Saturday, April 18, 2015

Flyers' hiring practices: Good soldiers don't make great generals

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

The inevitable took less than 48 hours to become reality. In the time between Ron Hextall's perfunctory season-ending press conference on Wednesday afternoon and Friday morning, the decision was made public that Craig Berube would not continue as head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers.

The 49-year-old former enforcer, six-year Flyers assistant and two-time Phantoms head coach was brought up to the majors on October 7, 2013, an emergency elevation after Peter Laviolette's 0-3-0 start to the 2013-14 season was deemed alarming enough for a change to be made.

A playoff berth gained last season wasn't enough to carry over to this past season, where the club set a new team record for games played beyond regulation but failed to climb higher than sixth in the Metropolitan Division. He leaves his former position with a "winning record" of 75-58-28 along with a 3-4 postseason mark.

"Well, nothing changed.  It’s just a process that I went through.  I wanted to make the right decision, Hextall admitted when pressed on any factors which changed his mind between the pressers.  "Once I kind of put all the facts together, and in the end you go with your gut, and I came up with the decision last night. You really have to decide, is the coach is the right coach for your team now.  If the answer to that is no, you need to move on.

Under Berube, the raw stats, namely road record, are particularly damning. Their 10 victories in alternate environs tied for the fourth-worst in a full season in franchise history, matching a playoff team from 1972-73 and a non-playoff entrant in 1991-92. However, a bigger issue was in-game management, namely line-shuffling and putting players in the best position to succeed.

Though it's been widely reported that any lineup decisions were subject to approval higher up the chain, it's the head coach's responsibility to maximize the output of the roster given, in sickness and in health. Hextall confirmed that with the following: "In a nutshell, in the end I didn’t feel like he got enough out of our group collectively."

There's not much of an argument that mistakes were made on a routine basis -- his most significant gaffe being the handling of goaltender Steve Mason when he was injured or faltered in net -- which forced Jeff Reese to abandon his post weeks before the schedule was complete.

The most egregious error pointed out consistently was the usage and philosophy regarding Sean Couturier, a defensive center with scoring touch who was buried a majority of his ice time inside his own zone and expected -- by both Berube and Hextall -- to produce in spite of that. You can also point to usage of defensemen, and the mysterious gaps in dressing for those like Michael Del Zotto and Carlo Colaiacovo when Nicklas Grossmann, Andrew MacDonald and Luke Schenn maintained their spots in the rotation despite egregious errors.

Also lingering in the air was the chicken-egg argument with Vinny Lecavalier, chronically unable to produce given a small window of opportunity and buried on the fourth line most nights in the second season of a five-year mega-contract.

And then, the big sticking point which has less concrete evidence but tons of "feel" to it: Berube's lack of hockey IQ, an issue brought to the forefront here earlier in the season.

I've covered four separate Flyers head coaches since first gaining NHL-level credentials in 2005. Each one in succession seemed to be less available than the man previously, less willing to tip his hand and using words at a higher premium. From the expansive Ken Hitchcock to the barely verbal Berube, it was quite a difference.

Press conference after press conference, home or away, win or loss, Berube's most expressive insights to the Flyers' success and failures revolved around simple coded phrases "compete level," and "working harder." Those basic thoughts were a successful formula to keep a kid from Alberta in the NHL for 18 years and it worked to a point in the AHL at a level where young players need to demonstrate they'll do anything to get a shot in the Show.

Yet, despite six seasons as an assistant to John Stevens and Laviolette and garnering praise for operating the defense and the penalty kill as an assistant, when Berube was elevated to the top post, those basics on which he built his career became moot. Leading a franchise which views itself as top-shelf based on reputation demands a bench boss who can successfully adapt, learn and adequately explain himself, right or wrong. Berube fell well short, and appropriately paid the price.

It was telling that, given a chance to praise any singular attribute which made Berube a success behind the bench, Hextall was purposefully elusive.

Could Bob Clarke or Paul Holmgren have pulled the trigger when a tough decision needed to be made about a man loyal to the organization in both uniform and in a suit? That's a tough supposition, but we can at least praise Hextall for bucking tradition in trying to formulate his own vision despite relying on an old cliche.

"I think in the end a coach’s job is to get the most out of his players, and in the end that’s the conclusion that I came to, was that that wasn’t the case," Hextall reaffirmed. "I will say this – Craig Berube is a good friend of mine, he’s a terrific man, and the professional side of this I have an obligation to the organization to do what I think is best, and that’s what I did."

The lowdown on the coaching "carousel"

In the course of nearly 50 years as an NHL franchise, the Flyers front office has dipped into the well at either the minor-league level or at the right hand of the deposed head coach and hired a replacement from within on six occasions.

It has been disastrous, or at the very least, unsuccessful, five times.

The first occurrence was 1978, when Bob McCammon was tabbed to succeed Fred Shero. McCammon had won a Calder Cup as a first-year bench boss for the club's first-year AHL affiliate, the Maine Mariners. With no other high-profile names willing to take the plunge, he was tabbed to preside over a team which reached the Stanley Cup semifinals the year prior.

Only 22 wins and 50 games in, Ed Snider and Keith Allen pulled the plug over what they felt was an "excitable" rookie coach. Their chosen replacement? The man who was selected to take over for McCammon in Portland, former NHL defenseman Pat Quinn. Quinn guided the Flyers through the loss of Bernie Parent and the Streak of 1979-80, lasting until March of 1982 before his firing brought back McCammon from Maine once more.

McCammon was deposed a second time despite 97 wins, hamstrung by his lack of playoff success (1-9 in three years) and a desire by those higher than he to separate the coach and GM positions.

Flash forward to six years later, when Mike Keenan's act wore thin after four unexpectedly grand seasons. His replacement, in the bad cop-good cop mold, was three-year assistant Holmgren. Benefitting from a lighter hand than his predecessor and a seasoned roster which reached two Stanley Cup Finals, "Homer" led the Orange and Black to a Wales Conference Finals berth in '89, but caught the short end of a rebuild and was eventually booed out of town by December of '91 in the midst of a prolonged winless streak after two straight years out of the playoffs.

Stevens won a Calder Cup with a loaded Phantoms roster in 2005 while the NHL laid dormant, and that was his ticket up when Clarke shifted his roster from veteran-laden to youth-oriented once the league returned. Ken Hitchcock's abrasive style gave way to Stevens' calmer traits, but despite a surprise Eastern finals run in '08, the eventual 2009-10 Cup Finals entrant was moved to somnambulance by Stevens' lack of on-ice creativity when a move was made that December.

And now, we'll count Berube on the list of loyal workers forced to fall on the sword and facing an uncertain future. Hextall has been essentially forced to look outside the box for the best available candidate. That's consistent with the ebb and flow of all coaching decisions, no matter what sport. One man with a particular personality and system fails, the opposite is sought as counter-balance.

"We’ll do our homework in the next couple weeks and see who the candidates are, and start the interview process and go from there.  In the end, you’re looking for the coach that fits your team, obviously [that] thinks the same way to some degree," Hextall offered. "In the end we’re looking for the guy who can take this group to another level not only short term, but long term."

A man, a plan, and playoffs leading to contention

That's key, since Berube was apparently on a short leash. He was a transitional choice in that the club was caught short canning Laviolette so early last season, but the Flyers must make their next hire a man who has a wealth of experience and has coached at the NHL level for extended periods of time.

"I think as an NHL coach you have to have the ability to do both -- get the most out of your veterans, and intersect your young players into the lineup," Hextall presented as the best option. "Obviously with some of the prospects we have coming, part of the thought process in the new coach is can he get the most out of young players, and is he open to putting young players in the lineup."

In Los Angeles, Hextall was able to see how that worked to varying results. From the abrasive Marc Crawford to the cooler head of current Phantoms head coach Terry Murray to things finally clicking with Darryl Sutter, it was a four-year process.

There is a rare breed of coach who can influence the general manager to make the right moves to mold a team from playoff threat to legitimate contender.

A prime example in a one-shot deal was Keenan in New York circa 1993-94, who was able to belittle the players he wanted gone in the Rangers' locker room and impress upon GM Neil Smith whom he wanted to fill those gaps. In the long run, Scotty Bowman was able to mold rosters in both Pittsburgh and Detroit, with the implicit trust of Craig Patrick, Jim Devellano and Ken Holland that his influence was correct. Bowman proved sage enough to rid himself of Paul Coffey not once, but twice, to help his teams win Stanley Cups.

It remains to be seen whether or not a Todd MacLellan or Mike Babcock, Dan Bylsma or whomever else Hextall deems fit will have enough of a strong personality and proper bona fides to push for the kind of players the Flyers need to acquire. Berube was clearly a "go along to get along" type of leader. It also remains to be seen if the chain of command is willing to accept bucking their own internal decision-making system to do what is right when the next head coach gets the itch.

Even above experience, a mutual sense of trust is the best bridge that can be built towards success.

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