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Why tactical overhauls in hockey make the Alain Vigneault hire look shortsighted

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Hockey has only become more about offense. Vigneault defies this.

New York Rangers v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It’s the 2019 NHL offseason. Birds are chirping outside, it’s a wonderful day, and you’re enjoying a cold one with some friends, watching Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Blue Jackets and the Golden Knights (the two-pronged team name final, as it should be). You sit there wondering to yourself, “How did the Lightning ever lose that series?”, when suddenly, your phone ushers an alert: Jon Cooper fired, hired by Flyers, 6 years $30 million. You’re ecstatic! Finally, a good coach will be in charge in Philadelphia! The future is bright! That Marner offer sheet is going to work!

Except...just kidding.

The Lightning haven’t been eliminated yet, Jon Cooper still has a job, and the Flyers have hired Alain Vigneault before the first round of the playoffs has finished.

To say that I was expecting this hire would be dead wrong. I thought that at least, the Flyers would wait until after the 2nd round of the playoffs to hire a coach. There is no way of knowing for certain which coaches would potentially get fired for playoff failure, but making a move for a coach so early eliminates having the option anyway! It’s poor strategy in my opinion.

But I digress…

I was thinking about Vigneault, and whether or not the Flyers have done right by themselves with this hire. I’m mainly concerned about the tactics that he would bring to the team, but other factors like line-up choice and player management certainly do factor into whether or not any coach is considered good. Opinion among fans at the moment seems to be very split between people who think he is good because of his track record (mainly with the Canucks) and those who think the end of his tenure with the Rangers is who Vigneault truly is. There seem to be two very distinct reasons the latter of these fans give:

  1. Vigneault plays bad veterans over good younger players
  2. His teams are very hot-cold, either very good or very bad with no consistency

While processing this, and the multitude of reactions on my twitter feed, I came to a number of conclusions. First, that coaches will always find a way to play bad veterans. The Flyers have had MacDonald, Lehtera, Corban Knight (this list could go on and on) and the Rangers have had Tanner Glass, Dan Girardi, and Jesper Fast. It takes a smart, forward thinking GM and a like minded coach to truly optimize a line-up, and with Vigneault, I don’t trust him not to play Robert Hagg on the first pair.

Though, secondly, and more importantly, I think that nearly all of Vigneault’s on-ice problems (except player usage) stem from the style of hockey he employs. I’ve heard Vigneault’s style described as an offensive, quick-transition brand of hockey. However, I’m not convinced this is true.

This clip is a near quintessential example of what Vigneault likes his teams to do. They soak up pressure, collapsing down near the boards and net front, and then break out with long passes up to forwards to hit the opponent with a counter. In this case, it resulted in a beautiful goal due to Grabner’s deke, and the Rangers did find success with this style. But, I’m not convinced that it works anymore, especially with the Flyers.

My overall view on this can be very well summarized by this tweet I made a few days ago:

That’s the way hockey is moving as a whole. There’s still a focus on toughness, grit, and all of those types of qualities, but it is being applied in a manner which results in free wheeling, high scoring hockey. A good defenseman in today’s NHL is not just a player who can simply clear forwards out of the crease. As Bill Matz points out, hockey is becoming positionless, much like basketball. Even defensemen need to be able to break out and move the puck well, or else become redundant. The emergence of players like Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns (to a lesser degree) have only proven this, and it’s evident looking at Vigneault’s final season with the Rangers that he did not understand that.

Even though his style of hockey can be fast and exciting, it is still based in a defensive mindset, one that puts the team at the mercy of their goalie. If Carter Hart truly is the franchise player we dream of, then maybe Vigneault’s system could work. But, just based on the overall trends in hockey tactics, I have a hard time believing that in the NHL of 2019-20, this could work. Additionally, this style of hockey requires a multitude of fast, breakaway based players who can wheel away and grab a counterattacking goal. Besides Travis Konecny, I can’t think of a Flyers forward who has blistering speed. The Flyers do have many players who are good in one v one situations (Giroux, Voracek, Patrick) but you have to get them into a situation first. There are also just too many bad players that I think Vigneault will like in his system (Hagg, MacDonald if not bought out), and I can’t trust that Vigneault will not scratch a good puck-moving defenseman like Shayne Gostisbehere because he wants somebody who will collapse to the net.

Lastly, I don’t think the consistency issue was less towards his teams’ records and more based on how they showed up during each game. That’s at least how I’m interpreting it. No surprise, but I also think this stems from Vigneault’s style of hockey. His system relies on being able to soak up pressure, and this inherently is going to lead to consistency issues. A problem as simple as a poor goaltending performance can completely undo the success of Vigneault’s system. In addition, if the stretch passes to break out of the defensive zone aren’t working, Vigneault does not approach the game with any alternative methods of moving the puck up the ice, which is a huge issue if you are taking over a hockey team that traditionally have liked to work a puck carrying break out strategy.

Overall, I just think that this hire is a bit premature, and shortsighted due to hockey having moved on from the style that Vigneault uses. With this offseason, maybe Chuck Fletcher adds some fresh, good talent to bolster Vigneault’s team, and perhaps even Vigneault has learned from his mistakes and will revamp his tactics. Alternatively, Vigneault could recommend veterans whose best playing days are behind them, and Provorov could get paired with a Ben Lovejoy/Dan Girardi-type of ineffective player (my worst nightmare). We will all have to wait and see what happens. The Flyers certainly have cards on the table this offseason. Let’s hope that they play them well.