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When the Flyers were finished with their wheeling and dealing Monday, they sent Connor Bunnaman and Joel Farabee back to the minors.

Some Flyers fans were perplexed.

It was the same old fan trope too – “why are we sending down younger, faster players to bring in older slower guys to replace them.”

I’m not even going to get into that. The reality is that the addition of Nate Thompson and Derek Grant makes the Flyers better. They’re more responsible. They’re more risk averse. This is a good thing.

It’s not a knock on either Farabee or Bunnaman. Both have played well. Both will be a part of the Flyers in the future, and I can almost guarantee you will see them on the roster again before the season is out.

But for now, in this moment, Thompson and Grant are better fits for this team.

Still, once those transactions happened, there was still a question of how coach Alain Vigneault was going to cobble his lineup together.

Thompson slotting in for Bunnaman at center between Michael Raffl and Nick Aube-Kubel made sense. But where fans get bent out of shape was putting Scott Laughton on second line wing and dropping Grant into the third line center role.

I’m not sure why this was such a perplexing maneuver by the coach to so many. Maybe they just really wanted to see Farabee stay with the big club. Maybe they felt James van Riemsdyk was a better fit there.

Or maybe the coach knows more than the fans.

Laughton, who has quietly had the best season of his career and is in the midst of the most productive month of his career as well, joined Kevin Hayes and Travis Konecny on the second line and the trio ended up scoring three goals in a 4-2 Flyers victory over the San Jose Sharks.

It was the fourth straight win for the Flyers, who have now climbed to within a point of second place Pittsburgh in the Metropolitan Division.

And while Thompson and Grant didn’t really stand out in their debuts, (to be fair, Grant got no sleep as he had to fly from Anaheim on a red eye just to make it to town to play in the game, and Thompson had a chance to score a goal on a great feed from Aube-Kubel, but was stopped by Aaron Dell), the new look second line was humming.

Hayes scored twice and now has 21 goals, surpassing last year’s total of 19 with 19 games remaining. He also had an assist on Konecny’s goal and the Flyers improved to 17-0-1 in games when Hayes scores.

Konecny also had three points, and leads the team in scoring with 57 points.

Meanwhile Laughton, who has found the role he was always meant to play, added two more assists, bringing his total for the month of February to 10 points (five goals, five assists) in 12 games played. Those 10 points are the most he’s ever scored in one month, and he’s got one more game to go this month on Friday against the red hot New York Rangers.

Laughton has already matched a career-best in goals with 12 in this, his seventh NHL season, and likely would have been past that mark already and at or near his career high of 32 points had he not missed 19 games this season with a broken finger and a groin strain.

Even still, you could see Laughton’s game maturing and growing this season, and it seemed to be only a matter of time for the counting stats to start to mount in his favor.

“I felt like I was playing my best hockey right after I broke my finger and came back,” he told a few of us after the game. “Then I had that groin injury and (when I came back) I probably had my six worst games of the season on the California (trip). I had to get back my skating stride, so the break last month really helped me. After that I had some real confidence in my skating and sometimes you just get opportunities and points, but I’ve just tried to do the same things I’ve done since I got here and just work hard and if they come they come.”

And they’ve been coming, and likely will continue to come playing with Hayes and Konecny for the foreseeable future.

Laughton credits a couple of coaches for his growth in confidence. He’s still young at 25, but he’s a veteran player after first playing at age 18. He seemed to struggle under Dave Hakstol as coach, but really felt like the shackles were taken off him first by Scott Gordon as the interim coach last season and now even more by Vigneault this season.

“I think I’ve grown a lot and have been really focused on a lot of details in my game that have allowed me to stay in the NHL and allowed me to use my skill set and go from there,” Laughton said. “AV has given me a lot of confidence this year and Gordo last year when he came. They’ve given me minutes and I’ve tried to produce.”

He set up both of Hayes’ goals against the Sharks. This first one gave him his 100th career point in the NHL:

Hayes’ second goal was a little more fortuitous, as Laughton’s shot was deflected but went right to him for a jam shot goal, but sometimes you create your own bounces:

If it seems like the Flyers are getting a lot of good puck luck these days, they are, and there might be a reason for that. Laughton talked to Russ and I about that as well.

Honing the skills

One thing that’s different about the Flyers this season is the way they practice. They actually have gotten away from the monotony of drills and have turned practice into a little more of a free-form exercise.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t things Vigneault and his coaching staff want to work on in practice – oh there are. And there are still traditional elements to practices that are no different from one team to the next.

That being said, Vigneault has turned parts of some practices and the entirety of others into opportunities for players to just work on skills. Puck carrying. Possession. Fancy passing. Trick shots. Fun stuff.

Combine that with the work that skills coach Angelo Ricci is doing with individual players, and the Flyers seem to be able to create good bounces on the ice when it seems that for the better part of the last decade those bounces always went against them.

“When you are not chasing the game as much, bounces go your way,” Laughton said. “You have to create them. It’s tough to get chances this time of year, so you need some of those bounces to be able to go in. It’s been good for us.

“The skills practices gives you a break mentally. AV has done a good job in giving us days off and only having us on the ice once or twice before we play. We’ve had such a busy schedule so it’s nice to be able to go out there and just have fun with the guys. That’s a big part of our game now – having fun. You go into a skills practice and it’s different. You’re just doing things a different way. You’re not doing the same drills every time. It translates into games. Everyone does skills training in the summer, but once you get into the season, you get away from it a little bit. Doing this is a nice refresher for us and I think it shows.”

Just watch the nifty moves big guys like Hayes and van Riemsdyk are pulling off. Watch how the puck seems to be magnetized to the stick blades of guys like Sean Couturier and Laughton.

There is definitely a difference in how the bounces favor the Flyers this season compared to the past several – and that can only be attributed to the practice philosophy being employed by Vigneault, which brings us to the next point.

Top 10 All-Time

With the win over the Sharks, Vigneault moved into a tie for 10th all-time in wins as a coach in the NHL, tying former Flyers coach Pat Quinn with 684 victories.

Asked if that meant anything to him after the game, Vigneault shrugged his shoulders and said, “No. Thanks, guys” before walking away from the podium.

He may not want to think of it as something special, but it is. Think about it. The NHL has been around for more than 100 years, and Vigneault has more wins as a coach than all but nine guys.

Here’s the list, in case you’re interested (bolded names are active coaches):

    1. Scotty Bowman 1,244 (9 Cups)
    2. Joel Quenneville 922 (3 Cups)
    3. Ken Hitchcock 849 (1 Cup)
    4. Barry Trotz 845 (1 Cup)
    5. Al Arbour 782 (4 Cups)
    6. Lindy Ruff 736
    7. Paul Maurice 727
    8. Mike Babcock 700 (1 Cup)
    9. Dick Irvin 692 (4 Cups)
    10. Pat Quinn/Alain Vigneault 684 

Vigneault will probably pass Irvin later this season and then will likely catch Babcock early next season (unless Babcock gets another job) and has a shot at passing Ruff by the end of next season.

It’s an impressive list of names. You don’t get that many wins without being a very good/great coach.

Vigneault has had success everywhere he’s coached and it’s no secret he’s been a huge part of this Flyers resurgence this season.

Soon, his name is going to creep into the Jack Adams conversation for NHL coach of the year. He likely becomes a lock if they catch the Capitals and win the division, but even a second place finish could get him significant consideration. He deserves it – and the players recognize that his game management is superior.

Laughton had a lot of good things to say last night, so we’ll go back to him again talking about Vigneault:

“(He’s been) everything,” Laughton said. “He’s a calm presence and he’s been there before. He knows what’s going on. I think the biggest thing is his bench management. He knows when to play guys and he knows when guys have been sitting there for awhile. That goes a long way. He’s got confidence and trust in his players and in turn we try to do a good job for him.”

The team is playing for him. He’s got the team playing it’s best hockey in at least eight years. It’s a symbiotic relationship that’s really working.

And it’s been worth a nightly martini, for sure.


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