Flyers

Have Flyers found late-round gem they covet in Wyatt Kalynuk?

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Christina Daly/NBC Sports Philadelphia

Have Flyers found late-round gem they covet in Wyatt Kalynuk?

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall talks about it all the time leading up to the NHL draft.

While everyone focuses on the first round, Hextall places equal emphasis on the mid-to-late rounds. Draft picks are lottery tickets and the later they are, the odds of hitting are longer.

Just before last month’s draft, Hextall again stressed how “friggin’ important” seventh-round draft picks are in constructing hockey teams, and then one turned heads at development camp.

“Wyatt Kalynuk, you guys probably don’t know much about him,” Hextall said. “He’s a smooth-skating defenseman at Wisconsin. He’s a late-round pick and he’s taken a step. You watch the way he skates, the way he reads the game, the way he passes, [it’s impressive].”

Kalynuk was the 196th overall pick in the 2017 draft or the 10th selection of the seventh round. He went to the University of Wisconsin but took an unorthodox path to the NCAA.

Born in Virden, Manitoba, Kalynuk didn’t take the road more often traveled by Canadian hockey players. Instead of playing in the CHL, Kalynuk opted for the USHL and eventually, college.

“When I was 16, I had the option to go to the Western Hockey League,” Kalynuk said recently. “But at that time, I was too small. I knew I needed more time to develop, so I played a year of junior hockey at 16 in Manitoba and then I moved down to the UHSL when I was 17.

“The whole idea was to give myself more time to develop. For me, I developed a little later than some guys. I didn’t really need to prove myself, I just had an opportunity to play a big role.”

During his freshman season at Wisconsin, Kalynuk went from a seventh-round pick to an intriguing prospect worth paying attention to as he progresses through Division I hockey.

Kalynuk played all 37 games for the Badgers and led the team with 22 assists. He became the first Wisconsin blueliner to score 25 or more points in their first season since Ulvis Katlaps posted 35 points in 1992-93. His 25 points were fourth on the Badgers and second among freshmen defensemen in the Big Ten. He was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team and shared the Mark Johnson Rookie of the Year award with Wisconsin forward Linus Weissbach.

The Badgers finished sixth in the Big Ten during the 2017-18 season and lost to the University of Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. But Kalynuk was certainly a bright spot.

“I thought I had a decent year,” Kalynuk said. “I think coming in, I had pretty high expectations for myself. I knew bad things were going to happen, but when they did, I just tried to brush them off and keep moving forward. … I just tried to take it all in stride.

“I wouldn’t say I was surprised. I wouldn’t say I was expecting to do that well either. I just tried to do my best. I got a good opportunity when I got there and did my best to take advantage.”

What drew Kalynuk to Wisconsin over other programs was equal part coaching staff and opportunity to play, but the lefty defenseman did suggest the Badgers’ history was a factor too.

With Tony Granato as the head coach — Granato coached Team USA during the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics — and Mark Osiecki as the defensive coach, Kalynuk wasn’t as drawn to the Badgers’ style of play than he was the program’s ability to churn out NHL players.

“Mark Osiecki is the defensive coach there, he’s sent a lot of guys to the NHL,” Kalynuk said. “He’s really good at what he does. Him along with Tony Granato … if you look around college hockey, you can’t get much better than that. They’re pretty good coaches, to say the least.”

Osiecki served as an assistant coach at Wisconsin from 2004 through 2010 before he got his first college head coaching gig at Ohio State. He returned the Badgers’ staff in 2016.

Throughout his first stint coaching at his alma mater, Osiecki built his reputation of developing defensemen. On the 2010 national title team alone, the Badgers had Ryan McDonagh, Justin Schultz, Jake Gardiner, Brendan Smith, Cody Goloubef and John Ramage. Other NHLers to play for Osiecki at Wisconsin include Tom Gilbert, Davis Drewiske and Jamie McBain.

“He takes the time,” Kalynuk said of Osiecki. “We go out early almost every practice 20 minutes before everyone else. He just loves doing it. He focuses on a lot of little details that maybe other coaches wouldn’t, so I think he just loves it. That’s probably why he’s so good at it. I’ve never played for a coach who loves coaching as much as he does.”

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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 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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Watch here as Gritty goes full savage mode on the Houston Astros

Watch here as Gritty goes full savage mode on the Houston Astros

Wait, wait ... Gritty did what?

The past few weeks in MLB may go down as some of the craziest the league and fans have ever witnessed.  

And just about everyone has voiced their opinions on the matter ... and now it looks like Gritty has, too.

That's right, everyone's favorite mascot decided to go full savage mode and trade in his infamous drum for a trash can during the Flyers' win over the Penguins on Tuesday.

What was on the trash can, you ask?

Why, it's the Astros' logo on all four sides.

Way to go Gritty, you just broke the sports world once more (don't worry, we love it).

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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