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October 03, 2019

New Flyers coach Alain Vigneault has big expectations for his team in first season at helm

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Flyers-JVR-Braun-TK_100319_usat Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Flyers right wing Travis Konecny celebrates with left wing James van Riemsdyk and teammates after scoring during a preseason game against the Boston Bruins.

VOORHEES, N.J. – Alain Vigneault is on the move again. The new Flyers coach just finished a media scrum one Friday afternoon in the team dressing room at the Flyers Skate Zone practice facility, then he quickly transitioned in another direction for a one-on-one interview, before being rushed over to an NHL Network camera crew for its ongoing “Behind The Glass” series.

Hopefully, Vigneault’s team will move as seamlessly as he does this season. But, it’s going to take some time, a gestation period to fit the pieces of a curious mix of veteran and young players into Vigneault’s uptempo scheme.

In are forwards Kevin Hayes and Tyler Pitlick, in addition to defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun. Out are Andrew MacDonald, Jori Lehtera, Radko Gudas, and Phil Varone.

And, for an entire season, the Flyers will have promising franchise goalie Carter Harter, after going through a record carousel of eight different goalies last year, who combined to give up 280 goals for a 3.41 goals-against-average, which was the third-highest in the NHL last year.

Vigneault comes in with a winning pedigree. He took the underachieving Vancouver Canucks (2011) and New York Rangers (2014) to the Stanley Cup Finals. The 58-year-old is well aware of the Flyers’ history, their vociferous fanbase and the fact that it’s been two years since the Flyers were in the playoffs, nine years since the Flyers played for the Stanley Cup and 45 years since they last won it.

Vigneault just finished one of the most demanding training camps the team's veterans have undergone. It’s all focused on getting the most out of what’s left of Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek, and hopefully stirring the youth unit of Travis Konecny, Nolan Patrick, Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere to new levels.

“As a coach and a coaching staff, what you have to do is fit your system to the personnel,” Vigneault said. “We’re trying to maximize what we have here, and it’s not one system fits all. Right now, we’re in the process of finding out about our players, and finding out about our team. We’re going to fit the system accordingly.

“There are certain concepts that we like, and certain concepts that as a coaching staff we know we can be successful with. But, at the end of the day, we have to fit the system with the personnel that we have. We’re all getting to know one another and we’re all sorting that out. Sometimes it takes a month, but hopefully, we can sort it out in a short amount of time.”

When he took the job, Vigneault admits he knew what the word on the street was about the Flyers. It was a team that had some veterans that had things to prove, with an influx of younger players moving on an upward arc, and a young goalie paired with a veteran goalie. Vigneault liked the Flyers’ potential and he feels there is something to build on — starting now.

We want to be a playoff team and we want to be a team that competes for a Stanley Cup. I believe that we are going to be that team.

“When you look at a season, some teams keep improving, and some teams don’t, and we’re a team that intends to improve,” Vigneault said. “But I’ll say this, we have high expectations, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. We want to be a playoff team and we want to be a team that competes for a Stanley Cup. I believe that we are going to be that team.

“I wasn’t here last season, so it’s tough for me to comment on anything that happened last year. What I’m focused on is this team, in this season, and the present. We’re trying to get better, we are going to get better. We are going to be a good team.”

After the season, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher broached an important point about the disappointing 2018-19 season — the Flyers didn’t possess the puck long enough on the offensive end. Pared into the most simplistic terms: If the puck is not in the opposition's offensive zone, opposing teams can’t come close to the 280 goals scored against the Flyers eight goalies last year.

“One of the things that we’re trying to incorporate here is playing that north-south game, not only with the puck, but to check,” Vigneault said. “The quicker you can check, and the better that you’re at it, the quicker you get the puck back and go and have fun at the other end in trying to score some goals.

“These are all little things about playing with the puck and without the puck that we’re trying to incorporate with our team and our team mentality. I think we’re going to get there. We just have to keep on working at it as a daily process and get better at it.”

Vigneault also brings a measure of NHL experience in keeping players accountable. You get the sense that behind closed doors — and even in front of closed doors — Vigneault isn’t afraid to let his players know he's displeased.

“As coaches, you have to tell players what they need to do,” Vigneault said. “That’s what I’m going to do and that’s what my staff is going to do. I [got to] know some of these players at the World Championships, and that was a help, but it was only a month and that was about Team Canada.”

Patrick Sharp, one of NBC’s NHL studio analysts, likes the Flyers’ chances of making the playoffs this year. Sharp, a former third-round draft pick of the Flyers and 2011 Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks team that beat the Flyers, says the Metropolitan Division goes through Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.

But after that, No. 2 in the Metropolitan Division is up for grabs — and the Flyers have as good a shot as anyone.

“I’m excited to see how the Flyers play this year,” Sharp said. “I know that they’re on the right track, but I don’t know if patience is the right word that you like to preach to the fanbase there. I know the expectations are high. With Carter Hart, who’s only going to get better the more games he plays, and Kevin Hayes coming over, I like Niskanen as a veteran defenseman and right-handed shot. He’ll settle guys down back there.

“I like the makeup of the Flyers. But there are questions.”

Sharp said Vigneault will calm the Flyers and merits immediate respect from the veterans. Sharp equates the Flyers to the young Blackhawks team he joined in 2008, led by the core group of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and new acquisition defenseman Brian Campbell. Once future Hall of Fame coach Joel Quenneville took over, that budding team found its leader.

“There is a lot of talent on the Flyers and who better to lead them than ‘AV,’ so it’s only a matter of time before the Flyers figure it out,” Sharp said. “One thing I’m also excited about is Shayne Gostisbehere. I know he had a down season last year. He was heavy in the minus (minus-20). But he and Braun are two right-handed shots that will be in a better spot on the fifth and sixth line. Those are things to think about.

“It’s slotting players in the right position and the right matchups, and I’m sure Vigneault will do that. And with Carter Hart, he jumped up on my radar with the junior national team. I know everyone has high expectations, but I would preach patience because there is still a lot to learn. Overall, I can see the Flyers as a playoff team. After Washington, there are question marks everywhere with everyone else.

“I think it’s important that the Flyers have a good start. Everyone has to realize that the playoffs are the goal and they trust their leader in Alain Vigneault.”


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