The Flyers were soaring when the season was suspended last month because of the coronavirus pandemic.
They had all “bought in” and were playing unselfishly, coach Alain Vigneault said recently. “Everyone’s focus has been on the team."
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That’s true. So is the fact that all four lines were contributing. Ditto the much-improved defensive units and goalies Carter Hart and Brian Elliott.
Vigneault said the players, who had won nine of their last 10 games when the season was paused March 12, are the ones who deserve the credit.
Still, it’s interesting that two Hockey Hall of Famers now connected to the team’s front office – Bob Clarke and Bill Barber – both immediately mentioned coaching when asked about the team’s success in separate conversations this past week.
Vigneault, a strong coach of the year candidate, and assistants Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo are in their first year with the Flyers, while Ian Laperriere, Kim Dillabaugh, and Adam Patterson are holdover assistants. Besides their overall play, the Flyers’ special teams have improved dramatically under the new regime.
A year ago, the Flyers went 37-37-8 (82 points) and finished sixth in the eight-team Metropolitan Division. They were 41-21-7 -- on pace for 106 points -- and in second place this season, which had 13 games left when play was suspended.
“I’m not surprised,” Barber, the Flyers’ head coach in the early 2000s and now a senior adviser for the club, said of the turnaround. “The reason being, I look at the coaching staff. I admire their style. They make people accountable, and it doesn’t matter who you are. I think that’s a big step, and we have our young players who are maturing, and good leadership.”
Clarke, who also serves as a senior adviser and was instrumental in bringing general manager Chuck Fletcher to the Flyers, was asked his impressions of this season’s team.
“It was a really well-coached hockey team,” he said from his home in Sarasota, Fla., on Wednesday. “I really enjoyed watching this team; it’s one of the better-coached teams we’ve had for a while now.”
“They had good goaltending, the defense was good, the forwards were good,” he added. “I think it was one of those teams where you can’t base the players’ performances on statistics.”
Back when Clarke played, he was usually among the league leaders in points, and players like Barber, Reggie Leach, and Rick MacLeish were frequently among the league’s top goal scorers, while Bernie Parent was among the goalies with the best stats in the NHL.
This year’s Flyers don’t have any scorers close to the league leaders. Travis Konecny is 32nd in the NHL with his team-leading 61 points, and Sean Couturier is 42nd with 59 points. Konecny has a team-high 24 goals, 44th in the league.
Carter Hart is the only Flyer among the NHL leaders, placing sixth in goals-against average (2.42) and tied for 13th in save percentage (.914) among goalies who have played at least 30 games.
“They just did things right,” Clarke said. “Everybody contributed, everybody was important. They were a tough team to play against.”
“The sad part about it,” Barber said from his home in Runnemede, N.J., on Wednesday, “is that it seems like we’re snake-bitten sometimes. We get to the Finals, we’re banged up.”
Since winning their last Stanley Cup in 1975, the Flyers lost their next six appearances in the Finals, the last time in 2010.
“We were on a roll this season, and who knows where we would have ended?” Barber said, adding that Hart “was coming into his own.”
Barber believes there will be a Stanley Cup champion crowned at some point in 2020. Clarke said he has confidence that Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, will do what’s best for all involved.
“I have a lot of faith in Bettman,” Clarke said. “We have 31 teams and soon to be 32, and players from all over the world because of what Bettman has done. I know he gets criticized, but he’ll make the right decisions for the league. Whatever decision is made, it will be for what’s right for everybody in the league – owners, the players, and the game.”
If the season is resumed, Barber was asked, how difficult would it be for the Flyers to regain the momentum they had built before the league was shut down?
“It’s going to be hard for everybody in the league,” Barber said, “but I still think it’s going to be on the back of the players’ minds here that, ‘You know what, we had something going here.’ From the leadership standpoint, from [Claude] Giroux and Couturier, that will be mentioned, I’m sure, in the dressing room. It’ll be, ‘Hey, guys, we were on a roll here. We were one of the best teams. Let’s go out and try to apply that.’ ”
Barber, who had both knees replaced in December and has made great physical progress, acknowledged that it “will be harder because that [momentum] was taken away,” but he said it can still be regained.
During home games, Barber frequently sits with Dave Scott, chairman of the Flyers’ parent company, Comcast Spectacor. Scott’s expertise is in the cable industry, but he has learned the ins and outs of the NHL since becoming a part of the Flyers seven years ago, and Barber has helped him understand the finer points of hockey.
“Dave is obviously a very astute guy, and he wants to win as bad as the fans want to win,” Barber said. “He wants to win in the worst way, and he’s surrounded himself with some really good hockey people.”