One year ago today the Flyers announced that they had hired Alain Vigneault as the team’s 21st head coach in franchise history. The announcement was met with … mixed reviews. That’s probably downplaying it a bit, the replies to their tweet are overwhelmingly negative, and I was quite pessimistic about the hire as well.
To be specific, that day I tweeted that I thought he was not only going to bench Travis Konecny and Oskar Lindblom regularly, but also have Robert Hagg playing top pair minutes with Ivan Provorov this season. Thankfully, none of this has actually happened. I also implied that he was carried to the Cup Final by two of the best goaltenders in league history, in Roberto Luongo and Henrik Lundqvist. Now, carried is too harsh of a word, but that’s just what good goaltenders do. Good goaltending wins coaches Jack Adams awards and teams Stanley Cups, while bad goaltending sinks jobs. That just happens around the league. But the first three things? Let’s go ahead and break down just how off base they were.
The three biggest things that I thought had to happen for the Flyers to take a step forward this season were Provorov having a bounce-back season, and both Konecny and Lindblom receiving regular top-six minutes. Hence these three players being the focus of my “the sky is falling” mindset at the time. Fast forward to opening night, and both Konecny and Lindblom skated on the team’s top line with Sean Couturier.
In Konecny’s case, he became the team’s leading point-scorer as he flirted with the point-per-game mark throughout the year. His average time on ice increased by over a full minute, and he continued to be one of the more efficient five-on-five scorers in the league. He was healthy scratched zero times, and to my memory was not benched once this season. Konecny has really thrived under Vigneault, and is on the verge of becoming a true superstar in this league.
With Lindblom, the start of his season was fantastic. He was one-third of the team’s most effective line on a nightly basis and had scored at a 30-goal pace — he was playing that well. It was devastating to learn of his diagnosis back in December, not just from a hockey standpoint but from a human standpoint. It’s still hard to put into words just how badly we all want to see him beat this and get back with the team.
Lindblom is an extremely smart player, and a player who, like Konecny, was not going to be catching the ire of Vigneault. It’s clear that he saw just how good of a player he is from the start, and how highly he thinks of him every time that he talks about him.
Finally, Provorov has had the bounce back season he needed to have. Provorov hasn’t had the easiest situation partner-wise since entering the league, but was able to deliver his best NHL season with Matt Niskanen beside him. As for his time with Hagg, it has been all but nonexistent. He’s spent just over 32 minutes in total with Hagg — roughly two and half percent of his total five-on-five ice time — down from 275 minutes last season.
And Hagg? Hagg hasn’t become the Flyers’ equivalent of Dan Girardi. In fact, his average ice time dropped once again. And after appearing in all 82 games last season, he was clearly viewed as the team’s seventh defenseman on the depth chart, at least until Shayne Gostisbehere’s struggles led to him coming out of the lineup.
All of these fears were silenced, and look unfounded.
Making sense of it
So what happened to the coach that many thought was going to be a nightmare? Were the problems people had with him in New York overblown? Some were on that train from day one, but I still don’t think that’s the case. Well, overblown is certainly possible, but there are enough pieces written citing specific decisions that give merit to the claim that he didn’t play young players. What makes the most sense to me is something that Charlie O’Connor had tweeted at me.
Honestly think the answer is that AV is a very collaborative coach, and he's got far more forward-thinking people around him in Philly than he did in New York.— Charlie O'Connor (@charlieo_conn) February 6, 2020
Vigneault being a more collaborative coach makes sense in a lot of ways. For one, we know that Chuck Fletcher is a forward-thinking general manager. He had built what was widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, analytics departments in the league while he was General Manager of the Minnesota Wild. From the outside, it seems like he’s one of the more progressive general managers. Second, when Vigneault was with the Vancouver Canucks, the team was a powerhouse, he was well liked, and it was known that he made use of the numbers. Finally, a number of Rangers fans haven’t been too keen on the job that David Quinn has done since taking over for Vigneault. Those voices are less present ever since the team had started its late season playoff push, but not entirely gone. Might it be that the problems lied with those above Vigneault, the Rangers’ upper management?
Now, obviously I’m in no position to say that the Rangers are run poorly, and I don’t believe that to be true. But “forward-thinking” isn’t, or at least wasn’t, something many would describe the Rangers as being.
The following excerpt is from a piece on The Athletic back in July of 2019, in which Shayna Goldman took a look at how the Rangers were beginning to evolve.
“There weren’t many indications that the Rangers were particularly analytically inclined over the years. Sather had a more traditional approach. Former head coach Alain Vigneault cited the use of a “sophisticated stat package,” but his actions and the team’s results conflicted the idea that analytics were a part of his outlook.” (The Athletic)
Combine it all with Vigneault saying that Philadelphia is where he’s used analytics the most, and it’s not hard to buy into the theory.
Sometimes you overreact, and sometimes you’re flat out wrong. Sometimes, it’s both. But one thing that I do know is correct, is that Vingeault’s first impression in Philadelphia has been nothing short of delightful. Who knows what the future holds, but there’s no reason to doubt the Flyers’ bench boss right now.