The Philadelphia Flyers relieved Alain Vigneault of his head coaching duties on Monday morning eight games into their current nine-game losing streak. They placed the interim head coaching tag on Mike Yeo, who previously coached the Flyers defensemen and penalty killing units for the entirety of Vigneault’s tenure since the beginning of the 2019-20 season. They also fired assistant coach Michel Therrien.
The Flyers entered the 2021-22 season with expectations for playoff contention. General manager Chuck Fletcher maneuvered throughout the offseason to patch the holes in the roster that plagued the team in 2020-21, when they missed the playoffs in disappointing fashion. The investment of resources required to trade for Ryan Ellis, Cam Atkinson, and Rasmus Ristolainen and turn over large parts of the roster opened a window for short-term contention with a talented roster.
With an effective choice to replace Vigneault behind the bench, the Flyers hope to salvage their season. The past three Stanley Cup Finals have featured one team who made a head-coaching change during the regular season. Craig Berube of the St. Louis Blues, Rick Bowness of the Dallas Stars, and Dominique Ducharme of the Montreal Canadiens all sparked resurgence. Philadelphia advanced to the Cup Final in 2010 after hiring Peter Laviolette on Dec. 4, 2009. They have plenty of top candidates to turn their season around in 2021-22.
The abrupt firing of Vigneault after a 7-1 embarrassment at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning on the first half of a back-to-back created the need for an interim coach who was already on the staff. Yeo received the tag immediately. He coached the Flyers to a 7-5 loss against the Colorado Avalanche on Monday night. Fletcher’s decision to appoint him was related to the fact that the Flyers are currently in the midst of a stretch of five games in seven days.
Fletcher insisted during his media availability on Monday that he won’t immediately start the process of looking for a new head coach. However, the veteran NHL GM also gave Vigneault a vote of confidence in his media availability just six days before the firing.
“The focus right now is not on interviewing people and rushing to hire a head coach. Right now, it’s to support Mike (Yeo) and get this team playing the right way. Then we can make the decisions we have to make at the right time.”-Chuck Fletcher
Yeo brings legitimate qualifications to merit Fletcher’s short-term solution. He spent eight seasons as an NHL head coach with the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues. The players trust him despite the apparent “disconnect” Therrien and Vigneault had with them. However, the solution to the Flyers problems likely won’t come from inside the organization.
Rick Tocchet is the likeliest candidate to replace Vigneault. He spent parts of 11 seasons with the Flyers as a player in two stints from 1984-92 and 2000-02. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in penalty minutes, and he entered the Flyers Hall of Fame less than a month ago. He has earned an outstanding reputation within the organization as a player and as an alumnus. He has coached 438 NHL games with the Tampa Lightning and Arizona Coyotes.
Rumors surrounding Tocchet have swirled in recent weeks. Elliotte Friedman mentioned him as a potential replacement for Vigneault when the Flyers first started to slip in the standings on their current losing streak. Liam McHugh also hinted at the possibility during the TNT NHL broadcast last week while Tocchet sat just a few seats away from him.
The Flyers emphasized the need to restore character and leadership over the offseason, but they clearly weren’t satisfied with Vigneault in an integral leadership position. Tocchet can bring a reputation of the characteristics the organization should be looking for in a head coach. Given his recent induction into the Flyers Hall of Fame, that reputation is fresh on the minds of the executives at Comcast Spectacor. He is a fan-favorite in Philadelphia and the logical choice to take over behind the Flyers bench.
John Tortorella would bring an outstanding acumen as a former Stanley Cup winner and a two-time Jack Adams Award winner in 20 seasons of experience as an NHL head coach. Jason Myrtetus discussed him as a possible candidate on 97.5 The Fanatic on Saturday. He pointed to the lack of intensity and protection the Flyers showed after defenseman Justin Braun took a hit from New York Rangers winger Dryden Hunt, who received a major penalty and game misconduct for charging. Myrtetus said Tortorella could push for the type of fire a team needs in those situations.
While Tortorella makes sense in some capacities, he wouldn’t provide an alternative to some of the problems the Flyers players experienced with Vigneault last season. Friedman also reported in October that the players felt the coaching staff failed to draw a line between “being demanding and being hard and being fair” during the 2020-21 season. Robin Lehner of the Vegas Golden Knights went one step further and used the hyperbolic social media buzzword “dinosaur” to describe Vigneault’s treatment of his players. For better or for worse, Tortorella would not mesh well in a situation where players felt their coaches treated them too harshly as recently as last season.
Jim Montgomery played 13 games for the Flyers and spent parts of three seasons with the Philadelphia Phantoms, their American Hockey League affiliate that has now relocated, during the 1990s. He won an NCAA National Championship with Denver University in 2017 and made the jump to the NHL ahead of the 2018-19 season. The Stars fired him in 2019 for incidents related to alcohol abuse.
Montgomery joined Berube’s staff as an assistant for the Blues prior to the 2020-21 season. SportsNet speculated that he “might be ready to throw his hat in the mix for another top bench position” now that he is further removed from the incident with Dallas. The Flyers organization and Montgomery himself would need to thoroughly evaluate his personal life before the potential hiring. If he is ready to jump back into a role as a head coach, a roster with legitimate veteran talent like the Flyers might suit him well.
The Canadiens ended Claude Julien’s second stint as head coach early in the 2020-21 season in favor of Ducharme. His resume includes 19 years of NHL head coaching experience and a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 2011. Julien is the prototypical retread coach, evidenced by his decision to take the Montreal job in February 2017 just eight days after their historic arch-rival Boston let him go.
Vigneault brought a similarly long history of ups and downs with prominent organizations. Although Julien has an impressive track record and a lot to offer as a head coach, the organization needs a steadier long-term solution.
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Given Fletcher’s apparent short-term commitment to Yeo, the remainder of the week for the Flyers will affect the way that potential candidates outside the organization will view their playoff chances. The losing streak has done significant damage to their playoff chances. A longer tailspin will hurt the state of the organization even more and potentially dismiss any chances of salvaging the season, regardless of who is behind the bench.
Colin Newby is a freelance journalist from Delaware County, PA covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers. He is an encyclopedia of useless sports knowledge with an uncanny ability to rattle off Flyers goaltending stats from 2004 and every Stanley Cup winner during his lifetime. The depths of his knowledge stem from spending his entire life following the Flyers and the NHL, from fan favorites like the Legion of Doom and Claude Giroux to no-namers like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. Colin also writes fictional sports stories and covers the Philadelphia Eagles.