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 nonnegotiables 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 nonnegotiables 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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