VOORHEES, N.J. -- John Stevens saw Ken Hitchcock as a mentor. He thought he could absorb Hitchcock's decades of
experience and mold that into his own long career.
Well, things move fast.
Just months into his first NHL assistant's job, Stevens was made
coach of the Philadelphia Flyers after Hitchcock was fired.
Still, on such short notice, he was ready with new ideas Monday
in his first full day in charge -- lines were shuffled; players
handled the puck more in drills.
The noticeable difference for the NHL-worst Flyers may be this:
Many of the younger players that load the roster no longer worry
about how every mistake might cost them playing time or get them an
earful from an angry Hitchcock. These Flyers are bit more relaxed.
"When I had Hitch the first year, it was my fourth year in the
league and it felt like my first year, so it was pretty tough,"
leading scorer Simon Gagne said. "He's very tough, very demanding
on you. Sometimes it's very tough to play under that kind of
pressure. Maybe with John Stevens as the coach, I think he'll give
more chances for the young guys and to let them make mistakes."
Stevens already has a natural trust and respect with many of the
second- and third-year Flyers from coaching them with the team's
AHL affiliate, the Phantoms. Stevens led the Phantoms to the Calder
Cup championship in 2005 with current Flyers like center Jeff
Carter, goalie Antero Niittymaki and defenseman Freddy Meyer.
"I think there's a fine line between holding people accountable
and letting them play," Stevens said.
To fill Stevens' spot, the Flyers made Craig Berube assistant
coach. Kjell Samuelsson was promoted to replace Berube as the
Center Mike Richards played only 14 games with the Phantoms in
2005, all in the postseason when he scored 15 points, but said
Stevens was more of a player's coach than the always-demanding,
"He's a quieter guy on the bench," Richards said. "He'll tell
you what you need to do, but he's not going to yell at you. He's a
pretty positive guy.
"He's not the type of guy who's just going to bark and bark at
you until he's blue in the face. If something needs to be said,
he'll tell you or show you on video."
The Flyers hope thawed player-coach relations leads to improved
production on the ice. The Flyers are off to their worst start in
17 years with a 1-6-1 mark and the fewest points in the NHL. They
have only 15 goals in eight games -- five by Gagne -- and have
allowed a whopping 32.
That led to a seismic shakeup Sunday in which Hitchcock was
fired and general manager Bob Clarke resigned. Chairman Ed Snider
acknowledged the Flyers had tuned out Hitchcock and his demanding
"Nobody felt good about yesterday," Stevens said. "We can't
sit around and feel sorry for ourselves."
Stevens wasted little time making an imprint, tinkering with the
lines, notably moving Gagne around and even trying Meyer at
forward. Stevens met with coaches to figure out the unsettled
goalie situation and did not name a starter for Thursday's game
Niittymaki and Robert Esche believe they should start. Esche is
winless in two starts this season and allowed all the goals in a
9-1 loss at Buffalo last week that triggered the drastic moves.
While all the Flyers said all the right words Sunday about how
much they'd miss Hitchcock, their tone changed a day later after
their second practice in two days with Stevens.
"We need to start all over again," Gagne said. "We can't keep
going the same way the team was going before. You need to do some
change. I like the way he's thinking. I had a great talk with him
today. I'm a little bit impressed with the way he talked to me."
Richards said the rookie coach's words carry more impact because
he picks the right spots to deliver his message.
"There's different styles of coaching, different styles of
players, leaders," Richards said. "Some people are very
soft-spoken like Johnny is. When he talks, people listen."