A year ago to the day we published a piece about how great Alain Vigneault has been as head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. In it, I called him a breath a fresh air, said that I was wrong to suggest he was carried by two hall of fame goaltenders, and that he just seemed to consistently make the right decisions overall. There was no reason to doubt Vigneault moving forward.
However, things have changed rather drastically over the last 365 days.
Back to the bubble
The cracks began just as the NHL returned to play with the bubble. After playing like a ghost of himself in the regular season, Shayne Gostisbehere looked to have his swagger back in both the team’s exhibition game, and in his lone Round Robin appearance. He played his way into the lineup, only to get pulled after Montreal’s victory in Game 2. He’d play against Montreal once more, the series-clinching Game 6 victory. A Semyon Varlamov shutout to open round two was enough to end Gostisbehere’s playoff run for good.
In a vacuum, it’s hard to be too upset with the decision. We’re talking about an extremely small sample size of good play after a season full of struggles. It’s only worth noting as the first event to really raise eyebrows.
Of course, this wasn’t the only issue we had with lineup decisions in the post-season.
The 2020 NHL trade deadline was one to forget for the Flyers. The team added Derek Grant and Nate Thompson to shore up the team’s center depth. The results were, outside of a head-tap, largely disappointing. With Thompson, Vigneault seemed to notice a problem in the first round, albeit after being burned by a concerning trend.
Way too often after the Flyers scored a goal, the fourth line would take the next shift and more often than not would spend the entirety of their time in the Flyers’ defensive zone. In Game 5 against the Canadiens, it lost them the game. At the time we referred to it as one of his most controversial decisions in his Flyers tenure. After a game to forget, Thompson didn’t see the ice following the goal, sans one shift on the penalty kill. Despite this, he remained in the Flyers’ lineup for the remainder of the playoffs while Joel Farabee and James van Riemsdyk continued to rotate in and out.
There were options. Scott Laughton could have moved back to center, Morgan Frost could have entered the lineup, or even Connor Bunnaman, who certainly played well enough in a fourth line role during the regular season to justify dressing for more than just two playoff games, could’ve re-entered the lineup. At the time, the Flyers were controlling 49 percent of the shots with Thompson on the bench, and just 31 percent with him on the ice. The fourth line had become a momentum killer.
Yet, again, after such a fantastic regular season, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Thompson wasn’t re-signed in the off-season, marking the end of that complaint. The team’s overall poor play throughout the post-season was chalked up to just that; a poor post-season. Fast-forward to present day and the wheels have totally fallen off.
Expectations not met
The Flyers entered the 2021 regular season with lofty expectations. Coming off of an extremely impressive year-to-year turnaround, and as one of the deepest teams at forward, the Flyers should have taken another step forward this season. As we all know, they’ve done anything but take steps forward.
Through the early stages of the season, the Flyers’ record was little more than a mirage, and everybody knew it. From fans, to players, to management, it was no secret that the Flyers weren’t going to keep winning as many games as they were unless they shored up their defensive issues. The banked points gave them time to fix it, but a disastrous month of March following a COVID outbreak completely erased the safety blanket that they had built up.
To date, the defensive breakdowns have not been fixed, and any and all attempts to repair structure has failed. This season Vigneault has repeatedly scratched underperforming players, which is in no way a bad thing, so long as everybody is being held accountable; not just a select few. We’ve already talked about how selective accountability has become a frustrating part of the Vigneault experience. And with that in mind, it’s once again worth noting that nobody should be placing the blame solely on Vigneault. Everybody, from the front office to the players, should be held accountable for how this season has played out — he’s just the topic of this piece.
Easily the most concerning part of this season has been the young players’ regression. It’s not as if just two or three players have taken a step back, it’s all of them outside of Joel Farabee. Even he’s had some tough games over the team’s most recent stretch. Beyond that, there is the clear confidence issue at hand, with the team at times playing like they’re afraid to make a mistake. Of course, it’s not hard to get there when it feels like every mistake you make ends up the back of your net, but whether it’s actively hurting or not, whatever the coaches are doing certainly doesn’t appear to be helping.
When it’s almost everyone, it’s hard to not take a long look at the coaching staff. However, maybe this mix of players just isn’t right, even though it’s the same roster from a year ago, minus Matt Niskanen and Tyler Pitlick. Maybe living through a pandemic is just a miserable experience, and it’s no longer easy to have fun away from hockey when things aren’t going well on the ice. Some may be tired of hearing about it, but it is absolutely having an effect on the players, especially those on struggling teams. It’s tough to find a good escape right now. Further, the lack of practice time throughout the season due to the condensed schedule certainly makes it that much harder to fix any problems that emerge as well.
That’s not to say that the Flyers should run it back. There are a lot of questions surrounding this team right now, with the biggest need of all being a true number one defenseman to play alongside Ivan Provorov. Flyers General Manager Chuck Fletcher should have a busy off-season ahead of him. These questions, of course, include the coaches. Despite his simple answer of “no” when asked on Monday if we should anticipate any changes to the coaching staff, Fletcher and co. will have to be sure that there’s not a problem there that could carryover into next season.
Truthfully, there was no good way for him to answer the question given to him besides flat-out saying no. Even if he were to go with a neutral answer, saying that they must evaluate everything after the season ends, the narrative then becomes that he didn’t support his coaches. At that point the writing is on the wall and we’d just be waiting for the first shoe to drop. A mid-season “no” regarding a potential coaching change should never be taken at face value. It would be relatively surprising if the Flyers went into the 2021-22 season with all three of Vigneault, Mike Yeo, and Michel Therrien. History tells us coaches just don’t survive stretches like this, and while Vigneault may have bought himself more time with last year’s performance, the assistants’ positions may not be as set in stone.
At the Hart of it all
Maybe the biggest issue involving Vigneault has been how Carter Hart’s tumultuous 2021 season has been handled. Tumultuous may be putting lightly — he’s at the bottom of the league in just about every public goaltending statistic. Moving forward, the Flyers need him to play better; a lot better. What they don’t need is their franchise goaltender’s work ethic to come into question. By saying that Hart needs to work harder, and insinuating that his practice habits aren’t up to expectation, that’s exactly what Vigneault did.
Former NHL netminder Kevin Weekes discussed his comments on air, calling it damaging, unfair, and said that his words had zero upside.
“Carter Hart knows he needs to be better, but there’s not one person I’ve spoken to in the hockey world, including in Philadelphia, that ever said anything other than his impeccable work habits, his commitment to the game, his commitment to his craft.”
Weekes continued, “It hangs Carter Hart out to dry, and you know that Philadelphia, as passionate as their fans are, and as much as I enjoyed playing there as a visiting player, and as many friends that I have that have and do play there now, to me, to go down this road, it calls into question things about him and it opens up needless questioning from an already on your edge of your seat fanbase.”
Both Weekes and fellow panelist Brian Lawton agreed that it was a tough look, and that the comment didn’t sit well with either of them. They certainly weren’t alone in feeling this way.
While calling the Flyers’ recent game against the Buffalo Sabres, Weekes again commented on how disappointed he was with how Hart’s struggles had been handled. We were unable to find a clip of the conversation, but according to this tweet, there was some reference towards talking to some of the players in the room.
Weekes saying he couldn’t disagree more with AV on how he handled Hart including what he said about him. Said he was very disappointed. Also said from talking to guys in the room etc. Oh boy.— PuckSauce (@FlyersPuckSauce) April 11, 2021
It’s not just the one comment about Hart that’s troubling, either. Vigneault even seemed a bit dismissive of Hart’s play rebounding of late. Instead of talking up his goaltender after throwing him under the bus, it was “he’s trying his best” and “he didn’t get a lot of work.” following his return. Hardly the same energy that was put forward when Hart had been struggling.
There’s no clear-cut evidence that Vigneault is losing — or has lost — the room, but it’s also not hard to imagine a scenario in which the way he’s talked about his goaltender may not sit well with the team. In fact, just hours after the work harder jab, Gostisbehere said that Hart’s preparation is “second to none” and that he’s “pretty sure no one in this organization is too worried about the Carter Hart we’re going to see next.”
Perhaps the strangest part of this whole saga was how back on March 13th, Vigneault went from saying that he thought that Hart needed a couple more days before starting, to then throwing him into an already lost game that very night. How it all went down was very perplexing, at least from an outsider’s perspective.
And from the inside? Well, when there is enough smoke, there tends to be fire. After seemingly pressing all of the right buttons last season, Vigneault may now just be pushing people’s buttons.