The Philadelphia Flyers fired coach Alain Vigneault on Monday, and the truth is it should have come sooner, and it’s probably not enough.
Vigneault’s first year, 2019-20, was a huge success. He restored a modicum of competence and professionalism behind the bench. But ever since barely squeaking by Montreal in the bubble playoff, the Flyers have looked lost and Vigneault never seemed to have an answer.
Then last season came and the Flyers were a mess. They lost games seven games by 5 goals or more, which doesn’t happen in the NHL if the players believe in the coach. Goalie Carter Hart, who looked to all the world to finally be the franchise’s answer in net, was a disaster. And Vigneault’s criticism of him probably didn’t help. In fact, it led to Robin Lehner, a goalie on another team, calling for Vigneault to be fired this year.
It would be fair to say that most of Vigneault’s success at Vancouver and in New York was due to riding veteran goalies Robert Luongo and Henrik Lundqvist. It’s quite apparent he’s not the guy you want to shepherd a struggling young goalie through his troubles.
GM Chuck Fletcher decided to give AV another shot, and he had the handy excuse of COVID issues and Hart’s supposed outlier awful season. Changes were made, with veteran star winger Jakub Voráček shipped out. You don’t have to read between the lines to see that Voráček didn’t think the coaching staff was an asset to the team. Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere was packaged with a second-round pick to get the Arizona Coyotes to take him off the Flyers’ hands.
The Flyers started the year with a spark, as the new acquisitions looked good for oh, 6-7 games. Cam Atkinson looked like a combo of Brett Hull and Alex Ovechkin, and new acquisition Rasmus Ristolainen, an analytical black hole, looked passable.
Of course, once the team’s unsustainable shooting percentage cooled off, the wheels came off. The Flyers are in the midst of an 8-game losing streak, with a 7-1 drubbing at the hands of Tampa on Sunday finally sealing Vigneault’s fate. To his credit, AV took all the blame. His pal, assistant coach Michel Therrien (also fired), was the target of fans’ ire as he coached the power play to a 30th in the league 13.4% mark.
“At the end of the day, it’s my call,” Vigneault said. “I’m the one that decides to put which personnel on the ice, whether it be on the power play or penalty killing. So when it’s not working, like right now, our power play’s struggling, it’s not French Mike’s [Therrien’s] fault, it’s the big guy. I’m the big guy. I’m the guy in charge of it, and I’ve got to find ways to make sure that that power play works.”
The PP struggles date back to last season, and are frankly bewildering. Claude Giroux has been one of the most dominant playmakers and scorers with the man advantage his entire career. James van Riemsdyk and Keith Yandle have essentially been power-play specialists their entire careers. Too often though, the setup made no sense, with Giroux set up on the right, when every fan in the building knows the left wall is his office. He was a good soldier and never publicly complained, but he was clearly frustrated as Therrien (or Vigneault) put him in a position to fail, as the unit would listlessly rim the puck around with no one-timer options available.
At 5 on 5, the Flyers under Vigneault relied on trying to hit home run passes from defensemen deep in their own zone and a “let’s give up the puck as soon as possible” strategy on zone entries. Rick Tocchet, inducted into the Flyers’ team Hall of Fame this year, said in an interview that when he was traded to Pittsburgh in 1991-92, Kevin Stevens told him, “This isn’t Philadelphia, we hold onto the puck here.” Thirty years later, not much has changed for a franchise still beholden to the legacy of Bobby Clarke and Cup wins 46, 47 years ago.
Fletcher, who inherited a team with tons of cap space and a highly regarded prospect pool in 2018, seemingly just needed to not massively screw up. He didn’t understand the mission.
Fletcher is Clarke’s former protegee, and now Mike Yeo, who coached for Fletcher in Minnesota, is the interim guy. Any change has to be a positive at this point, but Yeo’s most recent stint saw him get fired from St. Louis in the middle of the 2018-19 season. He was replaced by former Flyers coach Craig Berube, and the Blues went on to win the Stanley Cup.
While the Flyers made changes, it honestly just feels like more of the same.