Laviolette's long road

STAFF WRITERDecember 26, 2009 

When Peter Laviolette took over the Hurricanes in December 2003, it took him two months to get the Hurricanes playing the way he wanted them to play. By February, he saw results. The Hurricanes finished the season 11-7-7

Laviolette doesn’t have nearly that much time with the Flyers. Expectations are higher. There’s more money on the line. And anything less than a return to the playoffs, where the Flyers were eliminated by the Penguins in the first round last season, a year after advancing to the conference finals, won’t be good enough.

The difference is the talent at his disposal, which is far better than what he found in Carolina. That may give him better odds, but it’s still a race to see whether Laviolette can get the Flyers to buy into his system before it’s too late.

“I go back to that year (2003-04), the last 20 games of the year we couldn’t make the playoffs that year but we were really tough to play against,” Laviolette said Saturday before his first game at the RBC Center since he was fired by the Hurricanes last December.

“That’s what we have to expedite this year. It’s got to happen quicker. We don’t have the luxury of the time to figure it out. We’ve got to win hockey games.”

The Hurricanes team Laviolette inherited six years ago was a mixture of veterans left from the 2002 team -- Rod Brind’Amour, Bret Hedican, Glen Wesley, Niclas Wallin and so on -- and youngsters like Eric Staal, Jaroslav Svoboda, Josef Vasicek and Radim Vrbata.

Talent-wise, that group was nowhere near as deep as the Flyers in terms of raw skill or competition through the lines, and it wasn’t until the post-lockout group of players arrived, Matt Cullen and Frantisek Kaberle and Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney and, perhaps most important, Martin Gerber, that things really clicked.

But the groundwork for that season was laid at the end of the 2003-04 season, when the Hurricanes started to grasp what Laviolette was preaching. The holdovers like Staal, Brind’Amour, Erik Cole and the veteran defensemen set the tone, and the newcomers raised the bar.

“I felt like in those 20 games we were playing a brand of hockey that was really tough to play against,” Laviolette said. “We were outchancing teams two-to-one or outshooting them two-to-one. Guys really started to pick up the speed and the style. We got locked out and we added some good pieces like the Whitneys and Stillmans of the world, but we got into training camp and got right back to it, and it was kind of like riding a bike at that point. It was already in there.”

It’s a different situation in Philadelphia, where Laviolette isn’t being asked to conjure a competitive team out of whole cloth. He has been handed a talented, but sorely underachieving, group assembled at great expense that was expected by many to challenge the Washington Capitals for Eastern Conference supremacy. (Hey, what other team does that sentence describe?)

Laviolette may have more resources, but he is also under more pressure, and with no Gerber to help cover his mistakes as the veteran Swiss goalie did in 2005-06. The Flyers’ goalie situation is tenuously unstable until Ray Emery returns from injury, and even then Emery has not often appeared in the same sentence as the word “stability.” (That being said, Michael Leighton will probably produce a Vezina-worthy performance against the Hurricanes tonight in his first game against the team that put him on waivers earlier this month.)

Going into Saturday’s game, the Flyers were 3-7-1 under Laviolette. The Hurricanes were 6-5-0 in the first 11 games Laviolette coached in 2003-04.

“We can play better than we are right now,” Laviolette said. “Sometimes when you’re changing something or changing your identity or changing your brand, not that there’s a right way or a wrong way, there isn’t, but you find inconsistency. We’ve been inconsistent at times. Some games we’re good, some not so good.” or (919) 829-8947

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