PUBLICLY, ANYWAY, Peter Laviolette usually speaks with a lacquered hardness, cool and dismissive and protective.
Yesterday, unbidden, he warmed to his subject. Laviolette was asked about the maturation of Flyers scorer Claude Giroux . . . and he quickly projected that just such an accelerated performance curve could happen again, a year later, for James van Riemsdyk.
"JVR is a prime example of that - you hope that he keeps going the same way," said Laviolette, who has guided both the past two seasons.
When the Flyers sneaked into the 2010 playoffs, Giroux, the 22nd overall pick in the 2006 draft, was a promising second-year player who performed well late in the season but who needed to contribute mightily if the Flyers were to make a run at the Stanley Cup. Giroux finished the season with 16 goals and 31 assists but exploded for 10 goals and 11 assists as the Flyers went to the finals.
Van Riemsdyk, the second overall pick in 2007, has 21 goals (five in the last nine games) and 19 assists as the Flyers prepare to host the Sabres on Thursday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Laviolette is eager to see where van Riemsdyk goes from here.
So is the 21-year-old van Riemsdyk.
A hulking 6-3 and at least 205 pounds, van Riemsdyk lacks Giroux's magical hands, slippery speed and uncanny sense of where his teammates are. But van Riemsdyk has a heavy, accurate shot, and big guys don't shrink - especially ones who can move like JVR.
"For me, it's always been about skating. Especially in the playoffs, presenting a physical presence," van Riemsdyk said. "You can wear guys down not on the back end, and they know they're going to get hit every time they get the puck down there."
Laviolette, who witnessed a lack of hard-working hockey the past 2 months, welcomes any commitment to forechecking, especially one coming from van Riemsdyk. Laviolette was compelled to bench him 13 games into the season; van Riemsdyk had yet to score a goal.
He emerged from that refocused. His style of play often turned imposing.
This time last year van Riemsdyk was every bit the pliable, callow rookie. This year, his body harder and his jaw squarer, he is a professional.
"It's more of a strength thing for me," van Riemsdyk said. "I feel a lot stronger, a lot more powerful out there."
Whether that means he can follow Giroux with a 20-point playoff surge remains uncertain. And, perhaps, unimportant. As long as he continues to progress, his coach will be happy, because the payoff down the road could be even greater.
Giroux followed his playoff run with 76 points, most on the team, and an All-Star berth.
"You're talking about young players coming into a man's league at 19, 20 years old," Laviolette said. "You've got a lot to do to figure it out. So, JVR, you hope he keeps taking the steps and that these playoffs are good for him. And next year, he follows it up."
The Flyers certainly don't sound like a team that won once in its last six games and lost the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
"We had a pretty good year. Won a lot of hockey games. Where did we finish, third out of 30? That's not so bad," said Laviolette, who pointed to a team full of veterans with postseason credentials surrounding the core of Flyers that went to the finals last year. "Guys that have proven themselves in the playoffs in the past. A lot of experience to draw on."
"We've got guys that show up for the big games. It was like that last year," said Danny Briere, who could have been talking about himself. "The big games we needed to win, guys were ready to play and competed hard. That's why I have a lot of confidence. I like the feeling around here."
"The intensity today, guys were skating hard," said Scott Hartnell.
Told that some pundits were picking the seventh-seeded Sabres, the Flyers generally were incredulous. "Who picked them?" asked Giroux.
ESPN, for one.
"Thanks, ESPN," Hartnell said.
Of course, the Flyers were decided underdogs as seventh seeds last year, and they won the Eastern Conference. So much for predictors.
"Does that actually determine the winner?" Laviolette asked.
Blair Betts, center on the checking line and penalty-killing specialist, missed the last three games of the season with a lower-body injury. However, he was part of the spirited, short practice yesterday.
"The last couple of games were more of a precaution," Betts said. "I felt really good today. Another couple of days, I shouldn't have any problems."
The Flyers worked mainly on special teams. Betts expects to be more fully tested today.
"[Yesterday] was probably a lighter day than I've had the previous few. So there was no testing," he said. "Tomorrow will be a tougher skate. Hopefully, we'll get into some game situation drills and get banged around a little bit, see how it feels then."
Laviolette is not about to let accomplished Sabres goalie Ryan Miller establish any preseries mystique or aura.
Briere acknowledged that Miller might be the best in the game right now, but Laviolette was not as impressed.
"You know, there's a lot of good goaltenders in the league," Laviolette said. "The New York Rangers have good goaltending. We had good goaltending all year. Montreal has a good goaltender."