Sam Donnellon: Do the Flyers have the right pieces?

Peter Laviolette says he's puzzled as to why Flyers went from the high-scoring team that ousted Penguins to one that struggled so much against the Devils.
Peter Laviolette says he's puzzled as to why Flyers went from the high-scoring team that ousted Penguins to one that struggled so much against the Devils. (DAVID MAIALETTI/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: May 11, 2012

CAN THE FLYERS' system, as currently constructed, win a Stanley Cup?

On the surface, the question seems easily dismissed. Peter Laviolette won a Stanley Cup in Carolina and went to the finals with a Flyers team only two seasons ago, using a pair of journeyman goalies, no less.

And yet the way it has ended for him over the last two springs - his offensive-minded men bottled up haplessly in their own end by healthy, defensive-minded teams in Boston and New Jersey - has created not merely seeds of doubt, but weeds of it.

And so, as they packed their bags up Thursday at Skate Zone, this was the overriding discussion: Did a team that dispatched the Stanley Cup-favorite Penguins with 30 goals in their first-round matchup, and had a week to rest and recharge, simply get outplayed by a sixth-seeded Devils team that had to rally just to push past Florida in seven games the previous series?

Or was this a matter of styles and strategy, New Jersey's aggressive forecheck and defense-first mentality a toxic concoction for the Flyers and their jailbreak eagerness?

The Flyers scored 264 goals this season. They also allowed 232 goals. For much of the season, they were notoriously bad protecting a lead, didn't even really seem too interested in it. Sometimes, they were undone by the goalie. But other times it looked as it often did against New Jersey, the Flyers struggling mightily just to clear their zone with the puck.

For much of the season, they were also borderline amazing at coming back from deficits. In fact, we saw both sides of this during the postseason, the Flyers rallying time and again against the Penguins, and coughing up leads in all four losses to the Devils.

On Thursday, I asked Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren whether the five-game elimination by the Devils was "a personnel thing." The inference being that without Chris Pronger, with Andrej Meszaros missing for all but the last game, the Flyers defense was most to blame.

"No," he said, adding, "We couldn't generate a forecheck."

A little later, I asked what he thought when he looked at those goals against during the regular season. Was there a direct link to the uneven play of Ilya Bryzgalov, who was Player of the Month in March, the same month Laviolette Thursday called "the best month that we had"? Or was it more a reflection of the system?

"That's a good question," Holmgren said. "That is probably a question for the coaching staff. There is no question in my mind that we have to do a better job with goals against. It is related to Ilya a little bit. It is related a little bit to how we play. We are an offensive team that can score. We just finished a five-game series where we didn't score a lot of goals. We certainly didn't generate a lot of offensive chances. We have to look at what happened there and what you are going to do about it when you get into that situation next year."

Asked about his system a little later, Laviolette said, perhaps a tad testily: "I don't know. Do you think that attack systems have ever won Stanley Cups before? Do you think that attack systems have every gotten to the finals before? We needed to do a better job, certainly, in a lot of areas. I think defensively we could have been better. Offensively . . . we generated the least amount of shots and opportunities in the playoffs. Certainly, I think there are things that we need to do better. All teams need to play good defense to win championships. Pittsburgh and Detroit did it a few years back . . . "

And then there was his Cup-winning Carolina team of 2005-06, which scored 294 goals and allowed 260.

"It's a great system, but it's a demanding system," Mark Recchi, traded to that team that season, told me this spring. "You've got to skate. If you do, it's a rewarding system."

The Flyers skated their tails off the first round. They were so bottled up the second round that a lot of the post-series questioning was about undisclosed injuries. Did the drastic change in styles they so quickly faced factor into their demise, especially given their dependence on rookies and first-time playoff performers such as Jakub Voracek? Or was it simply how it looked - a defensive core overmatched by New Jersey's pressure?

Laviolette deferred all roster questions Thursday to Holmgren. Defenseman Chris Pronger, still suffering serious symptoms from his concussion, is unlikely to return next season. Pronger appeared at a game late in the season, but left in the second period, because the crowd noise made his symptoms return. During a chance encounter at the bank recently, he expressed frustration with that, with the lack of any prognosis of when he will be symptom-free.

The Flyers, I believe, are acting as if Pronger will not return, a prudent notion. That would allow some room under what is expected to be a $69 million cap, and Holmgren at least implied Thursday that he will be aggressive when the free-agent signing period begins on July 1. And that would mean they could be very much involved in the Ryan Suter sweepstakes.

Is he enough? Is an anticipated bounce-back season by Bryz? Or does this team need some tinkering in style and approach by their pucks-to-the-wall coach?

On Thursday, Holmgren called Laviolette "a good coach." But he also embraced the idea of a little more defensive responsibility.

"Certainly, there are things that we can do better," Laviolette said. "I can agree with that. Defensively, we could have been tighter; offensively, we could have been a lot better in this series then we were."


Contact Sam Donnellon at donnels@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, visit www.philly.com/SamDonnellon.

 

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