It’s amazing the impact a quality coach makes in sports. For nearly four seasons, Flyers fans covered their eyes as sleepwalking scarecrow Dave Hakstol bungled things behind the bench. They prayed for someone with brains and gravitas to turn around the franchise.
Finally, in came Alain Vigneault.
And here we are, soaring toward the 2020 playoffs, with the orange-and-black as the NHL’s hottest team. Wednesday’s 5-2 takedown of the Capitals in Washington made the Flyers 17-5-1 since early January.
The win furthered the belief that this team — which hasn’t won a playoff round since 2012 – might actually be a genuine contender for the Cup.
There are myriad reasons for the turnaround, but most connect with the 58-year-old Vigneault, who now ranks as the eighth-winningest coach in NHL history.
Early in the season, he demoted $8 million-a-year Jake Voracek to the fourth line for cruising on defense. Voracek sulked briefly, but the message was sent — for the first time in years, every player would be held accountable. Since then, Voracek is playing the best two-way hockey of his career — his plus/minus going from minus-16 last season to plus-14 this one.
The Flyers’ big, young defensemen have all improved under Vigneault (with an assist to veteran acquisition Matt Niskanen). Contrast the confidence they have breaking out of the defensive zone these days with the Keystone Kops efforts of last season.
That breakout leads to an aggressive, attacking style that creates scoring chances. The Flyers have averaged 4.6 goals in their last 12 games, a lofty number not regularly seen since the Kerr-Propp days of the mid-1980s.
Vigneault came to town with a system that maximizes every player and is aimed at getting his team to peak in the spring. He’s curtailed practices and morning skates to keep his players fresh. You see it in how these Flyers dominate the third period most nights.
General manager Chuck Fletcher (and his deposed predecessor Ron Hextall) get credit for the depth of this roster. But Vigneault is the brains behind the bench, knowing when to send out his fourth line, and calculating how many minutes he can squeeze out of 32-year-old Claude Giroux.
He’s also juggled goalies well. For Wednesday’s critical road game, he called on backup Brian Elliott for just the second time in three weeks. The 34-year-old Elliott, who’s been strong on the road all season, rewarded the coach with a splendid performance.
Vigneault is also terrific at nullifying an opponent’s strength. Amazingly, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin went scoreless in the four games between the teams. It seemed like Ovie never had a spare inch of ice.
Twice before, Vigneault has taken teams to the Cup Finals. It’s no longer crazy to see that happening with this team or — gulp — dreaming that sport’s most-cherished trophy might find its way back to Philadelphia.
James van Riemsdyk’s broken hand Wednesday doesn’t help the cause. But Vigneault has figured out how to make things work without Nolan Patrick (who has missed the entire season with concussion syndromes) and Oskar Lindblom (battling cancer since December).
Some coaches help their teams overcome adversity. Others? Well, I’d rather not take a cheap shot at anyone else in town.
These Flyers keep winning. They’re not being carried by one hot goalie, or one flashy scorer or one Legion-like line.
They’re winning because every player contributes and buys into the system. They’re winning because they’re better prepared and conditioned than their opponents.
They’re winning because — for the first time in ages — the Flyers regularly have the best coach in the building.