Laviolette's on borrowed time
At the Flyers' final practice before their regular-season opener Wednesday against the Maple Leafs, Peter Laviolette wore the gray-tipped whiskers of a man too preoccupied with more pressing matters to make the time to shave.
The previous month had offered no relief from the longest, most trying stretch of his tenure as head coach: After missing the playoffs last season for the first time since 2007, the Flyers won just one of their seven September preseason games. They'd done little to quell the fear that, for a franchise that has spent more than 38 years chasing the Stanley Cup, another year of failure lies ahead.
"Those games didn't go the way we wanted," Laviolette said Tuesday, "but those games don't count."
It was an admirable and natural display of optimism. Every new season, after all, offers the promise of a fresh start. But the reality of life as an NHL coach, and as the Flyers coach in particular, belied it. Already, Laviolette looked tired, as if a season of modest expectations and persistent questions about his job status had been wearing on him before it had even begun.
Such stress would be understandable. Bovada, an online gaming company, has Laviolette as the favorite to be the first NHL coach fired this season. (The odds are a healthy 2-1.) He was hired less than four years ago, and of the 14 head coaches the Flyers have churned through since Fred Shero resigned in 1978, only Mike Keenan has coached more regular-season games for them.
That third Cup remains elusive, but the cycle never stops. It's been the Flyers way for a while: Win together now; walk together until the middle of next week.
There's little reason to think Laviolette will survive that history, that impulse the Flyers have to change coaches whether it's the right thing to do or not.
Replacing John Stevens in December 2009, Laviolette arrived with championship credibility that his predecessor didn't possess, having won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. He immediately shepherded the Flyers to that surprising Finals run in 2010.
He guided them to two more playoff berths despite the sad and sudden decline of Chris Pronger, a goaltending situation that has gone from tenuous to comical and back again, and the trades of two players - Mike Richards and Jeff Carter - who were supposed to have been the dual fulcrum of the franchise for the next decade.
If any coach would seem to have earned a greater measure of patience from the Flyers' power people, it would be Laviolette. And yet here we are, and bets are being placed on when Ed Snider and Peter Luukko will show him the door.
"When you get Peter a team that has a strong-rooted leadership group, he can do what he does," said former NHL defenseman Bret Hedican, who played for Laviolette in Carolina.
"When you lose a guy like Chris Pronger, you're left with having new players step up into those roles. When you have players who have that sort of mentality, Peter Laviolette's job gets much easier. But for me to sit here and say, 'He's doing a terrible job,' I have a hard time believing that. I'd rather ask, 'What's going on in the locker room? Who are the leaders in that room, and are they doing the job?' "
Look, no one's arguing that Laviolette deserves a lifetime contract or that his performance here has been beyond reproach. The decision to bench Sergei Bobrovsky in the 2011 playoffs stands out as probably his gravest error, especially considering that Bobrovsky was named the league's best goaltender last season and Philadelphia was treated to the Ilya Bryzgalov Experience.
But after so many empty years, after a preseason that suggests this is a team with serious shortcomings, isn't it time for the Flyers to stop opting for the path of least resistance? Don't the problems go deeper than the man behind the bench?
"If you fire a guy like Peter Laviolette," Hedican said, "then what are you left with?"
We're likely to find out soon enough. Until then, all Peter Laviolette can do is hope that his latest fresh start lasts beyond Wednesday. All he can do, really, is prepare himself for the reckoning.