Monday, April 25, 2011

What is Laviolette Thinking?

I'm going to get to what transpired over the weekend later tonight when I have more time to coherently put my thoughts together, but this is something I absolutely have to get off my chest.

First of all, I really, really like Peter Laviolette. He's a fiery coach that demands a lot from his players, a good strategist and someone that just seems to get the most out of his players more times than not. He won a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes, and last season he was masterful in leading an underachieving Flyers team that barely made the playoffs all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. He's become a cult hero almost overnight in Philadelphia for his aggressive and game-changing use of timeouts, and the Flyers improved from a team that needed to get a shootout victory on the final day of the regular season just to qualify for the playoffs to a team that was among the best in the NHL and finished with the second seed in the East, albeit with a horrid slump mixed in.

The guy can coach his ass off, there's not doubt about that. But to be perfectly honest, Peter Laviolette has done nothing but make baffling decision after baffling decision in this series with Buffalo. And in all honesty, if he simply did the obvious, logical thing instead of going into what looks like panic mode, the Flyers may have already advanced to the second round instead of needing overtime yesterday just to stay alive and force tomorrow's deciding game 7.

And it's not like it took long for people to start questioning him. It began before the start of game 1, when he decided to dress Andreas Nodl and Dan Carcillo instead of Nikolay Zherdev. The critics did make a pretty good point, discussing the Flyers' late-season scoring woes, saying the Flyers needed a scorer and finisher in their lineup against one of the NHL's premier goaltenders and best defensive teams more than they needed grinders like Nodl and Carcillo. It was a point well taken, however I actually had no problem with Laviolette's decision for game 1. Yes, Zherdev brings a lot to the table offensively, but he's never been known for his defense, and one missed defensive assignment can cost you a game in the playoffs.

Still, it's hard to deny that Zherdev would have helped in game 1, with the Flyers getting shut out. And though he definitely has had his defensive lapses, Zherdev has been working harder defensively the past two games. But Nodl did play fairly well in game 1, and Carcillo has been good this entire series, while Zherdev has continued to be brilliant at times and infuriating at others. So I wasn't overly upset with Laviolette's decision to sit Zherdev in game 1.

I also didn't have a problem with Laviolette starting rookie Sergei Bobrovsky in net despite his inconsistent play. It made sense to me, hoping to get a good showing from Bobrovsky, and if he didn't play well, Laviolette could always turn to the experienced Brian Boucher, a goaltender who has performed time and time again in the playoffs and who is used to coming on in relief.

While I agreed with Laviolette on his decision to start Bob and his decision to scratch Zherdev in game 1, that doesn't mean I was on board with all that he did in game 1. In fact, I flat out could not and did not understand why he called a timeout in game 1 as the Flyers were about to go on a two-man advantage in the second period. At that point in the game, the Flyers had Buffalo reeling, had just gone up another man and had the building rocking and all the momentum in the world. It was the exact moment to pounce on the Sabres and give them no room to breathe. Instead, Laviolette slowed the game down by inexplicably calling that timeout on a 5-on-3 in the second period of game 1. It allowed the Sabres to regain their bearings, and of course Buffalo killed both penalties off and stole a 1-0 game 1 victory.

The man may be lauded for his use of his timeouts, but that was going overboard. And he's used a few timeouts at odd times since. He certainly hasn't been as magical with them as he was last postseason.

But that's hardly the most baffling thing Laviolette has done. After Sergei Bobrovsky had a rough outing in game 2 and was subsequently pulled before the Flyers came back and won behind a tremendous showing by Boucher, Laviolette did the single stupidest thing he's done since becoming the head coach of the Flyers. In what can only be described as a panic move, Laviolette scratched Bobrovsky and made Michael Leighton the backup to Boucher. Now, I was all in favor of starting Boucher after Bob's shaky outing in game 2 and Boucher's incredible performance in relief. I think just about all of the Delaware Valley was. But to banish Bob to the press box for one bad outing in favor of a guy who had played in a grand total of 1 NHL game during the 2010-11 season? That's just ludicrous, especially considering the guy gave up four goals (albeit in a win) in that game.

I understand the soft spot for Michael Leighton. I really do. I was there for the ride last season. Without Leighton, the Flyers don't even make the playoffs, let alone come within two victories of hoisting the Cup. The guy was tremendous in getting the Flyers to the Final. But in the six games against the Blackhawks, it became clear that Leighton wasn't THE GUY that this franchise has been looking for my whole life. And regardless, this isn't last year. This is this year, a completely different season.

Michael Leighton didn't carry the Flyers to the playoffs this season. He didn't work in tandem with Brian Boucher to lead the Flyers to the top of standings and ultimately gain the second seed in the conference. Sergie Bobrovsky did. He's the guy who got the Flyers to where they're at, along with Boucher. He's the guy who played a tremendous game 1 in defeat, the guy who's been between the pipes more often than not to get the Flyers to the playoffs. To banish him after one bad playoff performance is more than unfair, it's insane. You go with guys who brought you there. Simple as that.

Michael Leighton did a lot for the Flyers in 2009-10, but he did absolutely nothing for them this year. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Sure, he played really well for the Phantoms down the stretch, but guess what, this isn't the AHL. How you go with a guy who played a total of 60 minutes in the NHL this season over a guy you counted on for 52 starts and 54 games during the regular season is beyond me. And really, it's indefensible unless the guy comes in and plays lights out. We all know Leighton didn't do that.

When Boucher let in two insanely atrocious goals in game 5 and a third before a period was even in the books, Leighton came in and saw very little work. But in overtime, after his defensemen needed him to bail them out for a horrid turnover, he left a fat rebound and got tagged with a really tough loss. Then yesterday, he surrendered three embarrassingly bad goals. And all Sergei Bobrovsky could do was helplessly watch from the press box.

Forget about what this does to Bob's confidence and psyche going forward. From a purely hockey sense, the decision was insane, is insane and will always be insane.

Then there's the case of the skaters in game 5. With Jeff Carter unavailable after a knee injury and Nodl still out from being injured in game 2, Laviolette had to make a difficult decision on who to insert into the lineup. The most obvious choice would be Jody Shelley, a regular in the lineup all season, a grizzled veteran with playoff experience and a guy who contributed mightily for this team. Shelley has been missing with an injury, but all indications were that he could go if needed.

Laviolette decided against that for whatever reason, whether it was conditioning, too much time off the ice or Shelley still not being 100 percent. So the next logical choice would be rookie Ben Holmstrom. Not ideal, obviously, suiting up a rookie for his first NHL playoff game and just third NHL game period in the midst of a series tied at two games apiece, but it would have to do. Holmstrom did play two games this season and did not look overwhelmed.

But no, Laviolette didn't do that either. Instead, he dressed a guy who had exactly zero NHL shifts in his life, a guy who essentially is nothing more than a hitter. And while he didn't do anything stupid and actually threw some nice hits in his extremely limited ice time, the decision to dress Zac Rinaldo in a pivotal game 5 made absolutely no sense whatsoever. What was the purpose in dressing a guy that Laviolette literally could only use for a few minutes? What if one of the other forwards would have gotten hurt? Was he really prepared to let Rinaldo take more shifts? I just don't get it. Jody Shelley was a guy who helped get the Flyers to where they're at, just like Sergei Bobrovsky. And at least Ben Holmstrom contributed briefly to this team (playing in twice as many games as Leighton!). But when a few things didn't go the Flyers' way, when the series wasn't going quite as planned, Laviolette panicked and turned his back on a couple of the guys who helped get him to where he's at in favor of guys who had little to no impact on this season whatsoever.

I like Peter Laviolette. I'm glad he's the coach of the Flyers. But win or lose tomorrow night, he's put his team in a precarious position by making what can only be described as indefensible, panic-stricken decisions. And honestly, all I can ask myself is, "What is Peter Laviolette thinking?"

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