By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
As the coaching carousel turns. It’s a popular topic in Philadelphia sports seemingly every year.
Alain Vigneault joined the fray of Philadelphia sports head coaches on April 15, 2019. It doesn’t seem all that long ago, but less than two years after his hiring, he is now the longest-tenured coach among the city’s four major sports teams.
What Vigneault has brought in that time has been refreshing. For the better part of a decade, the Flyers lacked a coach that seemed to challenge a steady core group of players, that didn’t demand the same excellence the fans did, that was satisfied with a participation award in the playoffs, but never advancing. That’s not Vigneault’s style. Just see what he said about expectations, specifically for a player like Jake Voracek, last week.
“The Flyers haven’t been in the playoffs in back to back seasons since I think 2010-11 and 2011-12. So making the playoffs is non-negotiable here. We are getting in,” Vigneault said. “It is going to be a challenge, but we are getting in. To do that, we need Jake to get his game to that top level. I think there are a lot of young players who are pushing him. He is going to have to earn that ice time that he has been able to get the last few years. But I also want him to challenge himself. We are not in this to win one round and if our expectations are to win, he knows that he is going to have to be a top performer in the role that he is given.”
That kind of approach, that determination to maximize player performance, that has Vigneault ranked in the Top 10 all-time in coaching wins in NHL history. The one thing that has eluded him in his career is the Stanley Cup, the ultimate goal that he continues to chase now with the Flyers.
Kevin Hayes started his career with the New York Rangers, when Vigneault was the head coach there. Hayes has been through several ups and downs with Vigneault behind the bench, but has a great relationship with the head coach. He has noted many times how Vigneault is a demanding coach, how he will challenge players to be at their best.
“Myself and AV have a great relationship that we’ve had since Day 1. He demands a lot from his players. He doesn’t care if you’re an older guy or a younger guy. He treats everyone the same,” Hayes said. “If he doesn’t think you are playing the way you are supposed to, he’s going to let you know.
“He already told us, it’s a short season and if you’re not ready to go from the get-go, you better be trying hard in practice because there are a bunch of guys that are trying to take your spot. He definitely holds everyone accountable on the same level. It’s great for kind of in-team competition where everyone wants the best from one another and want to win every single night. Each player holds each other accountable. Whether you are on the power play or Top 6 guy and you aren’t producing, there’s someone there that’s going to want your spot. AV is going to play the best players that he thinks can help our team.”
It wasn’t that long ago, a few months prior to Vigneault’s hiring, that the Flyers were a franchise in disarray, a team going nowhere and in need of changes. They could have made a coaching change at the end of November. They had a goalie prospect knocking down the door to reach the NHL level. Neither of those changes came at the end of that month.
Instead, it was GM Ron Hextall that was shown the door. It signaled the significant shakeup that was ahead. A new GM was coming in, and the ownership group and upper management decided to hire from outside the organization. Chuck Fletcher was the GM of the team one week later. Two weeks after that, the head coach was dismissed, with Dave Hakstol out after four seasons and Scott Gordon in as interim head coach, and that goalie prospect, Carter Hart, was making his NHL debut.
When the 2018-19 season concluded, the Flyers had missed the playoffs for the fourth time in eight years and decided to take similar steps to hiring a coach that they did in hiring Fletcher. They went outside the organization and hired an established name as head coach. Enter Vigneault.
If anything had gone differently in that process, if those darkest days of late November and early December 2018 had played out any differently, Vigneault may not be the Flyers head coach. The Flyers may have never made their longest playoff run in a decade this past summer. They may not be viewed as the contender they are today.
Vigneault helped the Flyers get back on the map with a style that demands speed and efficiency. When it is not clicking, the play suffers dramatically. But as we saw in the weeks prior to the pause in March 2020, when it is clicking, it is incredibly difficult to stop. It makes the Flyers a force.
That’s the expectations they will carry into this year. Perhaps they exceeded expectations in the first year under Vigneault. Even so, they showed the potential they have.
A new season starts on Wednesday. It will be unique to any Vigneault and the Flyers have ever played before. But the mindset does not change, no matter who the Flyers play or where they play or how often they play. With Vigneault’s guidance, it could make the Flyers a team widely talked about around the league, and one that could be making a lot of noise down the stretch as the summer approaches.