As the Flyers were starting to catch fire, winning nine games in a row before meeting the Boston Bruins on March 10, the final game before a four-month pause due to COVID-19, it was certainly noticeable how different this team looked from the one that took the ice last season.
Sure, there were new faces -- the likes of Kevin Hayes, Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun notably -- but this was primarily the same team as last season. This was still Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Sean Couturier, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny that powered the core.
So what changed? An early indication that things were different came during the preseason -- which in today’s world feels like an eternity ago. New head coach Alain Vigneault had watched his players for three games and made a determination that veteran players needed more ice time. The Flyers cut the roster significantly before their next game.
That was the first indicator that things were different. There was a clear authority in the locker room.
“A lot of coaches, they talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk,” assistant coach Ian Laperriere said to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “AV gave a speech in training camp: ‘You’ve got to play my way, or you’re not playing.’ And to his credit, he did it day one. If guys didn’t play the way he wanted, he took their ice time.
“Let’s be honest here: It’s the same system that we used with Dave Hakstol. That’s what cracks me up. People think we just threw a magical system out there. I think it’s more the approach of AV. AV was more like, ‘If you don’t play my way, you’re not playing.
“I hate to go back, but you can’t ask a Dave Hakstol to coach like Alain Vigneault. They don’t have the same pedigree. AV has a Jack Adams Award, two Stanley Cup Finals. The guys maybe listen a little bit more. For me, that was the biggest difference.”
What changed for the Flyers wasn’t the system or the style. What changed was the voice of authority. And that’s a very telling sign of where this team was just a season ago.
Another year of experience for some of the younger players -- including more who were added prior to the start of the 2019-20 season -- and a new voice for the veteran core that seemed to not respond to the previous coaching regime changed everything.
It’s why the Flyers were becoming more of a contender before our eyes and doing so without adding much to the offensive side. Giroux’s numbers were down from the previous season. There was no guarantee that Couturier or Voracek would match last season’s points total. Despite that, the Flyers had 227 goals at the time of the pause. Had the season been completed, they would have surely topped last season’s 241.
The biggest difference came on the back end. Two new veteran defensemen joined the team in Braun and Niskanen. Provorov took a step forward, returning to the form of a top-tier defenseman. Travis Sanheim grew tremendously, posting eight goals and 25 points to follow up a season of nine goals and 35 points.
In goal, the Flyers finally had stability. The team rolled out eight different goalies in the 2018-19 season to the tune of a .900 save percentage and 3.24 GAA. Collectively, the team allowed 280 goals in 82 games, an average of 3.41 per game, and good for a minus-39 goal differential. This season, they used just three goalies -- Alex Lyon appeared in three games, two of them starts -- and collectively posted a .907 save percentage and 2.64 GAA. In 69 games, the team’s average goals against per game was 2.76 and their total had decreased by 89 goals. This season, the Flyers goal differential was a plus-36.
All of those things helped the Flyers to improve in the standings and become one of the four teams in the Eastern Conference that doesn’t have to go through the qualifiers to be among the final 16 teams in the playoffs. When the first round begins, they will be there. A lot of the credit belongs to Alain Vigneault, though he didn’t do much different in terms of system. He was just himself -- a strong personality in the room with a demand for excellence and will to improve and play the game the right way. The Flyers followed suit and now they are in a position to contend for a Stanley Cup as a result.
The finalists for the NHL Awards are being announced starting this week and the Jack Adams Award finalists will be announced tomorrow. There are a lot of potential finalists out there, but Vigneault should certainly be one of them. He has brought the Flyers back to a place where they have the potential to contend. He has brought them back to being a team that people around the league fear and feel is a difficult out in any playoff structure.