Philadelphia Flyers get a proven winner in Alain Vigneault

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 16: Alain Vigneault of the New York Rangers speaks to the media before Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 16, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 16: Alain Vigneault of the New York Rangers speaks to the media before Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 16, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia Flyers have made the first critical decision of the offseason with the hiring of former New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault.

There’s a saying in professional sports about how you’re hired to be fired. Most coaches know their gigs aren’t forever.

At the end of the day, it’s about business, and business means revenue. Coaches are only good to an organization when they provide wins, and even then it’s not good enough in most cases.

The Philadelphia Flyers have seen their fair share of coaches over the 50+ years that the team has been in existence. Since 2000, eight coaches have manned the bench for the Orange and Black, with none of them able to guide the team to the sport’s ultimate prize and no coach able to survive longer than four seasons.

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On Monday, the Flyers made a move they hope will buck will trend.

The Flyers announced the hiring of the 21st head coach in the team’s history when they inked former New York Rangers boss Alain Vigneault. This move is likely to be divisive in the early going, as Vigneault has a reputation as both a very good offensive coach and a coach that has been unable to win a Stanley Cup.

The hope is that he fits what Philadelphia will be trying to achieve in moving forward in terms of team culture, roster, and organizational philosophy.

Once the season ended, general manager Chuck Fletcher’s first move was always going to be to shore up his coaching situation. The choice would be whether to keep Scott Gordon, who agreed to leave the Phantoms mid-year and almost navigated the Flyers to a playoff berth, or to make an outside hire, perhaps a coach with no ties to the organization.

In the end, Fletcher opted to go with a fresh look, but it’s worth noting that Gordon did a good enough job to make himself into a worthy candidate.

Evaluating Gordon’s Candidacy

Gordon, who served as the head coach on an interim basis with the club, did a terrific job taking over for the beleaguered Dave Hakstol, who never really found his footing as an NHL coach. Gordon inherited a team that was prone to long periods of inconsistent play, slow starts, and horrific goaltending.

But give Gordon credit since he walked into a truly bad situation and found a way to almost turn the season around. The way the Flyers organization botched the firing of Hakstol was embarrassing, to say the least. Instead of firing Hakstol along with Ron Hextall, they allowed a dead man walking to keep his job for three weeks, knowing full well that a new general manager would almost certainly want to hire his own guy.

Gordon deserved some credit for accepting the assignment under such poor circumstances, though the goal of most coaches is to make it to the pro level. In the floundering Flyers, Gordon would have his chance to prove his worth.

Under his tutelage, the Flyers slowly resurrected themselves into one of the best teams in hockey during the final quarter of the season. Some of this was indeed due to more stability in net with the emergence of rookie Carter Hart.

But also it would be hard to argue that Gordon has not made himself a candidate for the head coaching job moving forward considering how the team responded in the second half.

Players praised Gordon in the exit interviews for his communication, though some players like Shayne Gostisbehere said sometimes it was almost too much information. Gordon is a player’s coach, and he clearly believes in communicating both the good and the bad to his players both during games and at film sessions or practice.

This appeared to be a stark contrast to Hakstol, who at times would scratch players seemingly without providing them a reason.

It’s fair to surmise that the culture inside the locker room under Hakstol this season was slowly rotting, and the on-ice results over the course of his tenure doesn’t do much to dissuade that notion. The Flyers, during the period 2015 when Hakstol was hired to 2019 when he was fired, seemed to be a team always prone to poor starts, both at the beginning of the season and at the start of games.

This season, they fell behind in 32 games and always seemed to be chasing, whether it be in the standings or on the ice. That trend has been a staple of Flyers teams for far too long, and it’s one of the main reasons why Hakstol was ultimately let go.

What Gordon was able to do was to come in and breathe new life into the locker room.

The players clearly responded better to him, and though it’s hard to know just how many of the players in the room were truly helped by his talkative, sometimes overly communicative coaching style, it’s clear from the win/loss results, the team did benefit from his presence.

It’s also worth noting that the younger players on the team appeared to thrive under Gordon the most, whereas under Hakstol there was always the threat of benching or loss of ice time. Under Gordon, players like Travis Sanheim and Oskar Lindblom saw their roles increase, which helped the team tremendously.

So how strong was Gordon’s case for head coach? While Gordon did get the team back to playing winning hockey in the final three months, it may surprise you to learn that the team actually performed worse when looking at the underlying metrics.

By almost every team based metric, the Flyers under Gordon somehow proved to be less effective at even strength hockey than the guy the organization fired in December. For example, under Hakstol the team’s corsi-for percentage was 50.02 percent while under Gordon the numbers fell to 46.23 percent.

For goals-for percentage, Hakstol had the team at 48.12 percent, while under Gordon it fell to 46.05 percent.

So how could a team that was playing even worse hockey at 5-on-5 find a way to go on a streak where they won 75 percent of the games they played for nearly three months? The obvious answer is that the team finally received reliable goaltending in the form of Hart. Not only that, but the club received a boost on special teams once Gordon arrived.

It’s no secret that Hakstol’s tenure as coach was plagued by inadequate goaltending, which was certainly not the fault of the coach. But Hart’s performance during the latter half of the year certainly goes a long way to proving how incredibly valuable solid goaltending can be to a hockey team.

Aside from goaltending,  the fact that Gordon came in and immediately made productive changes to the penalty kill only reinforces the fact that this was a major area of weakness for Hakstol and his coaching staff, namely Ian Lapperiere.

By improving in these two areas alone, the Flyers goal-based results and win percentage both increased dramatically under Gordon despite the fact that the team continued to be outplayed at even strength.

Vigneault the safe choice

Calling a coach with the kind of career that Vigneault has “safe” feels more negative than it intends to be. But looking at the track record of the former Vancouver and New York bench boss, it appears, at least on the surface, that Fletcher has opted to go with the guy that has the best chance to help the team transition back to a period of sustained success.

There was the widespread talk of promising young coach Sheldon Keefe, who commands the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, of becoming a prime target for organizations looking for a new face behind the bench. The Flyers tried going out of the box when they hired Hakstol, so it was already unlikely that Fletcher was going to go that route after Hakstol flopped.

After evaluating Gordon’s tenure as coach, Fletcher obviously felt that the organization was in dire need of a facelift. Gordon did a fine job, and it’s possible he’ll go back to coaching the Phantoms, a move he hinted he would be fine with. He’s certainly made a case for himself finding work elsewhere in the NHL, at the very least.

But it’s no secret that the Flyers fan base has waned, and some have become apathetic in the wake of another lost season. In hiring Vigneault, Fletcher has opted to go with a coach who has a career win percentage above .600, and two Stanley Cup finals appearances with two teams in eight season (both losses with Vancouver and New York).

It likely won’t be known what led to Fletcher’s decision to hire Vigneault until he speaks at the next press conference, but it’s likely that he felt Vigneault’s pedigree made him a stronger candidate than Gordon.

Vigneault’s resume speaks for itself. In 12 seasons since 2006 while coaching the Canucks and Rangers, Vigneault’s teams have scored more than 100 regular season points eight times.

He’s won seven division titles, two conference championships, a President’s Trophy, and gone to the Stanley Cup Finals twice. Vigneault has also been the recipient of the Jack Adams award for league’s top coach.

Despite not winning in either of his Cup Finals appearances, Vigneault was a cut above the rest of the candidates currently on the market. His Vancouver teams were some of the most talented teams of the last decade despite ultimately coming up short.

The system that Vigneault brings with him is reminiscent of former coach Peter Laviolette, who was largely adored by the fan base for the majority of his time in Philadelphia. Like Laviolette, Vigneault prefers an aggressive offensive system, which relies on a heavy forecheck and consistent activation from the defense.

Laviolette’s system was very successful in Philadelphia until roster limitations took its toll. The Flyers would be wise to avoid those same pitfalls with Vigneault. He is a coach that has shown he can turn teams into winners. The front office needs to meet him halfway, and there are going to be plenty of opportunities to do so this offseason.

The Flyers already appear to be a match for Vigneault in certain areas. The attack-heavy system he employs was highly successful in both Vancouver and New York due in large part to a high level of offensive skill up front and elite goaltending from Roberto Luongo and Henrik Lundqvist.

The Flyers are clearly skilled up front, and it finally appears that they have found reliable goaltending in Hart, though he is still young and lacks a large sample size.

But no coaching hire is a slam dunk, and Vigneault certainly has his detractors. One of the reasons he was fired by the Rangers was due to his over-reliance on veteran players despite having a good crop of talented youngsters at his disposal.

This plagued the club more so during his final season in 2016-17, when the Rangers missed the playoffs after three-straight seasons after totaling more than 100 regular season points and made the playoffs each time.

Vigneault is described by some as a very good regular season coach who struggles to win in the postseason. And while that argument certainly holds water, coaches who have won Stanley Cups are not currently out there dangling on the open market. Joel Quenneville was the rare exception, and he was snatched up rather quickly by the Florida Panthers.

Vigneault is likely a very good hockey coach who, while he has not brought home the sport’s biggest prize, has proven he can successfully guide a team through the regular season with astounding success.

Moreover, he’s been able to take more than one team to the championship final. It’s quite hard to win in the NHL, but the numbers indicate that Vigneault understands the recipe for success.

Whether or not he can help the Flyers get over the hump will be his next challenge.

A critical summer

There is certainly reason to be optimistic about the hiring of Vigneault. But as previously discussed, Fletcher is going to have a bevy of decisions to make this summer.

The knock on Vigneault is that he doesn’t work well with young, rebuilding teams. The Flyers are a young team, but they should no longer be rebuilding. Fletcher must make experienced additions to the team that can help them win now.

Fletcher will need to be busy trying to build a team for Vigneault that can immediately contend. That may involve parting with members of the current core. While this may sting on the surface, the reality is that this Flyers team likely cannot get better through free agency alone.

There will be trades, and they will likely include everything from young players to experienced veterans with even high-level prospects.

Nothing should be off the table for Fletcher this summer. He’s made the first move by getting an established coach. He now needs to augment the team’s skill up front, while reinforcing the back end with either a savvy, cost-friendly veteran or a talented young player.

Flyers fans have wanted to see the organization once again make a commitment to winning. For the last half-decade, the priority has been the future. That future is here now, and only time will tell if the window of opportunity will stay open long enough to capitalize.

The Flyers have made the first move. It’s time to buckle up for what should be an exciting summer.