Boiled down to its essence, the question Peter Laviolette delivered to the Flyers when he succeeded John Stevens as coach on Dec. 4 was posed like this: Would you rather work hard with the puck or work hard without it?
It's safe to say the hockey player who would prefer the latter has yet to be born.
"It's a lot more fun for a hockey player to work hard with the puck than without it," Kevin McCarthy said.
McCarthy is more than one of the assistant coaches to Laviolette. McCarthy is his aide-de-camp.
A few days after general manager Paul Holmgren named Laviolette the 17th head coach in the club's history, Laviolette brought in McCarthy.
For Laviolette, it was a no-brainer. McCarthy was on his staff at Carolina when the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006. They are close friends. As an added bonus, McCarthy has Flyers roots. He played for the Flyers as a defenseman for part of his 10-year NHL career, and he was the club's coordinator of pro scouting and development from 1990 to '92.
Most important, McCarthy was intimately familiar with the system Laviolette wanted to install and how to implement the transformation. Basically, he wanted the Flyers to change from a defense-first philosophy that emphasizes capitalizing on the opponents' turnovers to a more up-tempo, aggressive style that emphasizes skating and puck possession.
"There's no wrong way to play this game," McCarthy said. "Whether you sit back and wait for teams to turn pucks over and then capitalize on those turnovers in transition, or whether you try to force teams to turn pucks over by being aggressive. It comes down to which team is better at executing its system.
"Lavvy's philosophy has always been 'When you have the puck, hold on to it - and when you don't have the puck, get yourself in position to get it back as quickly as you can.' The style he wants from his players is basically a reflection of his personality."
In basketball jargon, Laviolette likes to employ a full-court press for 60 minutes. It required the Flyers to improve their physical and mental conditioning - especially mental.
"It required a different mind-set more than anything else," McCarthy said. "The tempo you have to play is a lot quicker because when you're playing an aggressive style, you have to do things at a quicker pace than maybe you're normally used to.
"So right off the bat, you almost have to condition yourself to that style of play. It's more of a mental approach. But I will say the key to the system revolves around skating. There are no slow strides in that type of system. Whether it's on the forecheck, the re-loads or the defensive zone coverage, or offensive zone play, you're always constantly moving your feet and putting yourself in position to either get a loose puck or, when you have the puck, hold on to it."
The contrast in systems was evident during the Eastern Conference finals. Montreal sat back and tried to force turnovers in the neutral zone, hoping to utilize its speed by counterattacking. But the Flyers imposed their will, frequently hemming in the Canadiens with their forecheck. The Flyers won in five games largely because of superior puck possession.
"In the offensive zone, we try to make sure we have constant movement, constant pressure, 'constant chaos,' which is what we call it in the offensive zone," McCarthy said. "And when you get rewarded with scoring chances and goals - at the end of the day, players enjoy that style of play."
Certainly, there is some risk to Laviolette's system. If not properly executed, odd-man rushes by the opponents can result. Those risks could be greater against Chicago in the Stanley Cup Finals that begin Saturday at the United Center because the Blackhawks have more speed, skill, and firepower - much more - than the three clubs the Flyers eliminated to get this far. It should also make for a highly entertaining series.
Aggressive by nature, players may enjoy Laviolette's hell-bent approach, but nothing beats the thrill of winning. They lose trust in a coach if they believe the system isn't working. Laviolette's challenge was to get the Flyers to buy in, and things didn't start out very well. The Flyers won only two of their first 10 games under Laviolette.
"It took a while," McCarthy said. "Like anything else, it doesn't matter what system you want to play, if you don't have success doing it, especially in this league, they won't believe what you're doing is right.
"We had some tough times when we first got here. But to the players' credit, they were open to that change. Like anything in life, you hit bottom and there's nowhere to go but up, and you rely on others to help you back up. You've got to rely on teammates. I thought there was a stage where we hit bottom and we came together as a team first, and when that happened the game changed."
Single-minded and strong-willed, Laviolette stayed with his plan through the tough times and made it clear everyone was accountable, from star players such as Mike Richards and Chris Pronger to role players such as Blair Betts and Darroll Powe.
"One thing I've seen from Lavvy - and which hasn't changed from day one - is he's an honest guy," McCarthy said. "He's not going to tell a player one thing and then say something different. . . . That's not the way it is with Lavvy, and I think the players appreciate that."
It appears Laviolette also has their trust. How can he not, after he called perhaps the most significant time-out in the club's history? It was Game 7 in Boston. The Bruins had a 3-0 lead in the first period. Laviolette called time-out and gathered his players.
With steely confidence, he told them they had two choices: They could either push forward and do something about their predicament or feel sorry for themselves. Get the next goal, he said, and you'll win the game.
"Lavvy was calm. He was matter of fact," McCarthy said. "We scored the goal, and all of a sudden they started believing they had a chance."
Now he has them believing they can win the Stanley Cup.
Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or email@example.com.