Monday, May 12, 2014

Craig Berube and the coaching conundrum

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

Despite having his first season behind an NHL bench resemble more of a frozen taffy pull than a straightforward dessert course, Craig Berube is apparently comfortable at the highest level, serving the Philadelphia Flyers as their latest head coach. 

"Yeah, I enjoyed it.  I like coaching.  There’s ups and downs, went through tough times and good times," the succinct Berube said nine days ago. "I like coming to the rink and working with the players.  I like coaching the games and being on the bench.  It was very enjoyable.  I’m very fortunate to have a job like that, especially here in Philadelphia."

That's good, because until Berube proves that he can't hack it and raise the Flyers to the level of Stanley Cup contenders, he's here to stay. Another example of a good soldier who did everything he was told and was eventually rewarded with the highest honor a member of the rank-and-file could achieve. He's the fifth former homegrown player (Paul Holmgren, Terry Murray, Bill Barber, John Stevens) to hold the position.

Despite the roller-coaster ride that marked the 2013-14 season, one in which he finished with a 42-27-10 record, it was a smoother track than his first entry into the NHL.

Named bench boss of the Philadelphia Phantoms prior to the start of the 2006-07 season, Berube was called up to the big club less than two weeks into the season after the shakeup of Black Sunday, October 22, 2006. He stayed for the remainder of the year, then went back across the street to resume head-coaching duties in the AHL, ending up 46-27-7 and beating Albany before losing to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the second round. That was good enough to earn him a shot at an assistantship with the Flyers after Murray departed to take the top gig with the Los Angeles Kings.

Fast forward to October 8, 2013, and the 49-year-old native of Calahoo, Alberta finally got first crack behind an NHL bench and he didn't need to move far once Peter Laviolette was shown the door. It came 9,697 days after the Flyers gave him his playing debut, in a 3-1 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins late in the 1986-87 season.

So in light of being shoved into the spotlight, to what can Berube attribute his success in this crucible?

"I’m honest with our guys.  I really am.  I believe in them and I let them know that, and I know how good they can be and I let them know that.  I demand a lot.  To me, I thought they worked extremely hard for me and the coaches. They competed hard.  I thought they were motivated as a team and a group."

Here's some honesty back atcha. Hard work, a franchise trademark, is one thing. It's long past time for those in charge of steering the club to begin working smart. Berube, who carved out a career on work, muscle and will for 17 seasons, can't rest on his laurels. True Stanley Cup-caliber coaches are a rare and special breed, but for Berube as the in-house choice to take this team to the proverbial next level, it requires a helping of his work ethic, but adding in brains and adaptability that has to come from somewhere to make it all click.

I recall the first house-lighting scene in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," when the 250,000 bulbs fail to perform on cue as promised to illuminate the Griswold abode. Audrey, the frazzled and embarrassed teenage daughter, says to her mother's father in defense of main character and clan leader Clark Griswold: "He worked really hard on this, grandpa."

Grandpa's response: "So do washing machines."

The NHL's head-coach discard pile is heaped with hard-working players turned coaches who rode to a certain level of success on one philosophy then fell quickly by the wayside: Terry Crisp, Mike Sullivan, Craig MacTavish, any of the Sutter brothers (excepting Darryl in LA). Stevens is a recent example in Philly. His dump-and-chase style turned "dump-and-hunt" had the opposition jumping passing lanes, his skilled players stuck in mud and all on-ice personnel going through the motions.

But if Berube thinks that a radical change from the norm, encapsulated by the following response, is the key to securing the future of the franchise, he'll have to rearrange his priorities.

"There’s always things that come up with players.  I think the biggest part of coaching is trying to get all your players on the same page and making them all happy.  There’s ice times, there’s guys not playing, it’s a lot of different things that go on in there.  That’s part of it, and a lot of times it’s a hard job that way."

To be the bench boss in the 21st Century NHL is to be a micro manager on some levels, but I'm not sure how much ego placation imbues the role rather than manipulation to get all players on the same page.. How many times is it referenced in a broadcast about the Canadiens of the 1970s hating Scotty Bowman 364 days of the year, but collecting Stanley Cup rings on the 365th? Though the organization may not want to admit it, Mike Keenan shook up a lot of coaching conventions in the mid-80s with his unique mix of intelligence, psychology and methodology which turned a bunch of kids and success-starved veterans into a Cup threat.

Berube doesn't need to be a mind-game playing hard ass, but since Keenan, the franchise hasn't had a head coach come close to the level of smarts and innovation, drive to execute a game plan, the pure will to win and confidence it reflected. Perhaps Iron Mike, who is fresh from leading Metallurg Magnitogorsk to a KHL championship, should be on speed dial to lend some insight.

All "Chief" represents at the moment, is a successful change of personality from one regime to the next. How the rest of his tenure plays out, is up to his own internal drive to improve and adapt to the roster provided. History suggests that his time will be short if accommodations are not made. 

In 2000, Barber went through the same channels i.e. apprenticeship with the Phantoms before getting the nod to replace the taciturn Craig Ramsay and though he injected old-time "Flyers hockey" into his lifeless team and won a Jack Adams Award, he was undone by his inability to formulate a game plan relevant to the era and a mutiny among key veterans. Enter Ken Hitchcock in '02, from outside the "family" and he brought rigid systems and a Cup-winning pedigree but was ultimately rendered powerless in the shift from a veteran-laden roster to a younger mix. Then, it was back to the well to select Stevens who was eight games into his first NHL assistantship in '06, and he was cast aside when his failure to adapt turned a talented roster into skating zombies much like Ramsay's laconic bent years earlier. In comes Laviolette just over three years later, a firebrand with a recent Cup win in his pocket, shaking things up, with a high-tempo system that relied on players who demonstrate speed, quick thinking and conditioning, ruthlessly cut short when that roster proved too slow for his methods.

One smart thing Berube has avoided so far, is suggesting his next club, which lost to the Rangers in a seven-game series, should mirror the team which vanquished them. He appears to be skirting the tender trap in favor of bigger prey.

"I don’t know.  I don’t look at it like I want our team to be like that team.  I like our team to have our own identity," Berube said when asked what kind of team he could assemble might have beaten New York. "You want to be the Boston Bruins because pretty consistently they’re there every year… we’re not the Boston Bruins.  There’s different players.  We have our own identity and we’re going to build on that and get better."

Building that better roster may have a better shot at becoming better if new GM Ron Hextall is allowed to take what he absorbed over six years in Los Angeles and apply it here. After that, it's up to Berube to make the pieces fit.  He thinks he has the start of something good, and in forward-thinking fashion, isn't just looking for hard work, but smart work, in all areas of the ice.

"This year I thought we became a faster team, a more puck-oriented team that got on the forecheck, but we kept the puck a lot more and made a lot more plays coming out of our end.  I think that we want to keep the puck.  We want to be a puck-oriented team, but at the same time we need to get better without the puck.  I think we can check better than we have.  I want to get our team to where we don’t have the puck, we’re going to put puck pressure on and get it back.  We can be better defensively."

The how becomes more important than the who, or the why.  Berube's master stroke in taking over for Laviolette was tailoring his system to the players provided, but that's no different than what occurred in the coaching changes outlined above -- and the effects were only temporary. There are potential seismic alterations ahead in the offseason period between the draft and free agency which can render his best laid plans moot. One only has to look at Vinny Lecavalier's signing to see how things can go awry in short order with a coaching change.

Under Barber in 2001-02, the Flyers finished three points back of the previous year's pace and also failed to win a playoff series. Hitchcock was six points back of his initial pace in '04, but took the club from the second round to the Eastern Finals. Stevens saw a 39-point uptick in his second season and the Orange and Black went to the third round in '08. Laviolette engineered an 18-point jump from '10 to '11, but his playoff sojourn stopped after 11 controversial games.

It remains to be seen what Berube has in mind for steadying the ship for his first full season as head coach, and there's some question where the organization will turn if it's clear he's not the guy. Terry Murray is with the Phantoms for the moment, but neither of Berube's two assistants are close to NHL ready if things take a drastic turn. That would suggest another turn to the outside for assistance.

Time's yours, Chief, and so is the faith of your bosses. Use it well.
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