Alain Vigneault is the new Flyers coach.
There were a lot of instant reactions in Flyerdom yesterday. And, as the case most times these days, the extremist opinions were the loudest.
There were those who panned this hire as another NHL retread who hasn’t won anything, a coach who trusts veterans over younger players, a coach who pushes the envelope with his offensive systems but has a defensive blind spot and relies heavily on goaltending to keep his team in games.
Conversely, there were those who see that Vigneault took two different teams to the Stanley Cup Finals, had eight teams reach 100-point regular seasons, won a President’s Trophy and a Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the year and were chortling “Let’s Go” with their thumbs on their smart phones.
The actual reaction though, as always, should be somewhere in between.
Vigneault is a good coach. You don’t get hired by four NHL teams and coach nearly 1,200 games and make the playoffs a dozen times if you aren’t a good coach.
As a matter of fact, the only coaches in NHL history who have won as many games as Vigneault has (648) and have taken at least two teams to the finals is pretty short:
- Scotty Bowman (Montreal, Pittsburgh, Detroit)
- Dick Irvin (Toronto, Montreal)
- Mike Babcock (Anaheim, Detroit)
- Mike Keenan (Philadelphia, Chicago, New York Rangers)
- Alain Vigneault (Vancouver, New York Rangers)
The one thing that stands out on that list? Vigneault is the only one who didn’t win a Cup.
That was something that GM Chuck Fletcher pointed out during his Conference Call – that Vigneault is “ready” to win a Cup.
I would hope so. If after trying 16 times and failing to reach your goal 16 times, I would hope you are ready.
But there’s also a reason Vigneault has had great success without ever getting over that final hurdle. And some of those criticisms that exploded onto Twitter are valid, albeit much more muted than the Twitterverse claimed.
Yes, Vigneault does favor veterans – but most coaches do, especially when they are coaching to win. Quite simply, development at the highest level of the game is still frowned on by the people in the game. There are minor leagues for a reason and when young players arrive on the scene in the NHL only a very few special players can jump right into a high responsibility role.
So, if young players get minutes restricted or only play in favorable situations until they can earn more trust from the coach, that’s fine.
The way Vigneault, and most coaches like him, view it is it is their job to win in the NHL, not develop players.
Fletcher did say that Vignealut has a history of developing players, but I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate.
Vancouver had a few young players when Vigneault coached that blossomed into excellent NHL players.
Ryan Kesler was just 22 years old in Vigneault’s first year in Vancouver in 2006-07 and had a more limited role in the 48 games he played, but the Canucks had their star players hitting their primes.
Daniel and Henrik Sedin were entering their sixth seasons in the NHL at age 26. Roberto Luongo was 27, was a big acquisition via trade in the summer prior to Vigneault’s first season and was the Hart and Vezina Trophy runner-up.
And the team was supported by a series of veteran players who still had some good hockey left in them like Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrisson and defensemen like Sami Salo and Mattias Ohlund.
The Canucks finally reached the Finals in 2011 and over the course of those next four seasons, only two young players really developed into key contributors for Vigneault – Mason Raymond and Alexander Edler.
Otherwise, that Canucks team succeeded on high end talent and a collection of a good, supporting cast of veteran players.
In New York, Vigneault reached the Finals in his first year and there were a few young players who were contributors, such as Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh and Chris Kreider, all who were under 25.
But those Rangers were a bit of a surprise team to reach the Finals. They were carried, of course, by Henrik Lundqvist in goal and pulled off two big upsets in the playoffs, none bigger than a second round war with Pittsburgh.
So, Fletcher’s assessment that players develop well under Vigneault isn’t greatly supported over his 16-year coaching career.
But Vigneault is a coach who believes in accountability, so recurring mistakes that have killed the Flyers in the past four-plus years won’t be tolerated. Vigneault will call a spade a spade in the locker room and hold his players accountable to one another.
He’s also not afraid to tinker in-game, shuffle lines, change a style or approach. He is an adaptive coach and he is a coach who believes in developing a system around the talent he has at his disposal rather than trying to force his round-pegged system in a square hole of a roster.
And that’s the real key of this hiring for the Flyers – the roster.
Hiring Vigneault says to me that there is going to be real change to the Flyers roster in the next two months. Fletcher is going to be busy to try and give the Flyers a different look and feel with Vigneault.
There’s no doubt the Flyers want to win right away. It was a mandate from Comcast-Spectacor Chairman Dave Scott.
It’s why Fletcher only met with veteran coaches who have had success in the NHL.
They reached out unsuccessfully to Joel Quennevile before he accepted the job in Florida. They spoke with Dave Tippett, who wasn’t sure he wanted to go back to coaching at this time after taking a gig in Seattle trying to build a team from scratch.
It’s also why other interesting names like Sheldon Keefe, who won the Calder Cup in Toronto last year, wasn’t interviewed. It’s why Scott Sandelin, one of only three NCAA coaches to win three national championships – all with the University of Minnesota-Duluth – wasn’t interviewed.
And, with Vigneault likely a target of other teams with openings or potential openings, it’s why he was offered a five-year, $25 million contract by the Flyers and locked up right away.
Fletcher had to make the boss happy.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right hire, it just means that other interesting and potentially good candidates weren’t ever candidates for the job.
Not that having Vigneault is going to light up the phone lines for ticket sales, but having Vigneault suggests the team is heading into a direction that is different than what it’s been the past five years.
And if it works out, then the new roster just might motivate fans to call for tickets.
That’s the biggest thing fans should take away from this hire. Vigneault is a just a coach. A good one, but just a coach.
But he is a symbol of change that is coming.
Because this Flyers roster is going to look a lot different in about 80 days.