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Is it Time to Fire John Stevens?

October 19, 2008 | By RotoRob | comment on this post

BY ROB REATH

John Stevens, the one-time captain and former coach of the AHL Phantoms and the current coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, is facing tough times these days. Let’s explore why.

First, let’s look at how Stevens got to where he is. He wore the Phantoms jersey proudly, leading a team to the Calder Cup, which takes some leadership. Stevens did see a few games with the big club, but was never really the quality of player that makes it in the NHL. Well, that’s no shame — thousands of people spend years targeting the NHL and fall short. It’s not that easy. Still, he made good as a player and was a person of integrity deserving of respect. Further, Stevens has a fine intellect and very composed demeanor which would stead him well when dealing with the Philly media.

He coached an ordinary Phantoms club into the playoffs and as an added surprise, that spring Jeff Carter and Mike Richards were awarded to his club for the playoffs that year. My initial response was “here comes a guaranteed Calder Cup!” However, that’s not really fair because it was a hard fought road to win the title even with Carter and Richards, and the rest of the team had to count on strong performances from less heralded names that all elevated their play.

That Phantoms team functioned as a unit. They were strong and, deservedly so, took home the cup for being the best team in the AHL. Now, some might say that team should have cruised their way yet they had a tougher time of things than they should have, but in hockey you are judged by the results. Stevens was behind a cup winning team and that earned him his shot with the big club.

When Stevens arrived as the Flyers coach, he walked into an organization in disarray. Bob Clarke had put together a club of bigger physical players that had some limitations with mobility. For years, the NHL had shown a consistent history of cutting down on clutch and grab hockey at the beginning of seasons and then relaxing their policies at playoff time. Clarke planned to capitalize on this and make a serious run for the Cup.

He gambled, and he lost.

For once, the League not only stayed true to its annual promise, but in fact took officiating to new levels of pettiness. Diving became more prominent and even up calls became rampant – the arrival of penalty fest was clearly here to stay. Referees became the deciding factor in most games and Clarke’s team got exposed by the speedy Buffalo Sabres and not even those even up calls could save them.

Clarke got criticized and was issued orders to rebuild. He got smaller quicker players right away, but they didn’t have the needed grit. Paul Holmgren replaced Clarke as GM and set the wheels in motion for proper change, but needed time to do it right. Peter Forsberg was in and out of the lineup and was less than suitable as the captain at the time due to nagging foot injuries and other problems.

Stevens got to deal with the mess and the result was the lowest finish in team history. The Flyers finished dead last in the entire NHL and to add insult to injury they didn’t get the first overall pick due to the lottery. Stevens can’t be blamed for the mess he walked into, but he sure didn’t get much accomplished from a results standpoint by any stretch of the imagination.

We were told it wasn’t his fault. He had no players; it was the circumstances; Foppa was injured; it couldn’t be helped. 

Alright, so we gave him a mulligan and looked to following year.

Holmgren made a series of unprecedented moves that boosted Philly’s reputation as place free agents want to play and he brought in some marquee talent. Braydon Coburn, Daniel Briere, Scott HartnellJoffrey Lupul, Jason Smith, Kimmo Timonen are all names on black and orange jerseys and the team is suddenly looked fast and hard to play against.

Despite early season successes, there were problems, especially when it came to protecting leads. This problem continued all season and into the playoffs, festering into this season as well.  The team gets scored upon at moments when they shouldn’t. Last minute goals, grudge goals coming moments after the Flyers score, and surrendering two-goal leads has become a regular attraction.

It should be pointed out that the Flyers are often able to over this disturbing trend and reclaim victory despite their own disastrous play. Stevens boasts about the resiliency of this team. Point taken; they never quit, and that’s fabulous.

Still, the issue of allowing teams to come back hard against them and preserving a lead gets lost in translation somehow, and the trend continues.

In last year’s playoffs, the Flyers had Washington on the ropes and stood to win the first round in five games but the Caps fought bravely and came back, forcing Philly to Game Seven overtime before the Flyers put them away. Letting teams come back on them nearly cost them their season in the first round. Once again, hockey judges by people by results and the Flyers won, so all was forgiven.

In the next round against Montreal, the Flyers played extremely well and despite again coughing up two-goal leads repeatedly, they squeaked out a victory in five games. And yes, they caught a few lucky breaks, but winning teams generally do.

Stevens mentions in post-game press conferences that “we felt fortunate to be here.” This confirms opposing coach Guy Carbonneau’s message that Philadelphia got lucky and he didn’t feel such luck could continue. It struck me as odd that Stevens would be so quick to agree, or at lest that he would do so publicly. Talk about sending the wrong message to your team! Stevens frequently punctuated his sentences with expressions like “against a great team like the Canadiens.” 

This may have been a public relations move in a league where it often seems the Flyers end up getting unfair calls by refs and receiving negative media coverage and unprecedented suspensions that cause one to wonder whether it is the player being punished for the transgression or the sweater he wears.

Perhaps Stevens was just trying to do a little repair work on a negative bias toward Philly in the league’s eyes. Maybe the league needs be less judgmental and make fairness its mandate and its only mandate. Can you imagine the task of trying to get Steve Downie a fair trial if the NHL were in charge of justice in the courts?

I’ll skip the five-game Conference Finals loss to the Penguins, including that awful 6-0 trouncing in the last game. The penguins who felt so good about it, they had T-shirts made up calling them State champs, a fictitious title at best. The point is there wasn’t much rallying by the Flyers in that game, injuries or not.

In terms of dealing with the media, Coach Stevens has been exemplary. The Philly press is tough, and you have some people who don’t even like hockey who tend to cover it with a dim view.

Stevens is considerate, thoughtful and as honest as you can be in his position. Apart from Fred Shero, he is probably the best coach Philly has had in this area. Ken Hitchcock was well spoken, but rambled on at times and too often would use the media as a tool to criticize players and drive confidence levels way down as a result.

Not Stevens; he is too refined for that, and it is one of the reasons the Flyers aren’t littered with dissent in the locker room.

Handling players is a risky game because if you are too tough on them in can get you in trouble with team management. Just ask Robbie Ftorek about his differences with Wayne Gretzky and his prompt firing from the Kings in 1989 after that episode.

Conversely, if we look at former Flyer John Paddock (currently the coach of the Phantoms), when he was the Senators coach he gave Ray Emery a bye on a disciplinary issue and that played a role in his being replaced. It’s a fine line, but we’ll come back to Paddock in just a moment.

Stevens generally handles players quite well. For the most part, he takes care of things behind closed doors, but there have been a few questionable situations. When Lasse Kukkonen first arrived in Philly as a former team captain in Finland, he was blocking shots, playing physical, and emerging as a team leader in many areas. The fans took a shine to him, which is no simple trick in Philly, but there were issues between him and Stevens.

Many times, Kukkonen was found in the press box and even when injuries to the defensive corps got way out of control, he received precious few minutes of ice time. His value to the club as at least a solid number four defenseman has been relegated down to that of a semi-serviceable number seven, and this rendered his trade value down to next to nil.

Stevens was playing Jim Vandermeer at the expense of Kukkonen at a point when Vandermeer had never played worse. 

Vandermeer, a Stevens supporter, was traded and still Kukkonen did not benefit or resume his level of play or ice time.

I’m not sugggesting that Stevens has been trying to slowly, calculatingly ruin the player’s career, but if he were going to, this is the exact way to go about it.

Strangely, Briere does not get disciplined for things that other players do, such as ill-timed penalties for lousy reasons.

In the summer, Stevens said that this season Briere would play his system better. It’s hard for me to imagine a system that Briere couldn’t fathom, or maybe he just plays the most effective way he can despite Stevens’s system.

Either that or he is a no-good locker room cancer who advocates disrespecting the coach, but that’s pretty unlikely given that he was a co-captain in Buffalo and carries the respect all who know and have played with him.

If he is floating, then he should be benched like everyone else.

Sparing Briere while punishing others is evidence of suspect leadership and disrespect.

Downie is an interesting case because Stevens seems to like him despite taking him off lines where he was very successful and sending him to the AHL for lengthy periods because of lack of production (although with scant ice time). Maybe that was best for the player’s development, but if Downie had enjoyed success playing with Richards and Hartnell, and the team was playing terrible that year, why not reunite them to get the kid’s confidence back?

Instead, he put Downie on the fourth line (in all but one game), and he — like most Flyers this season — is not being productive.

So, the kid can get points at 19 but not at 20? That makes me wonder if he is being handled correctly. For those about to jump aboard the Downie character assassination committee, it should pointed that even Stevens has gone out of his way to illustrate Downie has not once shirked his responsibilities, is a big game player and been very disciplined in terms of admitting to any shortcomings at every turn.

So Downie — another former captain, this time of the Canadian Junior Nationals (oh yeah, he led them to gold) – struggles a bit this year.

Do we have a pattern here of former captains not meeting expectations under the same coach?

How odd.

It’s not fair to say that it goes across the board because Timmonen has thrived, however, I can’t help but wonder how much the stigma of Stevens having never really played much in the NHL goes against him in the minds of his players.

Let’s come back to Paddock for a moment. Here is a former Flyer with a strong NHL background who is a proven NHL coach.

In Stevens’s second season, Holmgren surrounded him with the best hockey people he could find. Joe Mullen was brought in to help with the power play; Jack McIlhargey is handling the assistant coaching duties; Terry Murray was added, but has since left for L.A; Bill Barber is back; and Craig Berube is also assisting. Everyone is there to help and still there have been no positive results so far this season.

I can hardly imagine how it must feel to know that a successful former NHL coach like Paddock is guiding the farm team as the losses mount on the parent club.

I wonder how long it is before some other team approaches him.

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