How Alain Vigneault has gotten the Flyers to look in the mirror and buy in

How Alain Vigneault has gotten the Flyers to look in the mirror and buy in

Chuck Fletcher was brutally honest.

He had no reason not to be.

The general manager had gotten to know the Flyers over the final 57 games of a 2018-19 season that fell glaringly short of expectations.

At his end-of-the-season press conference on April 8, Fletcher lamented the team’s “bad habits” on the ice, pinpointing the Flyers’ overall failure to play the right way.

The message was piercing and telling when glancing at the Flyers’ roster. This was a group built around a veteran core, together since 2011. It was not lacking experience, yet it did not have a postseason series victory since 2012.

The Flyers needed to look in the mirror and have an openness to change.

They needed a coach to spearhead the process, rip off the bandages and begin anew.

They needed Alain Vigneault.

"When you have a guy like Alain walk in, there's instant presence,” Fletcher said on April 18, the day of Vigneault’s introduction. “There's a proven track record of success, which leads to instant credibility.

"It's also how you coach — it's tactics, it's philosophy, it's communication, it's having that presence and being able to get players to play the way you want them to play and feel good about it.

"He's not a yeller and a screamer. But he gets guys to buy in. If you can do that and they still have a smile on their face, you're a pretty good coach. That's what the top coaches do."

(Zack Hill/Philadelphia Flyers)

In 50 games of 2019-20, Vigneault and the players have smiled a lot together, forming a productive partnership. Both sides have bought into each other, have adjusted and compromised with one another.

And that’s what it takes to build a winning product.

After a 3-0 win Tuesday night over the Penguins at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations), the Flyers improved to 27-17-6 entering their NHL-mandated bye week. The 60 points are the club’s most through 50 games of a season since 2011-12, when it started 30-14-6 and last won a playoff series. The 2019-20 Flyers are allowing 2.90 goals per game, have a plus-8 goal differential and are three points out of third place in the NHL's deepest division.

“We’re about on track to what I expected as far as bringing the team together,” Vigneault said Tuesday. “I wasn’t quite sure exactly what we had as far as a group, where the young players were — I like their progression, the veteran players buying in on what it takes to play winning hockey.”

Vigneault has turned the Flyers into a hard-on-the-attack, forecheck-oriented, possession-based team — a system that requires immense effort and smarts.

However, he has not stripped the Flyers’ playmakers of their offensive strengths. In 2018-19, the Flyers didn’t have a ton of issues scoring, but they finished with a minus-37 goal differential and yielded the NHL's third-most goals per game at 3.41.

"We adapt our system to the players that we have,” Vigneault said back in April.

James van Riemsdyk has seen it.

“For me, the most important thing — obviously that stuff is nice and he has a good system, but he lets us have some leash,” van Riemsdyk said Tuesday. “Obviously you’ve got to be responsible in certain situations of the game, but I don’t think he tries to take away any creativity offensively. You kind of have that leash to make some plays and do things that you see out there.

“Certainly you don’t want to do anything crazy or anything like that, but he’s not married to one particular play in every situation. You can make some reads and you have some freedom to use your hockey sense to try to create. That’s been good.”

(Eric Hartline/USA Today Images)

The marriage between Vigneault and the roster could have endured serious growing pains. It’s not like the two haven’t. Vigneault had to show he wasn’t messing around in the preseason, he challenged his big-money players in November and he made it clear, just last week in a crossword puzzle way, that he’s not one for excuses.

Jakub Voracek was one of the players Vigneault pushed for more production. Since Nov. 23, Voracek has recorded 25 points and a plus-14 rating in 28 games. He has played some of his best all-around hockey without losing his offensive prowess.

“One of the things that I like about Jake is we’ve come in here with some non-negotiables as far as what you need to do when you don’t have the puck, the shooting lane to get into and Jake has been really easy to manage,” Vigneault said. “Sometimes those elite players, they need a little extra room with the puck and I agree with that, but there are some non-negotiables without the puck, things that you have to do and he’s doing it for our team.”

The city has embraced Vigneault’s tough love and his players have responded to it.

He’s a good fit for this city,” Kevin Hayes, who played for Vigneault from 2014-18 in New York, said last Saturday. “He’s a great coach, he’s on top-10 lists I believe and it’s just going to keep getting higher and higher. He tells you how it is, he’s not going to sugarcoat anything, he lets you know when you’re playing well, he lets you know when you’re playing bad. 

He demands the best from his players. As a player, that’s what you need — it’s not college or junior anymore, you don’t want to be pampered. It’s a job, it’s the NHL, you want to know where you stand. Sometimes you’re not happy with what he says to you, but that’s how it is. If you want to be happy with him, play better.

Vigneault has found ways to pace Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux, he has let his defensemen make plays, he has managed the goalies well, he has trusted the younger players and he has communicated.

Thus far, players have liked how Vigneault delivers his message to them first before he says anything publicly to the media.

“He knows what he’s doing,” Hayes said. “He knows what buttons to push and who he can push and what could be said and how to get the best from his guys.

“He treats everyone the same, if you’re a 10-year guy or a rookie year guy. He might give the veteran a little bit more leeway, but he holds everyone to the same standard.”

Vigneault has more buttons to push and the veteran core has more work to do.

They’ve looked in the mirror together. The Flyers should like what they see.


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Flyers Talk podcast: Time to get excited about this 2019-20 team?

NBC Sports Philadelphia

Flyers Talk podcast: Time to get excited about this 2019-20 team?

On the latest Flyers Talk podcast, NBC Sports Philadelphia's Katie Emmer and Jordan Hall debate if it's time to get excited about this 2019-20 team.

From what makes the Flyers different than in years past to concerns moving forward, let's dive in:

• 0:50 — Regular-season sweep of Blue Jackets says a lot

2:30 — Time to get excited about 2019-20 Flyers?

3:55 — Emmer has some questions about Philly driving

13:30 — What makes Alain Vigneault's team different

17:15 — Analyzing the Flyers' ceiling

25:00 — Has Kevin Hayes met expectations?

29:00 — Concerns with the Flyers

32:22 — Emmer should be on American Idol

33:10 — Miracle on Ice!

35:50 — Emmer's hockey joke of the day!

39:00 — Trade deadline show

Subscribe and rate Flyers Talk: Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Spotify | Stitcher | Art19 | YouTube

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More on the Flyers

Then and now: Reactions to Kevin Hayes as a Flyer

Then and now: Reactions to Kevin Hayes as a Flyer

Kevin Hayes. You know him, you love him (at least you should by now).

When the news came out that Hayes officially signed with the Flyers back in June 2019, the majority of fans weren't too happy. From comments of being overpaid, to a joke of a signing, to a waste of cap space, the list goes on.  

Well, thanks to the internet, we have receipts for those who felt this way. Have their opinions changed since? Probably.

And now folks, let’s take a look at that waste of cap space, shall we?

Hayes has worked well in Philadelphia so far. He fits the new system, came into semi-familiar territory, having played under Alain Vigneault during their time in New York and is exactly what the Flyers needed in terms of filling the void at center outside of Sean Couturier.

Before the season even started, the contract was instantly justified with the unknown return status of Nolan Patrick. Now, they're heading down the final stretch with still no indication of when a Patrick return could happen ... imagine how different things would look like without the new addition?

In his first season with the Flyers, Hayes leads the team in a handful of spots:

• Overtime goals (2)
• Shorthanded goals (4)
• Game-winning goals (5)

In addition to that, he’s second on the team in goals (19), just behind Travis Konecny (21). He’s also projected to score 26 in the season, which would be a new career high for the center — his previous best being 25. This would also be only the second season to score more than 20 goals.

And what’s a piece on Hayes if his skill on the penalty kill wasn’t mentioned? The Flyers are currently top 10 in the league, where this time last season through 61 games, they were 27th. There’s a new tone when Philly goes on a penalty kill and Hayes is a huge contribution to that.

He’s now become a fan favorite. Everyone wants to see No. 13 succeed in Philadelphia and just about all of the doubt has disappeared, on social media at least.

He’s the player Philadelphia didn’t know it needed until he was here.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

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