The Philadelphia Flyers were rolling on all cylinders in March 2020. Their first season under head coach Alain Vigneault looked like it was becoming a huge success. They were one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference after the beginning of the new year, and their nine-game winning streak was snapped just days before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the NHL on March 12.
They never fully recaptured that momentum during the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Toronto bubble, and last season proved to be nothing short of a disaster in Philadelphia. Vigneault got the benefit of the doubt from management following the unorthodox 2020-21 season that included a COVID outbreak within the locker room and an abundance of issues related to pandemic restrictions.
However, he is fully aware that NHL teams don’t typically accept failure to meet expectations in two consecutive seasons and that the culpability can often fall on a head coach. Vigneault’s recent press conference comments about “sensing a new energy” within the team entering training camp indicate a desire to turn the page and start fresh with a bounce-back effort in 2021-22. Will it be enough to inspire a drastic turnaround from the embarrassment of last season’s sixth-place finish in the East Division?
Flyers Offseason Addresses Shortcomings
The Flyers overhauled their roster this summer. General manager Chuck Fletcher most notably dealt Nolan Patrick, Philippe Myers, and Jakub Voracek. His major acquisitions included Ryan Ellis, Cam Atkinson, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Keith Yandle. His offseason maneuvering addressed the key shortcomings of the Flyers last season.
In an interview with Flyers Daily, Vigneault emphasized accountability for last season’s performance and the desire to make up for it on the ice this season given the retooled roster.
“Chuck (Fletcher) and his staff, they’ve done their job. Now it’s up to me and my staff and our players to do our’s.”-Alain Vigneault
Fletcher has certainly given Vigneault more to work with in 2021-22. He added a top-pair, right-handed defenseman in Ellis. He added intensity and grit with Atkinson and Ristolainen. He brought in better veteran depth leadership with players like Yandle. Most importantly, he backed Vigneault despite the reports of “some players who were unhappy with the coaching staff” at the end of last season. His moves suggest that the responsibility for the failure of the 2020-21 season falls more so on the players than the coaching staff.
Vigneault is now faced with the job of discovering the right blend of chemistry within the new unit over the course of the season. It will be no easy task, and Flyers fans shouldn’t expect instant results in the opening weeks of the season. However, the collection of accomplished veterans and players with strong reputations as good teammates should help the Flyers form a unique identity on and off the ice.
Now or Never for Vigneault, Flyers
The infusion of talent and the expected return to normalcy in an 82-game season eliminates any legitimacy of the excuses that were made for the 2020-21 season moving forward. Charlie O’Connor spoke on the Broad Street Hockey podcast about Vigneault heading into 2021-22, saying:
“He really needs to turn this thing around. If he doesn’t, the heat’s going to go on him. They already did everything else except change the coaching staff.”-Charlie O’Connor
The reality of the situation is not lost on Vigneault, who is entering his 19th season as an NHL head coach. He knows that job security is hard to maintain in the demanding, results-driven environment of the NHL. The message that he gives his team during training camp will likely focus on the clean slate in front of them and the opportunity to correct the issues that snowballed during the 2020-21 season.
His young players, in particular, didn’t meet expectations last season. Goaltender Carter Hart, winger Travis Konecny, and defenseman Ivan Provorov were among the biggest disappointments on the team. Vigneault recognizes their shortcomings in conjunction with his own and the need to regroup.
“I firmly believe that the season we had as a group last year doesn’t represent who we are.”-Alain Vigneault
The statement was a strong expression of confidence in himself, his staff, and his players. His willingness to accept the shortcomings and move forward represents the right approach to failure, but comments made during preseason press conferences don’t determine whether or not an NHL head coach will remain in his position. The on-ice product and the job Vigneault does to manage it will ultimately prove or disprove his future as the Flyers’ head coach.
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 is also the co-host of “THW’s Focus on the Flyers” podcast and an author of fictional sports stories.