Conference finals coaches -- John Stevens
HOW HE GOT THE JOB: Like many coaches, John Stevens' opportunity as an NHL coach came as a result of the misfortune of others, most notably Ken Hitchcock. When the Flyers stumbled out of the gate to start the 2006-07 season, Hitchcock was dispatched and Stevens was given his first NHL chance. Stevens had distinguished himself as a fine AHL coach after guiding the Philadelphia Phantoms to one Calder Cup championship in his six-year tenure, but his NHL arrival didn't come with a Cinderella script. The Flyers struggled throughout the 2006-07 season and finished dead last with a franchise-worst 56 points. Still, with the Flyers very much in rebuilding mode, Stevens was given a chance to guide the team for a full season and now finds himself in the conference finals.
BIGGEST HURDLE: When the Flyers slid from the top of the Atlantic Division after a miserable 10-game winless streak in February, there were more than a few whispers that ownership wanted to make a change behind the bench. But GM Paul Holmgren, who promoted Stevens from the AHL to NHL, held firm. The Flyers scrambled their way into the playoffs, finishing with the sixth seed. They surprised many by upending the Washington Capitals in a thrilling seven-game set, winning the clincher on the road in overtime. Then, the Flyers seemed to take a giant step forward under Stevens, disposing top-seeded Montreal in five in the second round.
"Certainly, once we got beyond that losing streak this year, we got into a situation where we had to win games, had some continuity in our lines, we got healthy, we played our best hockey at the end of the year," Stevens said. "I do think it's a process that takes time. You know, you can see the group now. These guys all know each other well. They have fun coming to the rink together. We've got great team spirit. But, again, that takes time to build."
WHAT HE'S ACCOMPLISHED If the other three coaches are dynamic in their own ways, Stevens would have to qualify as the most understated of the four. It is his low-key nature that may have led some to unfairly question whether Stevens has the goods to be a successful big league coach. But critics sometimes forget Stevens has been without one of the team's cornerstone forwards, Simon Gagne, for most of the season. He had to integrate key new pieces into the lineup (Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Daniel Briere, Jason Smith, Joffrey Lupul, Scottie Upshall, Vaclav Prospal and Jaroslav Modry). In the playoffs, Stevens had to make do without key veteran forward Mike Knuble, who missed five games with a hamstring injury before returning at the end of the second round. He helped Briere through scoring struggles, finally pairing him with Prospal after the trade deadline. That duo has combined for 26 points in 12 postseason games. Not only did Stevens manage to integrate all of those new parts, he also oversaw the dramatic improvement of young players like Braydon Coburn, who arrived at last season's trade deadline, and first-round picks Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING: So, how does Stevens evaluate his evolution as a coach? "My philosophy about building a team kind of has been the same," Stevens said. "We did the same thing at the [AHL] level. But just getting to know the league now, getting to know your own players better, getting to know the matchups in the league, being able to adjust to the schedule, finding out when you can rest and when you can work. It's been a great learning experience for me and one that I think I'm much better prepared for now than I was maybe a year ago."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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