FOR THE LAST 18 months, the Flyers have not been a very tough team to play against.

Less talented teams like the Islanders, Senators and even the Canadiens competed in the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, while the Flyers watched from home.

That will change if the Flyers adopt a style half as hungry as new coach Craig Berube, who milked 1,054 NHL games out of a career filled with more brawn than bent. But don't let his 3,149 penalty minutes fool you: Berube is a respected hockey mind.

"He is a smart guy," former Flyer Daniel Briere said yesterday from Alberta. "I said right away when I got to Philadelphia that I could see him being a head coach."

Yes, Berube waited his turn - he has been coaching at the pro level for 9 years - but this wasn't your typical Flyers nepotism at work.

Berube is the right man for the job. You can see it in Berube's everyday interaction with players, the amount of reverence they have for him - even when he cracks a joke with his dry wit. How respected is Berube? He played for the Flyers, Flames and Capitals during his career - and all three teams wanted him back for a second stint.

"Craig is one of the smartest hockey guys I've ever been around," general manager Paul Holmgren said. "He is a no-frills, a no-BS guy."

Berube, 47, will stand behind the bench for his first game as an NHL head coach tonight against the Panthers, but this isn't his first rodeo. He was the head coach of the Phantoms in 2007-08 and led them to a 46-27-4-3 record.

Berube was so impressive after one season in the AHL that then-head coach John Stevens couldn't wait to bring Berube to the NHL with him. He was interviewed by Washington for its head-coaching vacancy in 2012, not a surprise to those who know him.

"He is intense," Darroll Powe, who played 76 games for Berube that season and now plays for the Rangers, told the Daily News yesterday. "He demands a lot. He expects you to go out and battle every night. Since he played the game, he gets a lot of respect from players. He is a guy who knows what he is talking about.

"He is a straight-up guy. He tells you exactly how it is, there's no messing around. You never need to guess."

Holmgren, who coached Berube for three seasons, said Berube likely will hold players accountable in a different way from the fired Peter Laviolette.

"It's 'maybe I'll give you one chance; if you mess up again, you're probably not going to get another chance,' " Holmgren explained. "Their ideas for the overall team concept, when it comes to playing defense, are probably a little different. You have to have all five guys on the same page. Every coach has a different idea of how to play the game."

Most assumed longtime coach Terry Murray, the Phantoms' current head coach, with more than 1,000 NHL games under his belt, was the heir apparent to Laviolette's throne. Berube provides a fresh interpretation, even though it's from within the organization. There is something different about a former player; Laviolette played only 12 NHL games.

"I've been a Flyer my whole life, whether I've played on other teams or not. [That] doesn't mean I'm going to do the same things the other coaches did," Berube said. "I'm not them. I think I have my own thoughts, and I have my own way of how I want to coach. I don't coach like anyone else.

"You're only accountable to your teammates, in my opinion. This guy sitting beside you - do you want to let him down?"

Berube's Phantoms team, which lost in the second round of the playoffs to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, an eventual Calder Cup finalist, was filled with older players and some who had NHL experience. He was a rookie coach, yet not a single player batted an eye when he arrived.

"You wouldn't have known he had never coached before," Powe said. "He commands the locker room. At the same time, he has a way of making it all work. He finds a way to keep the locker room happy. I think he gets that as a former player.

"He's a guy you can still talk to. He understands you might not be playing your best, but that things happen. If it wasn't for him, I don't think I ever would have made it to the NHL."

As a rookie NHL coach, Berube will have plenty of help. He will be joined on the bench by former assistant GM John Paddock, who has twice been an NHL head coach, and former director of development Ian Laperriere. Paddock was Berube's first professional coach with the Hershey Bears in 1986-87. Few Flyers competed harder on a nightly basis than Laperriere.

"They have a lot of character on that bench now," Briere said. "I like adding 'Lappy,' and it's a great move adding John to help. He's a smart hockey mind."

If he's anything, Berube is unique - and he is confident in himself. At 6-1 and 210 pounds, Berube was not always the biggest guy on the ice, but his mental makeup - believing he was tougher than you - is what made him successful.

He believes in himself. Since he got the most out of his limited skill set, he knows he can get more out of a still-talented Flyers roster.

"It's all there. I want them to play as a team," Berube said. "Everybody wants to win. But I think the fans just want hard work and competitive people. Why would I be worried?"

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