General manager Chuck Fletcher felt the Flyers landed one of the game’s best behind the bench when the organization named Alain Vigneault its new head coach in April 2019.
Vigneault proved his boss and hirer correct when he was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award (Coach of the Year) in July.
However, he was not deemed the best bench boss in 2019-20.
On Wednesday night, Vigneault finished as the runner-up for the Jack Adams Award. Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy earned the honor, which is voted on by the NHL Broadcasters' Association.
Cassidy led the 100-point Bruins to the Presidents' Trophy a season after Boston went to the Stanley Cup Final.
The 55-year-old Cassidy has impressively led the Bruins to three straight seasons of 100 or more points. Prior to Cassidy's victory, the coach of the Presidents' Trophy-winning team had won the award only twice in the past 20 years.
Was Vigneault snubbed? There’s certainly no denying his credentials for this season’s honor as Vigneault steered the Flyers back to relevancy and contention following the organization’s tumultuous 2018-19 campaign.
Vigneault has won the award once (2006-07 with the Canucks) while four Flyers coaches have taken home the honor: Fred Shero (1973-74), Pat Quinn (1979-80), Mike Keenan (1984-85) and Bill Barber (2000-01).
In his 17th career season, the 59-year-old was also up against the Blue Jackets' John Tortorella, while the voting was conducted before the NHL’s return-to-play 24-team tournament.
Vigneault transformed the Flyers into a top-six club a year after the team finished 22nd in the NHL at 37-37-8 with 82 points, its fewest over a full campaign since 2006-07. Last season, marred by staggering organizational change, was one of the Flyers’ worst in the last 20-plus years.
Through a shortened 2019-20 regular season under the experienced Vigneault, the Flyers went 41-21-7 with 89 points in 69 games. With the abbreviated regular season because of the coronavirus outbreak, only four teams improved their point totals from 2018-19. The Flyers made the biggest jump with a seven-point increase despite playing 13 fewer games compared to last season, while the Oilers improved by four points (79 to 83), the Avalanche by two (90 to 92) and the Rangers by one (78 to 79).
There was an immediate respect for Vigneault from the Flyers’ roster, a blend of veterans and youngsters. The players earned the coach’s respect by taking on and adjusting to his hard-on-the-attack, effort-based system, which impressively helped clean up the Flyers’ bad on-ice habits from 2018-19. Last season, the Flyers finished with a minus-37 goal differential and yielded the NHL's third-most goals per game at 3.41 to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in the last seven seasons.
In Year 1 with Vigneault, the Flyers were tied for the seventh-fewest goals allowed per game at 2.77 and sported a plus-36 goal differential. The club went on to win its first playoff series since 2012 and finished a game away from the Eastern Conference Final.
“I think we’re a team now that has an identity,” Fletcher said last month. “A season ago, I don’t think we played the game the right way, we didn’t defend well, we didn’t manage the puck well, we didn’t manage the game well. I think we have a much better defensive identity now than what we did, the players understand what’s expected of them, they’ve bought into it. That’s very important; I don’t think we would be here if we weren’t able to accomplish some of those things.”
The marriage between Vigneault and the roster wasn’t free from its bumps and challenges, but one of the most integral aspects to the club’s turnaround was the not-my-first-rodeo coach getting the underachieving Flyers to look into the mirror and buy in on his process.
“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,” Kevin Hayes said in January. “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.”
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Players have also liked Vigneault's progressive and calculated practices, which helped the Flyers’ stamina and durability through games and the course of the regular season. From Nov. 1, the Flyers were tied with the Lightning for the NHL’s second-most points at 78, behind only the Bruins, who had 80. The Flyers did so while stomaching shocking and scary news in mid-December, when 24-year-old winger Oskar Lindblom was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma.
“This time here in Philly, I have to say is extra special,” Vigneault said on July 15 about his fifth time being a finalist for the Jack Adams Award. “We had a very challenging month of October where we went to Europe and then we went out West. But then, from Nov. 1 until the season was postponed, with Boston and Tampa, we had the best record in the league — Boston had 80 points, us and Tampa had 78.
"I look at that and I look at how our players responded to the Oskar situation, I’m so proud of this group and everybody associated with it. That was a very challenging time for our group and we responded by doing our jobs, staying focused, players being supportive to Oskar, the organization and fans being supportive to Oskar. This nomination, for me, considering what could have happened, is extra special. Oskar is healthy now, our team did well, so this is very special for me.”
The Flyers are no longer playing in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs following their second-round Game 7 loss to the Islanders. Next season, the bar has finally been raised again in Philadelphia.
Vigneault will not raise the Jack Adams trophy in 2019-20 but he has raised the Flyers' bar. He'll aim to get the Flyers to raise the most sought-after trophy in the sport when 2020-21 rolls around.
"In my bucket list, I need one more thing: I need to win a Stanley Cup," Vigneault said in April 2019.
The Flyers, since 1975, have needed it again, too.