After the Flyers lost their eighth straight game Sunday night, forward Cam Atkinson stepped up to the podium and said he was more than “a little embarrassed” that his coach, Alain Vigneault, had to answer for his players’ performance in a 7-1 defeat to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The next day, Vigneault paid a greater price when he and assistant coach Michel Therrien lost their jobs. Team captain Claude Giroux said the firing wasn’t the result of Vigneault’s actions.
“It’s on the group — players, coaches, everybody that’s involved with us playing hockey,” Giroux said. “That’s the business side of it. It’s not fun, but right now it’s going to be a wake-up call for us.”
The signs that the team was headed in a dangerous direction appeared early in the season, even as the Flyers were winning, NBC and TNT analyst and former Flyer Keith Jones said. Starting with their 3-2 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Flyers scored three goals in a game just twice in their last 14 games under Vigneault.
“It just seemed a lot harder than it should be to score,” Jones said.
The Flyers still found a way to squeak out wins against Carolina, who had the league’s best record at the time, and a good Calgary team. But then they lost in a shootout to Tampa Bay, the defending Stanley Cup champion, and went into a downward spiral. With Vigneault at the helm, they lost eight straight for the first time since the 2018-19 season.
“It’s really, really hard to lose eight games in a row,” former Flyer and analyst Chris Therien said. “It’s really hard. That — that’s bad.”
When things get that dire, coaching changes tend to happen to see if a new person can somehow get “the proper ear of the group,” Therien said.
General manager Chuck Fletcher, as well as Giroux, said they didn’t feel that Vigneault’s message had gone stale or that he was disconnected from the team. But at that point in a losing streak, Therien said you can bet that every other button that could be pushed had been pushed.
That’s not to say there weren’t things that Vigneault could have done better. Therien pointed out that Vigneault’s system didn’t seem to fit the group’s skill set.
“This team probably needs to play a neutral-zone trap most nights just to stay in games,” Therien said. “They had a very, very aggressive forecheck that wasn’t conducive, I don’t think, to this team’s success.”
Jones said he feels Vigneault was given the tools he needed for success with Fletcher’s offseason acquisitions. He traded for a top-pair defensemen, Ryan Ellis, a physical blueliner in Rasmus Ristolainen, and a goal-scoring forward with a lower salary than Jake Voracek in Cam Atkinson. He also signed a veterans Keith Yandle, Derick Brassard and Martin Jones to one-year deals.
The additions worked at first, but the success vanished quickly.
”Hockey’s not a sport that waits very long for coaching changes,” Jones said. “There’s always a thought of, you give the coach a bunch of new options, and you see if they can make it work. And if they don’t, then a lot of it’s going to fall on the coach.”
That said, Jones also pointed out that the Flyers’ biggest offseason acquisition, Ellis, has been out most of the year (he’s played just four of 23 games). Ellis could have changed the entire complexion of the Flyers’ blue line, something that’s sorely needed.
In addition to Ellis, second-line center Kevin Hayes missed the start of the season and then was reinjured himself. He’s now played just five of 23 games. Brassard, who stepped up in Hayes’s absence, has now missed six games. Nate Thompson, the fourth-line center and a veteran voice, had shoulder surgery and will be out for an extended period. Finally, forward Joel Farabee was injured just as his scoring was picking up. The injuries extend to the prospects, like Wade Allison and Tanner Laczynski, as well as Sam Morin, who was expected to make the team as the seventh defenseman.
But while players on other injury-riddled teams have stepped up, the Flyers are still looking for answers. Defensively, they’re sorely missing Ellis. Offensively, they’re struggling to convert chances into goals. Until recently, goaltending was the only thing working, and it helped paper over the team’s shortcomings.
This is a season, Jones said, he would have expected players to flourish offensively, especially with the new cross-checking rules in place. But no one outside of Giroux has performed consistently.
Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny, Atkinson, Scott Laughton, and James van Riemsdyk each had scored one goal or less in the 12-game span before Vigneault was fired. Travis Sanheim, Oskar Lindblom, and Yandle did not score at all under him.
The Flyers are paying lots of money for this lack of production. Couturier’s annual average value is currently $4.3 million, but he just signed a eight-year extension with an AAV of $7.5 million that kicks in next season. Van Riemsdyk’s AAV is $7 million, Atkinson’s is $5.875 million, Konecny’s is $5.5 million and both Laughton and Lindblom’s are $3 million. The Flyers are also paying over $7 million to Hayes and more than $6 million to Ellis despite their unavailability due to injury.
Fletcher “bought a little bit of time” by speaking to the media on Nov. 30 following the Flyers’ 5-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils, Jones said. He spoke of the toll the injuries had taken on the program and how he wanted to see what the team looked like at full strength.
Then the team lost 7-1 Sunday at home to the Lightning, who were coming off an overtime game in Boston the night before. “The team was embarrassed in a sports-rich city like Philadelphia,” Therien said. The next day, Vigneault was out.
Goalie Martin Jones, like Giroux, felt the wake-up call. “You feel responsible as a player because, ultimately, we’re the ones on the ice, and we got to get the job done,” Jones said. “Hopefully, this can be a type of reset and we can get going in the right direction.”
The question is: Do the Flyers have it in them to dig out of this hole?
While Giroux said they still feel they have the potential to be a playoff team, Therien isn’t so sure.
“Well, there’s a leadership group there,” Therien said. “They haven’t proven in the last eight games they can turn anything around. That’s not harsh words. That’s just reality.”
He’s seen multiple coaches of multiple styles go through the organization, all with less than sparkling results. From where he’s standing, he said it looks like the team is going through the “worst identity crisis” he’s seen. Which makes him think, “Maybe they’re just not good enough.”
Keith Jones still has hope, though. He believes, like Fletcher, that a healthy Flyers team looks very different, and he likes the character of the players Fletcher brought in.
“It’s unfortunate for Alain that they couldn’t get to that point where they started to see what they had again,” Jones said. “This team is nowhere near where they’re going to be.”
Having their coach fired before midseason may lower expectations for the players and allow them to “sneak up on some teams,” Jones said. But it was also the last action Fletcher could take before turning to the players, so the time for them to step up is now.
“The coaching change now alleviates one more excuse,” Jones said. “It’s gone. So now the players — all eyes are on the players to get this right.”
Flyers claim Connauton
The Flyers claimed defenseman Kevin Connauton, 31, off waivers from Florida on Tuesday. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound veteran played 13 games this season, registering 28 hits, no points, and a plus-4 rating while averaging about 12 minutes per contest.