Coaching is timing. So much of it is timing. And fit. And circumstance. And a whole host of factors that poke holes in the miracle-worker image that coaches love to create about themselves and that people are happy to believe in. The Bill Belichick who coached the Cleveland Browns was no genius. The Joe Torre who managed the Los Angeles Dodgers was outfoxed in two National League Championship Series by that supposedly stupid, stuttering hillbilly, Charlie Manuel. The Luke Walton who, in Steve Kerr’s absence, helped guide the Golden State Warriors to an NBA-record 73 victories during the 2015-16 season has the same DNA as the guy who lost control, if he ever had it, of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers this season.
Start there, accept that premise, and you can free yourself to be skeptical of the Flyers’ decision to hire Alain Vigneault as their head coach. Understand: That skepticism is not a criticism of Vigneault. He has had a terrific career in the NHL: seven division championships over his 12 seasons with the Vancouver Canucks and New York Rangers, two appearances in the Stanley Cup Final, a Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach, and the Presidents’ Trophy for the NHL’s best regular-season record in 2010-11 and 2011-12. But it is a recognition and acknowledgement that those oh-so-important mitigating factors don’t disappear or become irrelevant just because the Flyers have hired their most accomplished coach since Peter Laviolette.
So let’s consider those factors. Vigneault will be the Flyers’ fifth head coach since the beginning of the 2013-14 season, which was less than six years ago. Over that span, they have reached the playoffs just three times and have not advanced beyond the first round. And last fall, by firing general manager Ron Hextall and, later, coach Dave Hakstol, they abandoned the lengthy, gradual process that Hextall, rightly, had decided was necessary to rebuild and fortify the organization’s infrastructure.
That the franchise cycled through so many coaches during so short a period with such similar results suggests that none of them were ever the team’s primary problem. And the post-Flyers performances of a couple of them – the Nashville Predators have been consistently excellent under Laviolette, and Craig Berube shepherded the St. Louis Blues to a marvelous turnaround this season – only reaffirm the notion that sometimes a smart coach is just the right person in the right place at the right time with the right group of athletes.
Which brings us back to Vigneault and the reasons for skepticism. In a conference call Monday, Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher presented Vigneault as a coach for all seasons and styles of roster. “His track record speaks for itself,” Fletcher said. “He’s had success at the junior level. He’s had success in the minor leagues. And he’s had success in the NHL. You can’t have success at all those levels unless you’re good at developing players, good at connecting with veterans, and he’s a guy who, again, gets his teams to play hard and gets his teams to buy in.”
It’s reasonable to think that the Flyers’ players will respond positively to Vigneault for at least a little while. His credentials and experience should earn him that respect, and both the Canucks and Rangers improved immediately upon his arrival. But it’s worth noting, again, the circumstances of those situations. Vigneault is regarded as a players’ coach, at his best a calming influence over a locker room, and such an influence was required in his previous two stops. He followed Marc Crawford in Vancouver and John Tortorella in New York – both of them fiery, cutting, and demanding to the point of oppressiveness. Crawford and Tortorella may have tempered their personalities since, but compared to the coaches they were at the time he replaced each of them, Vigneault was greeted as a liberator, a cleansing exhale. He was what those teams needed to flourish.
That same dynamic, that contrast, isn’t present with Vigneault and the Flyers. Hakstol counted on his players to inspire themselves, believing that there was only so much a coach could do to motivate professional athletes, and he was often too deferential to the team’s veterans. Scott Gordon was a more willing communicator, maybe even a counselor for some players. If anything, the Flyers, as constructed now, would benefit from a stronger hand. Vigneault is not that kind of coach, and the limitations of his approach were made manifest during the 2017-18 season, his final one in New York.
“The Rangers hadn’t become only passive on the ice. That had become their nature,” New York Post columnist Larry Brooks wrote after Vigneault’s firing. “They have not come close to replacing the spiritual leadership and work ethic provided by and insisted upon by Martin St. Louis. Vigneault’s belief in leaving the room to the leaders works if the team has strong-willed veterans. It falls short, however, for a team filled with youngsters and veterans who are not necessarily natural-born leaders.”
That last line sounds awfully familiar, and it means that the burden is on Fletcher now to shape a team that fits this particular coach. If he can.