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.

Phils continue DC slide

Washington, DC -- Bryce Harper's three-run homer backed a strong start from Max Scherzer as the Washington Nationals downed the Philadelphia Phillies 7-2 in the second installment of a four-game series.

Scherzer (1-1) picked up his first win in a Nationals uniform by throwing eight innings of one-run ball. The offseason acquisition scattered four hits, struck out nine and did not issue a walk.

"He's hard to get a hold off," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "It's hard for guys to zone in and get a handle on him."

Danny Espinosa hit a solo homer, and Ryan Zimmerman added a two-run double for Washington, which has won three straight following a slow 2-6 start.

Philadelphia's offense struggled again, producing only two runs on a Freddy Galvis groundout in the third inning and a Ryan Howard single in the ninth.

The Phillies have scored just 13 runs during a six-game skid.

The Nationals jumped on Sean O'Sullivan (0-1) early as Yunel Escobar led off the home first with a single and Ian Desmond was hit by a pitch. Harper fell behind 1-2 before crushing a hanging breaking ball deep to center field for his third home run of the season.

"I was trying to look for a pitch over the plate and not miss," Harper said. "I finally connected with something and put a good swing on it."

O'Sullivan caught took much of the plate when facing Espinosa leading off the fourth, and Espinosa hammered the 2-1 sinker that didn't sink to roughly the same spot as Harper's blast.

Washington tacked on three more runs against the Phillies' bullpen in the seventh, as Zimmerman hit a two-run double off Jake Diekman and scored on an error by Chase Utley.

Scherzer retired 11 of the last 12 hitters he faced. The only baserunner came on a Desmond error in the seventh.

Notes: Scherzer has allowed two earned runs over 21 2/3 innings to start the season ... O'Sullivan's line was four runs allowed on five hits and two walks over five innings. He has dropped his last eight decisions ... Phillies starters have a combined record of 1-7 ... Desmond accounted for three of Washington's 10 hits, while Odubel Herrera recorded two of Philadelphia's seven.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Noel sits as Sixers end season with loss to Heat

Philadelphia, PA -- Michael Beasley scored a season-high 34 points with 11 rebounds and eight assists as the Miami Heat ended their season with a 105-101 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday.

Zoran Dragic netted a career-high 22 points, Henry Walker scored 21 and James Ennis finished with 17 points, 12 boards and six assists for the Heat (37-45), who won despite resting the majority of their starters including Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade.

"It's been a tough three weeks," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said. "At least we can leave the last game with integrity and competitive character."

JaKarr Sampson totaled a career-high 22 points, while Robert Covington and Hollis Thompson each had 19 points for the 76ers (18-64), who matched their worst mark since the 1995-96 season.

The 76ers cut into their 18-point halftime deficit with 10 straight points to start the third quarter. They outscored the Heat 25-11 during the frame and netted the final five points of the quarter to get within 75-71 heading into the final stanza.

Thomas Robinson scored four straight points and Jerami Grant gave the Sixers a lead with a dunk with under seven minutes to play. Dragic, however, scored six straight points and the Heat made it a 94-88 game with 4:17 to play.

Grant hit a jumper and following a pair of Covington free throws, Sampson's putback slam of Grant's miss tied the game with 3:05 left.

After Beasley scored six straight points, the Sixers responded with a 7-0 spurt that was capped on Sampson's dunk for a 101-100 lead with 23.7 ticks on the clock.

Walker, however, sealed the win by knocking down a 3 and Tyler Johnson's driving dunk following Covington's miss from beyond the arc accounted for the final score.

"They made a run in the fourth quarter," Robinson said. "We didn't have enough time to come back."

The Heat, who will miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season, scored nine of the final 13 points to lead 29-23 after the opening 12 minutes of play.

Thompson hit back-to-back 3s to tie the game two minutes into the second quarter, but Miami quickly regained its advantage with a 16-6 spurt that contained contributions from beyond the arc from Walker, Dragic and Ennis. Miami continued to pour it on and led 64-46 at halftime.

Notes: Philadelphia lost its final 10 games of the season ... The Sixers outscored the Heat in the paint by a 58-46 margin ... Miami led by as many as 20 points.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Why Craig Berube is still here

Why is Craig Berube still employed?

It's the Million Dollar Question when two other NHL teams badly in need of a change in direction don't even wait 24 hours from the end of the regular season to fire their head coaches, and your team stands pat, four days and counting.

Berube may or may not have an immediate future with the Philadelphia Flyers -- as a head coach or in some other, lesser capacity. Whatever the path the team's front office takes regarding this 49-year-old good soldier, it's not going to be made on a whim and it won't be made until all the facts are considered.

The process of discernment as to Berube's fitness to continue as head coach will likely follow along these lines:

Saturday was the Flyers' home and season finale, a 3-1 loss to Ottawa which put the Senators into the playoffs.

Sunday was a day to rest after a grueling 82 game course with all the precipitous twists, turns, rises and drops of Kingda Ka.

Monday was the day for the players to collect their belongings, to undergo their exit interviews, and for certain non-playing personnel to give their closing remarks as well as undergo their own exit interviews.

Tuesday, while there was a loaded back page in the Daily News decrying the organization's supposed sloth-like maneuvering along with the requisite viral complaints from social media, was likely the day when the coaching staff will have their say.

Today, before a big announcement is made in a couple hours, is the a day where Ron Hextall and Paul Holmgren began huddled in seclusion in the West Wing armed with a map of the hockey world and the collected opinions of those who directly worked under Berube to consider.

In his column from yesterday, the Daily News' Frank Seravalli, blatant bias against Chief notwithstanding, provided a major clue on why fans' impatience is totally moot:

"[T]he rest of the coaching world hasn't been completely shaken up yet. There's no rush right now. Toronto fired journeyman interim coach Peter Horachek. Buffalo canned Ted Nolan. They are not Flyers candidates.

"Tough decisions loom in San Jose, Boston, Arizona, Edmonton and even Los Angeles after a report that Darryl Sutter was locked out of the locker room by his team after a loss. Heads could roll in Pittsburgh, Montreal, St. Louis and even Anaheim if quick first-round exits result."

Time is of the essence, but it should not be wasted nor should it be consumed by immediate reaction based on irrational thoughts. If Hextall wants to preach patience in development and practice what he preaches, why should anyone question that he'd want to fulfill that promise regarding the single most important on-ice position?

Potential candidates from the NHL will become available as soon as two weeks from today, men who have put together careers behind the bench longer and more distinguished than Berube's 161-game baptism of fire.

Unfortunately, Seravalli contradicts himself one paragraph later, stating: "It seems like cruel and unusual punishment for Hextall to keep Berube without some sort of vote of confidence by now." 

And Bill Meltzer also falls on the side of sympathy for the men in charge when he wrote: "Hextall planned to meet with Berube after talking with all the players and gave no hint of a timetable to make decisions. That is understandable, but it is unfair to Berube and the assistant coaches to keep them in limbo while waiting to see who else may become available."

If a decision like firing a head coach is not to be taken lightly -- especially given the fact that Ed Snider, Bob Clarke and Paul Holmgren have bristled for years every single time a coaching change has made and the modifiers "instability" or "carousel" routinely fall from reporters' or beats' lips -- and Berube has worked his way through the organization long enough to know how the front office works, then he knows how to remain cool until the signal is given one way or another.

The same might be said for Ian Laperriere and to a lesser extent, new addition Gord Murphy who has worked his way through the NHL as an assistant. A final decision may not be announced today but Hextall won't keep these guys on the tether so long they can't pursue other opportunities both inside and outside the club if that's the best foot forward.

No one really needs to advocate on their behalf and I'll bet my meager gains from writing that Berube is the person least concerned of all concerned parties.

If the decision to keep or chuck a head coach is anything like signing off on certain roster moves which have caused a spate of nuclear reactions from all sides this season, then there's no reason to believe it's going to be done quickly or easily. Or most importantly, to the tastes of any outside observers -- and Hextall said that almost to the letter in his opening remarks.

There's relatively little pressure for a move to be made in the offseason, with no continuation of a schedule to take into consideration as it was when Berube was elevated to the position once Peter Laviolette was suddenly deemed too deficient two Octobers back. 

Besides, any new bench boss is best served getting to know the team as constituted, once the draft and free agency have passed and any available deals to reshape the roster or alleviate the cap situation have been consummated. That won't happen until mid-July at the earliest, with a whole two months grace before training camp. Even if Berube is given the Spanish Archer, let's not start the drumbeat of "when is Hextall going to hire someone" for a while, OK?

Why should Hextall provide a smoke screen just to mollify speculation from a columnist? Why should he, either publicly or privately, offer lip-service support when that can turn at the drop of a puck and the best available person falls on the club's collective lap? It would be tantamount to Jeff Carter's agent being assured Carter wouldn't be traded four years back, then voila! a deal was suddenly in the works with Columbus.

You simply don't do the dirt like that to an employee who was part of the brotherhood, and Hextall knows this as an ex-player and long-time administrator. Lack of support or a strong comment so quickly after a season completes cannot be taken as a sign of malfeasance. Thought and diligence can't be mistaken as weakness.

So let's end with the Hundred Dollar Question: why is anyone complaining if Berube is still here?

Look in the mirror. If the reflection staring back is anyone other than Hextall himself, no need to wonder or whine on a daily basis. You're not in control. It's much better that way.