Alain Vigneault does not like to talk about the past often. He's very much a present-minded person.
What's happening now and what's next are always on his agenda.
With the arrival of 2021 training camp, the Flyers' head coach made it clear on Tuesday he doesn't want to delve anymore into last season. And can you blame him? The 2020-21 season was a disaster for the Flyers, a shortened, coronavirus-impacted, playoff-less year the organization would like to forget.
"Last year's behind us," Vigneault said two days before the start of camp. "There's nothing we can do about it. Let's focus on the present, let's take care of that, let's get to work.
"I've told a lot of our returning players, the ones that were here last year, I firmly believe that the season we had as a group last year doesn't represent who we are. I do believe there are some great lessons to be learned there and we need to learn those lessons and become better now and in the future."
Therein lies the way the Flyers can truly control the conversation, direct the narrative to the now and not what transpired in 2020-21. The Flyers have a new look but that won't be a cure-all. Winning, though, can undoubtedly be a dominating topic.
Vigneault and the Flyers will have to talk about last season — or at least hear it come up in questions — if they don't change the trends from last season. Those trends were ugly and it led to general manager Chuck Fletcher orchestrating plenty of change this offseason.
"Right now, I'm sensing a new energy around our group," Vigneault said. "I've been here a couple of weeks now and you sense the energy level, you sense the optimism.
"The way I look at it right now is that Chuck and I and his staff sat down at the end of the year, discussed a few things and as an organization, we probably had a wish list. At the end of the day, Chuck went out and got the job done. Him and his staff have come through for us.
"Now it's up to me and my staff and my players, we have something to prove. Management's done their job, now it's up to us to do ours — and I wouldn't want it any other way."
After the Flyers came one win away from the Eastern Conference Final in Year 1 of the Vigneault era, they lost Matt Niskanen to retirement, had a quieter offseason and regressed staggeringly in 2020-21. They gave up an NHL-most 3.52 goals per game, had a league-worst .883 save percentage and owned the 30th-ranked penalty kill at 73.1 percent.
In 2019-20, they found success in Vigneault's hard-on-the-attack, possession-based system. The Flyers scored the NHL's seventh-most goals per game (3.29), were tied for the seventh-fewest allowed per game (2.77) and no team yielded fewer shots per game (28.7).
But 2019-20 tends to be forgotten because of what followed in 2020-21. Last season won't simply be forgotten or not talked about; the Flyers must erase it themselves.
"I don't really want to touch too much on what happened in the past," Vigneault said. "We could talk about last year, we could talk about two years ago where we were one of the best defensive teams in the league — shots against, shots from different trouble areas, goals against, etc. I think we've got to move away from the past. What we have done, though, as a staff, because you obviously analyze different things, there are little tweaks here and there that we want to make to certain situations that happened on the ice that I believe are going to make us better.
"We poured through a lot of tapes this summer. Obviously you look at what the winning teams, the teams that went to the final four, etc., what they're doing defensively to be successful. There are a few adjustments that we're going to make with our group in a couple of different situations; not something that we want to bring out in the open with media and fans right now, but something that, as we go through the different zones with our team, there are a couple different little adjustments that we're going to make.
"We still want to be a fast-paced team, but there are definitely some elements in our defensive play that we need to improve on and that we are going to. I've got a lot of confidence in the players that are back from last year and with the additions that we made, I really believe that we can be really efficient. To have success in the NHL, when it's time to defend, you need to be able to defend and we're going to be one of those teams that's good at defending."
In Vigneault's 18 seasons as an NHL head coach, 12 have featured playoff berths, with nine of those teams advancing past the first round. At his end-of-the-season press conference in May, after the Flyers missed the postseason, Vigneault expressed his desire for normalcy and confidence in what the Flyers could do with it. The bench boss got his wish and knows why he feels strongly this training camp will be more successful than last season's abbreviated one.
"It's real simple," he said with a smile. "We've got a camp this year and we've got exhibition games."
Because of the mandatory adjustments created by COVID-19, the Flyers' previous training camp was in January and consisted of six on-ice days. One of those days was an intrasquad matchup. There were no preseason games. This camp, the Flyers have six preseason games alone.
"I'm not going to address the past very often, but we're sort of back to normal, we're back to normal the way we were my first year when I came here," Vigneault said. "Players have had a normal summer of training, players are getting tested on and off the ice to see where their conditioning is, players are going to get the opportunity to show what they can do because we've got exhibition games. It's a normal season, it's planned to be an 82-game schedule and that's what I think everybody in hockey wants right now. And that's hopefully what we're going to get here moving forward."
This summer was Fletcher's most crucial offseason in his Flyers tenure. This season will be Vigneault's biggest.
Fletcher and normalcy have given the head coach his canvas.
What will he paint over last season's picture? Vigneault gets to work Thursday.
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