The pitchforks and torches have arrived earlier than expected.
A six-game losing streak will do that, and the Flyers suddenly find themselves in a very precarious place – being a team that is irrelevant by the holiday season.
General Manager Chuck Fletcher went all-in over the summer re-shaping his team. He turned over 50% of the blueline, 50% of the goaltending tandem, and added five forwards to the roster.
The idea was to add more accountability. More structure. More of a veteran presence. More of an understanding of playing the right way.
In addition, executing all of the changes that were made this past offseason were done so at the request of the coaching staff, who about had their fill of certain players on this roster a season ago.
With such turnover, it was expected that it would take a little time to develop chemistry and that the Flyers weren’t going to explode out of the gates looking like a Stanley Cup contender.
However, they did. Registering points in seven of their first eight games. And after picking up really impressive road wins in Edmonton, Washington and Carolina, looked every bit of a team that could wreak havoc in the postseason.
It was as if the coaches were right – give them what they wanted and they’ll make it work.
But things have gone due south in a free fall since, and over the course of the past two weeks, things have gotten ugly.
It’s gotten to the point now where speculation is starting to brew that coach Alain Vigneault could be on the hottest of hot seats. That there’s a head coach in waiting who wants the gig (Rick Tocchet) and that the Flyers are running out of patience.
All it took was Elliotte Friedman to wonder out loud if this was something the Flyers would be thinking about to really fuel this rumor.
And it makes sense considering how poorly the Flyers are playing. Six straight losses. No semblance of offense for the better part of a month now. A completely incompetent power play. Some of the old chronic mistakes suddenly showing back up and rearing their ugly heads again during a time when we thought those types of errors wouldn’t be so regular.
The Flyers sit a 8-8-4, which through 20 games is not all that different from last season. Or the season before that. Or the season before that. Or the season before that. Or…
Yes, it a frustrating pattern of mediocrity that the fans are tired of accepting. In many ways it’s the old insanity formula – repeatedly doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.
And while it wasn’t until Sunday’s 5-2 loss to New Jersey that I was one to even consider whether such a change is warranted, one now has to wonder that with tomorrow’s game being postponed and then a few days off after a quick trip to New York to play the Rangers, if this isn’t the ideal time to make a switcheroo.
I still say no.
Before you turn your weapons toward me, let me reiterate that my take at the beginning of the season was that if the Flyers were floundering outside of a playoff spot come Christmas, then it might be time to make that change. That Vigneault and his staff would get 30-35 games to make it work with a new group before facing the firing line.
And now, considering the circumstances, I think the coach is here at least that long, if not into the 2022 portion of the season.
Now, there is a caveat to that opinion – a continued spiral into the abyss over the course of the next couple weeks could expedite a coaching change.
On Snow the Goalie a few weeks ago, we outlined the gauntlet the Flyers schedule was over the course of five weeks between games against Arizona. There were 18 consecutive games against top-tier NHL teams. The thought process was that if the Flyers could survive at a .500 clip against such stiff competition, they’d be OK. So far, they’re 3-6-3 in the first 12 games. The 13th, the only one against a struggling team, was postponed as the New York Islanders are dealing with a Covid-19 outbreak.
That leaves the next five games. At the Rangers Wednesday. Back-to-back home games against Tampa Bay and Colorado on Sunday and Monday. And then the first two games of three road games in four nights against New Jersey and Vegas.
If the poor play continues to permeate throughout the locker room during that stretch, then yeah, a change should occur. But, if they start playing better, even without great success, then it might be worth waiting.
I know the thought process is that there are three days off between Wednesday’s game and the next game, which could make for a good time to transition to a new coach, but that’s just a convenience.
Let’s look at some factors first before we jump to conclusions that Tocchet should replace Vigneault ASAP.
Injuries happen in sports. Everywhere. The best teams are able to overcome them, no doubt. But the Flyers organization has been riddled with them. More so at the minor league level than the NHL, but consider just on the big club the Flyers are playing without Ryan Ellis, Kevin Hayes, Derick Brassard, Nate Thompson and Patrick Brown. That’s six of their top 20 skaters.
Then, when the Lehigh Valley Phantoms have so many injuries that they are signing guys off the street just to fill spots, you can imagine the picking being slim for the Flyers to fill in the gaps.
This season alone it’s been Nick Seeler getting all the time on defense in replace of Ellis, and the forwards called up have been Max Willman, Connor Bunnaman and Morgan Frost.
Frost was the guy everyone wanted to see, and so far, he’s been a dud. Three games. Three shots on goal. One assist. He’s losing badly in the face-off circle, and his possession numbers are not very good.
Vigneault has tried to protect him as best he can, making him start many of his shifts in the offensive zone, but Frost is still not competing at the level necessary.
As for who has been missing, Ellis has been a huge loss. He’s played just four games, and barely in two of them. Without him, the Flyers are counting on Justin Braun to be a top pair defenseman game in and game out. While Braun has done yeoman’s work, he’s not a good complement to Ivan Provorov, who is looking less and less like a 1A defenseman with each passing game without a talent like Ellis by his side.
Seeler has filled in admirably, but the pairing of he and Keith Yandle has not been good defensively at all.
Ellis not only would bolster the top pair, and help get Provorov back on track, but would allow Braun to play down with Yandle and solidify the third pair. Ellis is also very good both with and without the puck. When he has it, he makes smart, quick outlet passes to create rushes. Without it, he’s positionally sound and has a good stick to break up passes.
That’s a bigger loss than most care to realize.
Hayes is another big loss. He’s the kind of big center the Flyers need right now and don’t have. Other teams are able to push the Flyers around a bit without that size.
The rest of the guys provide depth, but veteran depth. Brassard is certainly a better fit at the moment than Frost, while Thompson and Brown give you a more reliable, honest effort than Bunnaman and Willman, who are trying to grow into NHL regulars.
Never mind preseason injuries to Wade Allison and Tanner Laczynski that have thwarted some lineup plans as well.
This is a lot to manage. A lot to deal with. Not many coaches would be able to plow through that.
Five-game stretches against two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay (twice), Florida and Carolina, owners of the best records in the NHL, and perennial bulldog Boston is a challenge that would cause most teams to succumb. The Flyers beat Carolina earlier and played a strong home game against Tampa and a strong road game against Florida, earning a point for losses in a shootout and overtime. It wasn’t really until the last two games – one in Carolina and one in New Jersey – that have left fans wondering about the Flyers’ compete level.
Yeah, they really needed to be better in both games, but weren’t. That’s on everyone. Coaches. Players. You name it.
But, there aren’t many teams that would be skating through this schedule gauntlet unscathed. This is as challenging a stretch of games as I can remember the Flyers having on their schedule.
I think it’s pertinent to wait through it and see if you can’t course correct once things lighten up a little bit.
The GM Went All-In During The Offseason
The next move for the Flyers if things don’t work has to be a blowup. You can’t just change coaches and then if that doesn’t work, what happens? More changes? More tinkering? More trying to survive rather than just get better?
The Flyers believe this team has enough talent to compete, and when healthy, maybe it does. But we haven’t seen it healthy. When has everyone played together? Not yet.
The Flyers need to try and weather the storm, collect a few points. Pull an upset or two in the next couple of weeks and try to get through December.
Make it to January, you likely get Ellis back then. Hayes? Who knows. But still, it’s a step. And then if you are willing to make a trade to bolster the offense, now it’s a time of year when trades happen. Impact trades are rare in November and early December. The ones that matter come after the holidays.
And it won’t be too late to make a coaching change in January either. Remember, just a few seasons ago, the St. Louis Blues had the worst record in the NHL on January 8 and won the Stanley Cup.
These Flyers aren’t in that poor a position. They can give Vigneault a little more time. You want to send a message, fine, fire Michel Therrien as an assistant coach and see if that works. But not the head coach yet.
Fletcher is not one who is quick to pull a trigger on a coach. Never has been. Remember, he was willing to even give Dave Hakstol time as coach before letting him go. Fletcher will allow his coaches and staff to exhaust all other options before pulling the plug on them.
Should Alain Vigneault be on notice about his job? Yes.
Should he be fired after tomorrow’s game. No. Not yet anyway.
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