams had nearly equal percentages from the line, the Magic shot 18 for 26 compared to only 7 for 10 from the Sixers. 

“They missed a lot of shots,” Magic forward Jeff Green said. “We got stops, were aggressive, guys just played hard and created for one another and played as a team.”

Covington injured
The Sixers are waiting to learn more news on the extent of Robert Covington’s injury. In the fourth quarter, Covington exited and did not return after suffering a left knee sprain when he collided with T.J. McConnell chasing a loose ball in front of the Sixers’ bench. If the starting small forward has to miss time, Sixers head coach Brett Brown is thinking ahead to possible lineup changes. 

“We'll try to figure out what his next week represents,” Brown said. “If we aren't with him, maybe there's a chance we can look at Dario [Saric] a little bit at the three.”

Covington is averaging 8.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 27.5 minutes per game. Saric has been coming off the bench at power forward behind Ersan Ilyasova. He started 10 games earlier this season at the four spot. 

Embiid honored
The Sixers honored Embiid during a timeout for being named NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month (October and November). Embiid was appreciative of the award and has his sights set on the bigger picture this season.

“All the hard work I’ve put in, it feels great,” Embiid said earlier in the day at shootaround. “Obviously, maybe the bigger picture is Rookie of the Year, that’s what matters. … I don’t have my mind set on that. But if I can get it, that would be nice.”

Brown sees this recent showing as just a glimpse into what Embiid will be able to do over his career. Embiid leads the Sixers with 18.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. 

“This in infant stages, early days for him,” Brown said. “His body of work, given his lack of playing basketball, really is jaw-dropping for what I think he can be. To jump in and get rookie of the month I think is a real, sort of, quick snapshot view of him now. I think what he’s going to be is going to be extremely special.”

Embiid also is shooting 51.4 percent from three, including 3 for 5 against the Magic. When asked if he would like to participate in the three-point contest All-Star weekend, he said "it would be nice" and noted he would have to work on the speed of his release.