Vigneault’s Departure Should Only Be a Starting Point for Flyers
It was really not a matter of if. It was when. When happened to be on Monday, Dec. 6.
It was the morning after a 7-1 drubbing for the Flyers against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the eighth straight loss the team had suffered. That was all she wrote for Alain Vigneault. Assistant coach Michel Therrien was shown the door too.
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In the immediate, it was a move that had to happen. Something had to be done, and a coaching change is certainly an easier way than most to make a change. It’s far from the only change that needs to be made though.
Perhaps the best place to start is with the obvious: the Flyers shortcomings and underachieving has too often fallen on the shoulders of coaches. As the interim head coach, Mike Yeo becomes the 22nd head coach in franchise history, which spans nearly 55 years. Since the start of the 2009-10 season, the Flyers have employed seven head coaches, nearly one third of the total in franchise history over a 12-year span.
Among the coaches employed in the franchise’s history are five of the top 14 in wins among head coaches in NHL history. Vigneault, at the close of his Flyers’ tenure, ranks eighth with 722.
Also on the list of those tasked with helping the Flyers end a Stanley Cup drought: Ken Hitchcock, who sits fourth all-time and won 131 of his 849 wins as Flyers head coach. Peter Laviolette won 145 of his 688 wins, ranking 11th, with the Flyers. Pat Quinn got his coaching start as an assistant for Fred Shero and his first head coaching job with the Flyers, won 141 of his 684 wins, ranking 12th, with the Flyers. Mike Keenan also got his first NHL coaching job with the Flyers and won 190 of his 672 wins, ranking 14th, with the Flyers.
The bottom line is that Vigneault is no different than Laviolette or Hitchcock or Keenan or Quinn or…you get the picture. Alain Vigneault is not a bad NHL coach because of his 74-54-19 record with the Flyers. You don’t win 722 games, the eighth most in league history, by being a bad coach.
However, you can be the wrong coach for the situation at hand. You can be the coach that is designed to produce one set of expectations, when your team gives off a different vibe. It’s why certain suggestions of how the Flyers should go about replacing Vigneault beyond Yeo’s interim status don’t really make a lot of sense.
You want to bring in John Tortorella? You want to bring in Claude Julien? You want to bring in Mike Babcock? You wanted to bring in Bruce Boudreau before he signed on to be Vancouver’s next head coach merely hours before Vigneaut’s firing? If you do, then you’re trying to convince yourself that this is a championship-caliber team that just needs a kick in the rear end to get back on track.
But that’s not what this team is. You don’t need a coach that brings visions of a Stanley Cup. You need a new coach who will basically be here for the long haul of whatever lies ahead. Maybe that’s Rick Tocchet. Maybe that’s somebody else a little bit outside the box of what seems to be expected, like a David Quinn or Jim Montgomery.
Which brings us to what’s next? Now that Vigneault is out, what do the Flyers do from here? Well, they will probably tell you they want to see Yeo at the helm for the team. They will say they want to see if they can still turn this around with a new voice in place and find a way back into the playoff race. They will look at the standings and say that there are still 59 games to go in the season and there is a nine-point deficit to make up in the standings, and while it won’t be easy, the team is up for the task. All that does is continue to kick the can further down the road.
What needs to be next for the Flyers is a total transformation of the operation. It’s not just that the roster needs even more repairs after a busy offseason just months ago, it’s that the team needs to ditch the band-aid approach and dive head-first into a true rebuild.
Where do you start with that? Pretty much every expiring contract needs to be on the table. It’s no secret who headlines that group.
In Monday’s 7-5 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, Claude Giroux scored two goals, including one on the power play that tied him with Bobby Clarke for the franchise’s all-time lead in power-play points. That’s another franchise record that Giroux will hold from his near 15-year career with the Flyers.
But at some point, you have to have an honest conversation with Giroux. You have to acknowledge that the team’s direction is one that requires more than just an offseason of patchwork. You have to see just how much Giroux wants to win.
Now there’s an easy way for the Flyers and Giroux to part ways at year’s end. His contract expires and the team could just as simply walk away. But Giroux is also the team’s leading scorer with 21 points in 23 games. He’s been the team’s captain for nearly a decade. He’s among the franchise’s top all-time players in a number of categories. There is a playoff team and buyer out there that will look at their team at deadline time and absolutely want his services. They may even pay a pretty penny to do so. You could see similar with the other expiring contracts the Flyers have, but nothing will net them the type of return Giroux could.
Which leads to the third piece of this puzzle: Chuck Fletcher. It’s obvious what the state of the Flyers is, and the sooner they admit what is needed and what expectations should be, the better it will be for everyone involved. So the question becomes if you do get the green light to do a full-on rebuild – which would likely have to be approved by the ownership group – is Fletcher the man for that job?
You can look at all of Fletcher’s wheeling and dealing in the offseason that basically rearranged the furniture without repairing the foundation as a general manager with a bias for action. But the reality is that the Flyers made all of those changes and within a quarter of a season, not only fell out of the playoff picture dramatically, but had a nine-game losing streak move them to within a couple points of the bottom five of the league.
Add in the overall organizational shortcomings – the Flyers’ AHL affiliate is a league-worst 3-11-4 in 19 games – and you see just how out of hand everything has become.
Fletcher certainly seems to know this. He’s been around the game long enough, much like Vigneault, to know when the writing's on the wall or when time is running out. The question will be if Fletcher gets a chance to make one more coaching hire and see if the team can work this out with another voice, or is naming Yeo the interim in hopes of saving a 2021-22 season that may very well already be beyond repair his last attempt. And, of course, just how much time do they get?
Maybe they do make a small turnaround and that gives Fletcher and Yeo more time. Maybe they don’t turn anything around and more changes come rapid fire. But there will be more to come if this continues. It’s already on Fletcher to find a solution in the here and now, to see if Yeo sparks a change or if he can pull off another move somehow, at a time when no teams around the league are really actively looking to do much.
As much as fans of any team dread the idea of a rebuild and what it means for the immediate future, perhaps it would be in the Flyers’ best interest to embrace such an idea. Fans are plenty frustrated by the approach of trying to patch something that needs repairs that go deeper than just a few players. Fans want a dynamic player that brings people in every night. Fans want to see a contending team with an identity and sense of direction.
The Flyers, at this moment, have none of those things. The way to get them, especially the possibility of drafting a truly dynamic player in every sense of the word, is to admit what is ahead and acknowledge that direction.