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Laviolette returns to Raleigh as All-Star coach

by John Manasso
Maybe's it's karma, but it might also be a case of being one of the best. With the Philadelphia Flyers having totaled the highest points percentage in the Eastern Conference as of Jan. 15, coach Peter Laviolette earned the right to coach in the NHL All-Star Game on Jan. 30 in Raleigh, N.C., the same city where he guided the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup less than five years ago.

"Well, the All-Star Game should be a good weekend," said Laviolette, who spent five years in Raleigh. "Some of the best players are out there and you get to watch some fun hockey. It's different from what we do here -- without the stress. I have a lot of friends back there in Raleigh, so my family will go up. We'll enjoy it."

Since his first brief stint as a head coach with the New York Islanders in 2001-2002 and 2002-2003, when he ended the franchise's seven-year playoff drought with back-to-back postseason appearances, Laviolette has steadily climbed the ranks among the NHL coaching elite.

If the Cup win with the Hurricanes in 2006 was perceived cynically by some as perhaps fluky, as it occurred after the League took a season off and teams were adapting to new payroll restrictions and new rules interpretations, then Laviolette's accomplishments last season should put that notion to rest.

Arriving in midseason after the firing of John Stevens, Laviolette steered the Flyers in 56 games into the postseason, securing the berth on the final day of the regular season while overcoming numerous injuries to the teams' goaltenders. Then he got them all the way to the sixth game of the Stanley Cup final before finally succumbing to Chicago.

Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said he didn't think Laviolette needed last season's playoff run to solidify his reputation.

"I think he was probably considered even one of the better coaches even when he was out of the game," Holgren said of Laviolette, who coached the 2006 U.S. Olympic team, "and what he had done with Carolina, in winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, so the fact that he was not working last year and we decided we needed to make a coaching change was obviously a good thing for us. It took our team a little while for our team to adapt to the way he wanted to play, but I think we've seen that once they understand what he was trying to get them to do, then the team took off and, obviously, had a good playoff run and that's carried over to this year.

"He's a very passionate guy and I think the players know that he cares about them and wants to win, just like they do."

Among those who have benefitted the most is center Danny Briere. The Flyers made Briere one of the League's highest-paid players in 2007 with an eight-year, $52-million contract, but in his few first seasons, partly because of injury, he was unable to remain the dominant player he was in his last season with Buffalo when he totaled 32 goals and 63 assists.

Briere credits Laviolette for getting him back to elite status. He had 12 goals and 18 assists to lead all players in postseason scoring in 2010 and his 24 goals this season tie him for fifth in the NHL.
Briere was asked about the biggest difference Laviolette has made.

"He's a very passionate guy and I think the players know that he cares about them and wants to win, just like they do." -- Flyers GM Paul Holmgren

"The new system -- and it's nothing against John Stevens -- I think he was a great coach as well, but it was a more passive approach, more of a trap system," Briere said. "With Peter, it's a more aggressive system, more skating, more up-ice, more intensity. For me, personally, it's a little easier. It's more my game, so it really helped me personally to get back to the player I used to
be in Buffalo."

Thrashers captain Andrew Ladd was a rookie on that 2006 Carolina team. He said Laviolette preached that if every player was great individually, the team would be great collectively, and that Laviolette is a master at motivating players to achieve that goal.

"Coming into the League at a such a young age, he made a big impression on me in terms of the way he coached and the biggest thing with me is his motivational tactics and stuff were pretty impressive," said Ladd, now 25. "How he communicated with his players so regularly and letting you know what he expected. He was really good."

Briere agreed.

"Yeah, it's definitely up there with the best coaches I've had a chance to play for, if not the best," he said. "He's really good at pushing the right buttons. He's a coach who is very prepared, as well. So it's been a lot of fun."

When Carolina won the Cup, the Hurricanes played Briere's Buffalo team in a seven-game Eastern Conference final series that was a war of attrition. Briere said he remembered Laviolette again pressing "all the buttons" with his line match-ups and goaltending, going between Martin Gerber and eventual Conn Smythe-winner Cam Ward.

Not the type to bask in the glow of such memories, Laviolette nonetheless looks forward to his return.

"It'll probably be more -– when you come in with the Flyers, you're covered with what you do," he said. "You're covered in a bus, you slide in the back door, you get to your locker room, you slide onto the ice and you see some friends along the way. I think an event where you're there for the weekend and there's more activity and more involvement with people around -- I'm sure I'll get to see more people and have some conversations with people I haven't seen in a while so that'll be different, I think, from when I'm with the Flyers."

He also thinks his family will enjoy the weekend.

"I have lots of friends there," he said. "We have friends, our kids have friends and it's hard, you know, when you're working and your kids are in school. There's not a lot of time for moving around and when we do, we usually go to Florida, so, but we still see some people."

And the return was possible because he earned it. After a 5-2 win over Atlanta on Jan. 14 that sealed his status as the All-Star coach from the East, he talked about the Flyers' ability to throw out three dangerous scoring lines, which typifies the aggressive style about which Briere spoke, and how that has made them the League's best road team.

"I think that's probably a reason why we sit where we sit," he said. "Our home record's not bad either. I think that there's been a good team effort to put us where we sit. ... It's always a little bit harder on the road and maybe that comes with the battles we've gone through as a group. Every group is different and you go through some things last year, it toughens you up a little bit. It toughens your skin.

"You get in road situations and now you're relying on each other. There seems to be a lot of trust in there, in each other and what we need to do in order to be successful, and when we do the work we do it together, which comes back to the original point. When we do it together we can win some hockey games."

Trust, it should be noted, that he has fostered.

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