Alain Vigneault’s first real test as coach of the Flyers comes today.
That’s because his team, a team that appeared to be playing a different brand of hockey through the first three games than anything we had grown accustomed to in the mediocrity of the past seven years, had a relapse in Calgary, losing to the Flames 3-1.
An optimist can sit here and make an excuse for the Flyers – after all, it was their fourth game in four different time zones and all, and the travel has been brutal.
But lets be real for a second. They had two days off between games. They didn’t skate Tuesday morning. The flight from Vancouver to Calgary is a brief one. Using travel as an excuse for bad play in this instance isn’t acceptable.
It would almost be OK if the Flyers messed the bed tonight in Edmonton because of travel. Back-to-back games, end of a road trip, blah, blah, blah.
But that’s not what happened (yet, anyway). Instead, the Flyers were ambushed by a superior Calgary team who has visions of Stanley Cup glory this season dancing in their heads.
All the good feelings of a fast start to the season were wiped out in one ugly game. The 2019-20 Flyers, who garnered a lot of early takes about how they were a different team, for one night became the 2018-19 Flyers. Or was it the 2017-18 Flyers? Maybe it was the 2015-16 version?
Screw it, they all run together.
But that’s what it was. The Flyers had no answer for Calgary’s pressure. They iced the puck 10 times through two periods. They couldn’t get the puck out of their zone. Brian Elliott, who got the start against one of his former teams, was under assault all night.
Elliott was one of the few Flyers who stood out, playing an excellent game in net and keeping the Flyers in the contest, undeservedly so. Elliott made 35 saves. The Flames outshot the Flyers 38-22.
Matt Niskanen scored the lone goal for the Flyers on a pass from Travis Konecny on a delayed penalty. Both of those guys have been really good for the Flyers.
You know who hasn’t been good?
Jake Voracek. Claude Giroux. Ivan Provorov. Shayne Gostisbehere.
It’s kind of hard to win when those guys aren’t playing up to snuff, eh?
Through four games, the Flyers four highest-paid forwards (Giroux, Voracek, Kevin Hayes and James van Riemsdyk) have combined for one goal and one assist (on the same goal, a flukey power play goal) and with the exception of van Riemsdyk, who has played well in a third line role before taking a few periods worth of shifts on Giroux’s line in the last couple games, those guys haven’t looked great at even strength either.
And while Niskanen, who is the second-highest paid defenseman on the team, has played well. The highest-paid (Provorov) and third-highest paid (Gostisbehere) have looked a lot like the inconsistent duo they were a season ago.
That’s six of your eight highest-paid players not contributing. That’s a bad formula for ultimate success.
Which is why the challenge now falls on Vigneault to show his coaching chops.
He benched Voracek in the third period against Vancouver for what he called “uncharacteristic play.” He then opened the game against Calgary with Voracek on the third line with Scott Laughton and Carsen Twarynski while van Riemsdyk took his place with Giroux and Hayes.
Voracek was reunited with the “top line” (I beg to differ on that label, because Sean Couturier, Oskar Lindblom and Konecny have played like the top line for the Flyers in every aspect through four games), in the third period, but it still had no benefit.
Voracek finished the game without a shot on goal.
So, was the message sent? Maybe. But it didn’t net a positive result.
As such, Vigneault needs to find the next step for this Flyers team. Making an example of a veteran skill player who also happens to where one of the leadership letters on his sweater is not just a message to that player, in this case Voracek, but to the entire team that everyone will be held accountable to the team for the way they play.
It’s a good message, and one that Vigneault hopes to build on as the season progresses.
But what if the Flyers top-end talent just isn’t good enough?
That’s not to say it’s bad. Giroux still remains one of, if not the most underrated player in the NHL for the past decade. Voracek is bound to snap out of it and put up a 60-plus point season, as per usual. It’s only a matter of time before van Riemsdyk scores. He actually wasn’t bad against Calgary, leading the Flyers in shots with six (of the 22, Think about that for a second)… David Ridditch had his number, but JVR has played well so far.
Hayes needs to get going, or the fan base will turn on him quickly. The contract he signed might end up being an albatross for the Flyers. Ironically, he’s the only big money forward with a goal.
On the defensive side though, it’s hard to put a finger on what’s up with Provorov. Gostisbehere has his limitations – we all know that. So, if he’s not producing offensively, then he’s mostly dead weight. That one’s pretty cut and dry. But Provorov has the potential to grow into an enigma. He should be developing into one of the best young defensemen in the NHL – and maybe he still is – but there have certainly been more hurdles than expected on that path.
So what can Vigneault do?
There are a number of coaching tactics he can employ. Lineup juggling. Deployment on the ice. Calling players out. Healthy scratches. System changes. Hard practices.
Some are more drastic than the others.
What Vigneault chooses to do, will be the most interesting thing to see and very likely will give us an early-season look at how he handles a habitually inconsistent team.
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