Alain Vigneault is a throwback coach, for sure. That is no secret. He is demanding. He holds his players accountable – publicly sometimes. He is especially hard on young players. He plays mind games.
Some players like his coaching style. Others loathe it. Heck, some guys who’ve never even played for him have publicly called for him to be removed from hockey:
— Robin Lehner (@RobinLehner) October 3, 2021
We all remember that tweet, right? It was later followed up with references to the coach being a pill pusher that Robin Lehner walked back. But this tweet, this initial tweet called Vigneault a dinosaur because of how he treats his players.
Well guess what? This dinosaur knows hockey – and he knows that there are players who still want to play the game the… ahem… “old fashioned” way and can still be successful doing it.
Case in point was Wednesday’s late night gem of a hockey game in which the Flyers handed the Edmonton Oilers their first loss of the season, 5-3 out there in the hinterlands of Alberta, Canada.
Why was it a gem? Because it featured the fastest team on earth, led by the best player in the world going against a Flyers team that likes to play big, strong and physical.
And although there were a fair share of penalties called in this game by a pair of veteran referees in Ian Walsh and Kelly Sutherland, they could tell that the pace of the game was one that was a beautiful dichotomy of contrasting styles, and the two zebras let the teams play for the most part, allowing for a brand of hockey to play out that is not often seen in today’s game.
There were the Oilers, zipping all over the ice, and not just their skating speed, but their passing speed and their shot-taking speed, playing the game at a playoff-like pace in just their sixth game of the season.
And there were the Flyers, grinding it out to keep up at times, but mostly trying to derail the Oilers by out-muscling them and playing a checking game that was reminiscent of a long-lost era of Flyers hockey. One that existed and was beloved well before Assembly Rooms, in-arena sports books, lavish clubs and over-exposed mascots:
The clash of styles here is actually pretty neat to watch. With Edmonton, it's all speed, and not just skating speed. They're whipping the puck around incredibly fast. Whereas PHI on the attack is playing a physical, grind-it-out style. And both teams are getting their chances.
— Charlie O'Connor (@charlieo_conn) October 28, 2021
Charlie is spot-on that it’s neat to watch. Really, because it’s so rare. But this, friends, this was hockey prior to the 2004-05 lockout, with some rules modifications, of course, to eliminate the clutch and grab slog.
Here’s the thing though; this “dinosaur” coach may have worked hand-in-hand with GM Chuck Fletcher to assemble a Jurassic Park type of a team that, when it buys in and believes in the system being played, can and will win games.
The Flyers are 3-1-1 to start the season. They’ve played two undefeated teams and split with them. They beat Boston and lost in a shootout to a vastly improved Vancouver team that they will see again tonight. Oh, and they dismantled Dave Hakstol’s crack collection of Kraken.
That’s a very good start. And the thing is, they can get better. They’ve played all of one game with their full defensive lineup. They toppled the Oilers on home ice minus Ryan Ellis for a second game.
The difference this season for the Flyers? Veteran depth, for one. And a group that fits the coach second.
Justin Braun, for example, was awesome filling in for Ellis on the top pair against the Oilers. Nick Seeler has continued to be a solid depth defenseman logging third pair minutes. Derick Brassard has been superb so far this season playing on the second line in place of the injured Kevin Hayes.
No matter where you go, you find players who believe in this team and want to win with this team and do it playing whatever role the coach asks of them.
It’s kind of refreshing.
Brassard told Russ and I about it on Snow the Goalie last week. Vigneault and a veteran roster was why he chose to sign with the Flyers rather than signing for more money elsewhere as two teams offered him more than the Flyers did.
Back in early September, I unexpectedly ran into a member of the Flyers Hockey staff, at a shopping mall of all places, and we talked about the off season at length.
He told me that Fletcher “gave the coaching staff everything they asked for,” in the offseason, and now it was up to the coaches and the players to prove it was all worth it.
And you can see how its working. This team is close. It’s tight-knit. It’s got players who like to keep things loose and fun but who also know when the time to play hard and be serious is upon them.
It’s got players who genuinely like playing with one another. It’s got players who create excitement and in turn have it rub off onto their teammates.
It’s a cohesive group that in the first five games have put together a lot more good periods than bad ones. And, I’ll throw it to Charlie O’Connor once again, because he was correct with this assessment in the third period too:
Flyers are really taking this "win a period, win a game" thing to heart in the third. They've been fantastic so far.
— Charlie O'Connor (@charlieo_conn) October 28, 2021
Win a period. Win a game. Sounds like one of those hockey clichés a dinosaur coach might use.
But if this is going to be the result, and Vigneault is the coach who eventually breaks the Flyers’ decades long-championship drought, whether it’s this season, next, or the following, fans won’t mind if the footprints that “walk together forever” as another dinosaur coach, Fred Shero once said, are found as fossils along Broad Street a couple thousand years from now.
For it’ll have been worth it.