Kevin Hayes signed a $50 million contract with the Flyers last June. It was a life-changing deal for the then-27-year-old center.
Five years ago, Hayes was staring at another significant moment in his career. He was playing for the Rangers and then, just as now, his coach was Alain Vigneault — and Vigneault was furious with the second-year player.
Hayes, who had a strong rookie season for Vigneault the year before, was in a slump filled with turnovers and poor decisions. The coach’s patience had run out.
“He called me in the office after a game against Nashville and basically told me that I wasn’t doing it for him,” Hayes explained. “He was told all these things about my game and what I brought to the table and I wasn’t doing any of those things and it was time to figure it out. He scratched me for two games.”
“I haven’t been scratched since,” Hayes continued. “I owe a lot to that [benching] and to him.”
Philadelphia is the fourth stop of Vigneault’s career. Though he’s yet to win a Stanley Cup, he has been immediately successful in his first season at each.
In Montreal, his first NHL job, Vigneault took a club that finished five games under .500 the year before he arrived and finished five games over .500. Even won a playoff round and was a 1998 coach-of-the-year finalist.
He did a similar job in his first season in Vancouver in 2007 when he won coach of the year.
Vigneault went to New York in 2013-14. He wasn’t a COY finalist, but he did take the Rangers to their first Cup finals in 20 years.
The Flyers this year, of course, have gone from perennial underachievers to legitimate contenders. Vigneault’s .645 points percentage this year (41-21-7) is his highest in his first season with a team. Vigneault, Columbus’ John Tortorella, and Boston’s Bruce Cassidy are this year’s coach-of-the-year finalists.
“I would say all the situations that I’ve come in have been slightly different, but what hasn’t been different is my demand for work ethic, attention to detail, preparation, and the will to win,” Vigneault said. “Make sure that players understand the team has to come first. When you stress that and you hold players accountable, a lot of times with the proper direction you can have a fair amount of success.”
The Flyers were one of the hottest teams in hockey when play stopped. Their .645 points percentage was their best in nearly 10 years. But there were bumps this season, too, especially at the start.
October ended with a thud, a 7-1 loss to Pittsburgh that left the Flyers 5-5-1. The definition of mediocrity.
It looked like just another typical slow start that would have them skating uphill the rest of the season just to get into the playoff chase. But then something happened after a practice following that Penguins loss.
“We need our top players to lead the way for us, lead the way by how they have to play on the ice,” Vigneault said. “We need ‘G’ [Claude Giroux] to be a top-end performer like he’s been for the past few years. We need Jake [Voracek] to be a top-end performer like he’s been for the past few years. We need those guys to lead the way for us with their play on the ice, and I’m confident that’s going to be the case.”
Vigneault can scratch second-year players like Hayes was in 2015. But with foundationpieces such as Giroux and Voracek, the coach used a different tactic by publicly — but respectfully — demanding accountability and improvement. He had tried to get Voracek motivated by moving him briefly to the fourth line. Had done the same thing with James van Riemsdyk.
He also was critical of goaltenders Brian Elliott and Carter Hart.
Something must have clicked because the Flyers went 10-2-4 to tie a team record for points in November. There would be no fall swoon this season.
“He’s a smart guy. Knows how to manage different things. He talks to players and stuff like that. I would say the biggest thing is how he kind of does that,” said van Riemsdyk, who has played for eight head coaches in his 11 NHL seasons. “I think that has really given us a chance to be successful night in and night out and be as prepared as we can for each and every game. … He knows when to push, knows when to pull back.”
Voracek, a 12-year pro, went from a -16 rating last year to a career-best +14 this year. He’s merely an example of the Flyers’ improvement in Vigneault’s first year here.
The loudest voice at the Flyers’ practice rink is Vigneault’s. He will yell for more, more, more. One minute, he will cajole a player for missing a step in a drill. The next, he barks encouragement for an intelligent play.
Vigneault’s practices are shorter and crisper than those of his predecessors, his players say. He also is creative with the travel schedule, spotting chances during the season to stay an extra day in a road city to get his players some extra sleep. Many of those subtle nuances contributed to Vigneault’s turning things around in his first season.
The Flyers were 29th in goals allowed per game last season. This year, they were 10th.
“There’s a few things,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said. “One, he’s a tremendous communicator. Two, he’s very organized. His ability to command the details. Just what he’s done in the two weeks of [recent training] camp has been remarkable.
“He says our practices are going to be 42 minutes. They are 42 minutes. Everything is right down to a T. Everything’s covered. Because of that, because of the experience, the detail and the professionalism, and his track record, the players really respect what he says. They believe what he says. It’s been really remarkable to watch.”
Of course, if Vigneault’s had three prior stops, that means he’s been fired three times. The window of opportunity shutting on his fingers before he had a chance to hoist the championship trophy. He turned 59 on May 14.
There is a sufficient blend of youth and veterans to reasonably think the Flyers should contend for several years. Vigneault is the Flyers’ 18th coach in the 45 years since they last won a Cup, but the first to start a season not hired while late owner Ed Snider was in charge.
This is a Fletcher-Vigneault operation, the culture change many fans had demanded.
“I like our attitude and the atmosphere we have,” the coach said. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. I believe we are one of the best teams in the league and we have a legitimate chance at winning the Stanley Cup.”
The Flyers traded a fifth-round pick to Winnipeg just for the right to try to convince Hayes to eschew free agency and come sign here. Vigneault called him twice to let him know he’d be a perfect fit.
“When I showed up in Philadelphia, the first thing he told me is how happy and proud he was that I figured these things out for myself,” Hayes said. “I’m almost certain that if I didn’t figure these things out, I wouldn’t be in the league right now.”
Vigneault appeared in 42 NHL games in the early 1980s and was finished as a player by the age of 23. He started coaching in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League at 25 and was 36 when he made his NHL coaching debut for the Canadiens in 1997-98.
“I didn’t have a long career, but I had a lot of coaches,” Vigneault explained, naming Michel Bergeron and Marcel Pronovost as particular mentors. “I tried to take what I thought they did well: whether it be the teaching aspect, the communication aspect, the relationship aspect. I was very fortunate to have some good coaches [give me] a solid foundation. They were very good people who taught me not just the hockey aspect of it, but being-a-good-person aspect of it.”
“He’s one of the most successful coaches in league history. … But he keeps on bringing up one thing,” Hayes said. “I know our team knows that the one thing he hasn’t accomplished is a Stanley Cup. It definitely resonates with us. As players, we want to do everything in our power to win the Stanley Cup. We’ve all been dreaming of that moment since we’ve been little kids.”