Coaching 101: How to Send a Message – Thoughts after Flyers 4, Blackhawks 1

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lesson for any professional sports coach or manager to learn from Flyers bench boss Alain Vigneault.

That lesson is this – there’s a way to publicly give specific players a swift kick in the ass without completely burying them, or causing them to pout from negative exposure.

Case in point:

Coming off the Flyers’ win over Vegas Monday night, Vigneault praised the play of three of his four lines. At practice on Tuesday, he said this about the one line that he didn’t offer kudos:

“Our most experienced line with G, Jake, and James, they’ve got to figure it out,” he said. “I mean, you’ve got three experienced guys that have been around that should know the right way to play and have to play it.”

Consider it a message sent.

And after Thursday night’s performance in Chicago, consider it message delivered.

Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk each scored their first goals of the season in the Flyers’ 4-1 win over the Blackhawks.

But it wasn’t just the fact that they scored. It was the way they played. There was pace and tempo to their game. There was ramped up intensity. Yes, they found themselves buried in their own end a couple times in the third period – but that’s the risk you take when you put three offensive-minded players on the ice together at the same time, so you have to be willing to accept a couple harrowing shifts as a trade off for the chances that are going to be generated on the majority of their time on the ice together.

In total, the veteran trio was really good. As a matter of fact, it was the best line on the ice for either team in the first half of the contest.

And it goes to show what can happen when a coach isn’t so over-protective of his players.

It was something Gabe Kapler never understood, it’s a conundrum that Doug Pederson is dealing with now. Even at times Brett Brown, who was easily the most honest and forthright coach in town prior to Vigneault’s arrival, has gone out of his way to protect players.

Yes, it’s a generational mindset. Today’s professional athlete, better paid than any generation prior, is also a little soft when it comes to tough love. They don’t like to be called out. They don’t like to have a finger pointed at them when they have many teammates who are just as responsible for a team’s success or failure.

But that’s what made what Vigneault did here so very smart.

He could have complained about his struggling veterans in the midst of the four-game losing streak last week, but he didn’t. He bought his time.

Is it likely he let them know privately? Sure, but sometimes it takes a little more oomph to get the message across.

So, Vigneault waited for the time to be right. And the time was following a good win – beating a Stanley Cup favorite by four goals to snap a losing streak. And even then, he waited a day.

And you can be certain those three guys knew he said it publicly.

I don’t know the media consumption practices of all the players in the Flyers locker room, but I can guarantee you that G, Jake, and JVR are all reading what’s written about the team, and you can be certain they saw their coach’s quote prior to Thursday’s game in Chicago.

I mean, you don’ pull off moves like this without some sort of motivation:

Vigneault’s been pushing the right buttons at the right time so far this season. Sure, the Flyers have won the same number of games that they lost, which has been pretty par for the course for this franchise for the past seven years or so, but there’s a different feel to the path they have taken to 4-3-1 this season than any other similar eight-game stretch in previous seasons.

Vigneault has already proven he’s willing to demote big money veteran leaders when he shipped Voracek down to the fourth line in one game and the third line the next game.

He’s already proven he’s not willing to just hand the car keys to the Corvette to Carter Hart and let him sink or swim. Instead, with Hart having successive games where he wasn’t at his best, he has turned to steady veteran backup Brian Elliott, who was sensational against Vegas to secure that win and very good again against Chicago earning the Golden Helmet of Mambrino (see my story from Monday for an explanation).

He’s shown a willingness to experiment, make changes on the fly, and keep other teams guessing as to what the Flyers are actually going to do.

He’s brought structure to the team. Even when they’ve lost, they’ve played within the confines of a good system. Take away one bad night in Calgary and the Flyers have played seven decent-to-excellent games out of their first eight contests.

He’s worked with assistant coach Mike Yeo to fix what was once a dreadful penalty kill unit and has almost got it back to respectability, as it currently sits in the middle third in the NHL.

He’s worked with assistant coach Michel Therrien to constantly tweak and play with the power play, and it currently ranks sixth in the NHL at 25.8 percent.

He’s gotten some consistency finally from a much-maligned defense.

And he’s got the team feeling good about itself:

Sure, there’s going to be some more peaks and valleys. A hockey season is a long, slow grind. Injuries will occur. Individual players will also deal with highs and lows. There’s a lot that can happen between now and April.

But one thing is for certain, for the first time in quite a while, the Flyers have a guy in charge who has a good plan on how to navigate the ever-changing chop of the hockey seas.

And the Flyers players seem to be happy to be on board and not looking to run port or starboard to wretch over the rail.


3 Responses

  1. Flyers gotta work on their zone entry, should have been a 6-1 game. Passing has improved but still not great. Ghost, Hagg, Provorov all giving me anxiety on defense still, need to add a vet via trade at some point this season. But shit we’re above 500 in October, I’m happy.

  2. They traded for two vets in the offseason …Niskanen and Braun. Ghost’s offensive upside will flash again making the defensive mistakes tolerable ..Hagg will be replaced by Morin or Myers by December …and Provorov is a stud that makes occasional mistakes like anyone just his are more noticeable because hes’ THE guy.

    1. Braun hasn’t impressed me either although not many glaring mistakes. Niskanen was a nice signing. Would think we need to add one more SOLID defensive vet to add to the mix if we’re going to get anywhere in the playoffs. Re: Provorov I see your point, Re: Ghost I don’t. He’s had 8 games now to get his offense or defense going, nothing to show on either side so far. He’s good for at least 4-5 terrible passes and whiffed pucks per game right now… and that’s just on offense. Seems like it takes him longer to get going every year. I’d trade Ghost for a veteran D and a draft pick honestly. Just my $.02

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