At postgame news conferences, Alain Vigneault sometimes comes across more like Dean Martin than a hockey coach.
He jokes. He oozes a coolness without trying. He talks about going home and enjoying a martini.
All that’s missing is a cigarette and his playfully blowing smoke at a reporter’s question.
Beneath that affable exterior is a hockey lifer who is the 10th-winningest coach in NHL history, a cerebral man who, in his first year with the Flyers, has transformed the team into one of the league’s most surprising stories.
Vigneault, 58, deflects the praise. He says it’s the players who have done the heavy lifting, and he mentions the contributions of his assistants at every opportunity.
Truth be told, lots of people deserve credit for the fact that the Flyers have matched last year’s final victory total (37) — with 18 games remaining.
General manager Chuck Fletcher’s offseason moves have turned golden, and the players have developed a team-first mentality, personal statistics be damned.
But Vigneault is the person who has made it all work. He holds players accountable — whether you’re a rookie or an $8 million-a-year veteran — and he knows when to be demanding and when to ease up.
In short, the guy with the charming French Canadian accent and the Dean Martin persona also has a lot of Scotty Bowman smarts in him.
“I think his experience is most important in tie games, close games,” right winger Jake Voracek said Thursday. “When it goes down to the wire, he doesn’t lose his cool. He’s always real calm and I think that comes from past coaching. It’s been a fun change, and I think you can tell by the way we play” that the calmness translates to the players. “I think we’re playing better hockey than ever.”
Rest and reenergize
Left winger Michael Raffl said Vigneault has brought experience and a winning mentality. "I think one of the big differences has been giving the boys some rest and giving us more days off,” he said.
Vigneault has reduced the practices and mandatory morning skates, believing it would preserve the players’ energy late in the season.
“I think it’s paying off,” Raffl said.
James van Riemsdyk agreed.
“One thing I’ve really liked about him is how smart he is and how progressive he is about knowing when to push us a little bit in practice and when to give us those days off,” van Riemsdyk said. “Physically and mentally, this is the freshest I’ve felt in a season and I think that has a lot to do with how he does things.”
Vigneault is in his 17th season as a head coach, with stops in Montreal, Vancouver, and New York (Rangers) before arriving in Philadelphia. He has been to the Finals twice but has never won the Stanley Cup.
All that experience has given him a presence in the locker room and behind the bench, a presence that equates to respect from his players.
Defenseman Ivan Provorov said Vigneault’s system has allowed the Flyers to play a more aggressive, attacking style. The breakouts from the defensive end and the neutral zone have been quicker. “That allows us to play more on offense,” Provorov said.
The team’s success this season “all starts at the top and works down to the players,” said right winger Travis Konecny, who is having a career season. “They put the team together they thought would work, and there’s a system in place that we have to commit to and execute. It’s been a group effort, and now that we’ve figured out the right way to play, it’s showing how good we can be.”
Vigneault has even gotten Konecny and Voracek — forwards who have struggled on the defensive side in the past — to play 200-foot games.
“Obviously he’s a demanding coach,” said Voracek, who was briefly demoted to the fourth line earlier this season but is now on the top unit, “and if you don’t play the right way, you’ll find your ice time is a little bit cut short. But the next day is a new day and he’s going to focus on the next game.”
The Flyers missed the playoffs and finished with 82 points last season. They are now on pace for 104 points, putting Vigneault in the coach-of-the-year discussion.
Midway through the season, the Professional Hockey Writers Association had Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan, Columbus’ John Tortorella, and St. Louis’ Craig Berube listed 1-2-3, respectively, in the Jack Adams coach-of-the-year voting.
If the Flyers finish ahead of the Penguins — who have overcome a slew of key injuries — and Columbus fades and doesn’t make the playoffs, it’s possible Vigneault and Berube emerge as the top candidates.
Vigneault doesn’t care about the accolades. He just wants to finish high in the standings and get into the playoffs, “where anything can happen.”
Since the start of the season in Prague, he has been preaching about “the importance of each point — whether it was the first game of the year, the 27th game of the year, or the last 20 games,” Konecny said. “He’s made it feel like the last game is the single biggest game of the year. It feels like we’re literally about to play our last few games of the year and they’re must-win games to get into the playoffs.”
Some would think that puts added pressure on the players. Konecny said the players thrive on it.
“He’s made that the atmosphere in the locker room,” Konecny said, “and it’s been fun to play in those games.”
And even more fun, he hopes, to be playing in must-win games when the playoffs roll around and his coach is continuing his Dean Martin impersonation.