By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
There was a different feel at the end of Saturday’s game as compared to Thursday’s for the Flyers. Saturday’s 4-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks was more of an answer to a challenge that rang through loud and clear from the team’s interim head coach.
At this stage of the season, now 55 games in with 27 still to go, the results are essentially meaningless. It’s not about wins and losses at this point. Despite that, when a head coach addresses playing with passion, accountability, and having a winning attitude as areas of concern, it raises eyebrows. He’s not the first to do it either.
“Obviously, I’m the fourth guy that’s been in front of you guys answering these questions,” Mike Yeo said on Friday following the team’s 5-4 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night. “I do believe that we have some answers and I do believe that we’ll push through to some of this group as far as proving what we’re talking about. I do think that as a group, we all have to understand there’s a difference between being a good teammate and a good guy.
“Sometimes being a good teammate means you might have to go to your best friend and say ‘we need you to be better’ or ‘we need you to make that play at that time’ or pick him up and challenge each other. If somebody’s slipping, maybe you don’t allow yourself to slip. Maybe you pull them into the fight with you. I think that’s the biggest thing is us understanding that there can be a difference there. I think we’ve got a good group and we’ve got a lot of character, but we have to prove it right now.”
Yeo has held the interim role since taking over for Alain Vigneault on Dec. 6, 2021. Vigneault was head coach for two-plus seasons. Scott Gordon held the interim role for the remainder of the 2018-19 season after Dave Hakstol was fired on Dec. 17, 2018. Hakstol had been prior to the start of the 2015-16 season. That’s seven seasons with four different head coaches and a multitude of player personnel changes made over the last year in particular, and yet the same questions are there.
Thursday’s loss was the first time this season since taking the interim role that Yeo seemed to let his frustration visibly show in front of the media. The Flyers had four separate leads in the game, including a 4-3 lead into the third period. Two goals separated by just 25 seconds turned the game into Minnesota’s favor. It resulted in the Flyers’ 21st loss in their last 24 games at the time. Turnovers were a main reason for the blown leads.
“Every player that’s here is an NHL player and every player that’s here has the ability to make those plays. So it’s alarming regardless of who’s making them to be honest,” Yeo said. “This is what winning hockey is and winning hockey might be bearing down, getting a puck out of your zone. Winning hockey might be taking a hit to make a play to advance the puck to make sure you get that puck deeper or, at the same time, even if you don’t to keep it in front of you as opposed to turning it over. These are the things we’re showing on video and we’ll continue to show but it’s got to come from them.
“That’s what it comes down to right now, we can keep preaching it, we can keep trying to motivate, we can keep pushing and we will, believe me. I love this group, I believe in this group, but they have to grab hold of this. That’s how we’re gonna do it because if we don’t have complete engagement, complete buy-in to each other and the way that we have to play the game, then we’re not going to win. We have too many guys out of the lineup. A guy like [Sean Couturier] is going to play the game the right way night after night, and we need everybody else to step up. That’s what winning teams do. We’re putting ourselves in a position where we can maybe win games. Structurally we’ve improved, but you play the game to win and we’re not winning. So we’ve got to be better.”
If that wasn’t enough, Yeo continued to express his frustration the next day following the team’s practice.
“I’m still angry today to be honest with you,” Yeo said. “I would say the other night, I was more disappointed. I was expecting more and I was disappointed that we didn’t give more. Last game, I’m angry. I’m angry that we don’t have a little bit more attitude to be able to close these games out, to be able to win these games.
“I think that we’ve done a pretty good job up to this point of building proper habits to put ourselves in a position to win. I think that even some of these times, we’re going out there and we’re not giving quite 100 percent, and we’re still in a position to win. But when it comes down to it, this game’s about winning and you have to be able to close that out. That’s the next step for us, and that’s the part where we’re probably going to have to get a little bit dirty here, just to make sure that we push this group to a way higher level of commitment, standards to make sure that ends up getting delivered. I know that we’re not necessarily going to win every night, but we have to play with passion every night and we have to play with 100 percent commitment and buy in to the group and for your teammates. If you don’t win when you are doing those things, you can live with that. But if you don’t have those things, we’re not going to accept that.”
What does “dirty” mean?
“It’s going to have to be uncomfortable. We had an uncomfortable conversation today. We’re going to have to push each other,” Yeo said. “Players are going to have to hold each other accountable. We’re going to hold the players accountable. We didn’t really have that luxury before. Now we’ve got players coming back. If guys aren’t doing the job, ice time is going to reflect that, opportunity is going to reflect that. This is not something that we had at our disposal when we had 10 NHL guys out of the lineup.
“I hope that we can just have this meeting today and everything’s going to be great and shiny and perfect the rest of the way, but I’m pretty sure that’s not reality. I think that the blueprint of the way we expect to play the game is there, and we know that it can work, especially when we have everybody on board. Now we just have to make sure everybody is on board.”
Yeo clarified further, explaining that it’s not about players not buying into the structure and systems of the game. The team has actually improved somewhat in those areas, hence the consistency of playing in close games. That said, he did speak of the right attitude to win the games that are within their grasp.
“It’s not about [buying in], because I think you can see guys are playing the system and everything like that, it’s more about that winning attitude,” Yeo said. “Do you come to the rink and do you feel sorry for yourself? Do you come to the rink and say ‘okay, there might be a trade in a week and we’ll see what happens there?’ Do you come to the rink and say ‘okay, maybe it’s not our night tonight?’ There’s winning moments and small things that happen through the course of the game and we have to embrace those opportunities. When you have that passion and complete drive and that attitude of ‘we’re not going to let anything stop us,’ you’re always searching for those moments and opportunities. We’re not doing that right now, not enough and not enough guys. That’s why we’re close to winning games, but that’s why we’re not winning games.”
So once again, the questions of getting up for every game, holding each other accountable, and having the right attitude come into play again. Yeo’s future seems to be pretty much decided already, though he will be behind the bench for the remainder of the year. His honest approach to this can certainly help some members of the team put their best foot forward in advance of next season and surviving what is sure to be another summer of change.
It could also help his own career, perhaps in opening a door for another coaching job. For now, he’s trying to be the guide, but the players will have to show the message is driven home.
“[Friday] was good in the sense that it was uncomfortable. We have to get the players talking more. This can’t be something where it’s just us telling them what to do and this is what we want. This has to come from them. That’s the real true path,” Yeo said. “We can provide direction, but ultimately they’re the ones out there that have to be warriors. They’re the ones that are out there that have to pay the price, that have to do the job, and it’s not easy. I understand that. It’s hard to play winning hockey. It’s hard to do it night after night, but it’s also extremely rewarding and that’s what we’re trying to imply and get the players to understand.”
To do this requires making the choice to be the best you can on any given night. That was much more on display on Saturday afternoon, when you saw an entertaining game that featured plenty of passion, quality plays, defending each other, and turning a deficit into a victory in the third period.
“It’s character, that’s what it is. I think we all have a choice. Whether it’s myself – do I come to the rink and just say ‘this guy’s no good, that guy’s no good, and it’s not my fault,’ or do you try to find solutions?” Yeo said. “Try to provide leadership and make sure that I’m taking care of my job and that’s what I expect of the players as well. We have to hold the players accountable, but the most valuable part of accountability is each individual holding themselves accountable.
“Players have an understanding of what they’re expected to do, now they have to make sure they go out there and bring it. I’m not saying we’re going to guarantee wins, but we can certainly guarantee a great work ethic, something we can be proud of, and we have to make sure that we play with passion. That’s one thing that has to be done here.”
The Flyers did that on Saturday, but will it carry over? It may not equate to many wins down the stretch, especially with the trade deadline now two weeks away and more changes likely coming in the near future, but it can make for much more entertaining hockey than much of what we’ve seen in the last calendar year.