For the opening rendition of a refrain that Alain Vigneault would sing throughout his first season as the Flyers' head coach, go back to a Friday afternoon in late September, after a practice at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, after most of the players had left for the day.
The night before, the Flyers had lost a preseason game, badly, and now, with reporters gathered around him, Vigneault made an announcement: Instead of limiting the Flyers' veteran players to just three preseason games, he would have each of them play four or five, so dissatisfied was he with their preparation for the start of the regular season. You didn’t need to be a mentalist to know whom he was talking about: Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, James van Riemsdyk, a few others.
“When you’re in the playoffs and you go for a round, two rounds, three rounds, four rounds, that’s intense hockey,” Vigneault said then, and through his words and actions, he kept saying it from the beginning of the Flyers' season to its end last Saturday in a lethargic shutout loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Islanders.
He said it in late October, after back-to-back lopsided losses: “We need our top players to lead the way for us, lead the way by how they have to play on the ice. We need G to be a top-end performer like he’s been for the past few years. We need Jake to be a top-end performer like he’s been for the past few years.”
He said it before Game 5 against the Islanders: “Now it’s their turn to put the big-boy pants on and to get out there. I’m looking at the eight teams that are in the playoffs right now. The eight teams, you’re looking at their top line and their production. I believe our guys have more to give and more to do.”
He said it before Game 7: “I used the big-boy-pants analogy the other day. Top players got to be at your best, and they’ve got to come through for you.”
He said it after Game 7, when he was asked if the struggles of the Flyers' first- and second-line players were the difference in the series: “There are individuals on the team [who] I’m going to take a little bit of time to reflect on what needs to be done here moving forward.”
So what conclusion will he draw? Giroux had one goal in 16 postseason games. Voracek did not score a goal and had just one assist in the seven games against the Islanders. Van Riemsdyk had two goals in 12 playoff games – and sat out the other four not because of injury but because Vigneault chose not to put him in the lineup.
They weren’t the only culprits in that lifeless 4-0 season-stopping loss. They weren’t the lone reason that the Flyers labored to beat the 12th-seeded Canadiens in the first round and were fortunate to push New York as far as they did in the second. But the Flyers came within one victory of the conference finals in spite of those players as much as they did because of them, and that truth could very well frame the team’s entire offseason.
It has been said before, but it is worth repeating: Vigneault’s presence and performance this season – he was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best coach – changed the club’s power dynamic. He doesn’t have to defer to any player, even to Giroux and Voracek, who have been the Flyers' centerpieces for years. He’s the franchise’s most accomplished coach since Peter Laviolette was fired in 2013, and he has a measure of leverage that his predecessors never did.
Vigneault is just a year into his tenure, and the general manager who hired him, Chuck Fletcher, wasn’t responsible for signing Giroux, Voracek, and van Riemsdyk to the onerous contracts that, vis-a-vis the salary cap, they carry. Giroux has two years and $16.55 million left on his deal, which has a no-trade clause. Van Riemsdyk has three years and $21 million; Voracek, four years and $33 million. Each of them is 31 or older.
Given the trio’s cap hits and the stages of their careers, it would be a challenge for Fletcher to trade any of them, and there’s no guarantee that doing so would benefit the Flyers in the short or long term. But Vigneault made it clear that he believes those three have more and better contributions, tangible and intangible, to make.
If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have scratched van Riemsdyk multiple times for rookie Joel Farabee, and he wouldn’t have felt it necessary to have Oskar Lindblom skate with the team after its Game 5 loss to the Canadiens and suit up in Games 6 and 7 against the Islanders. It was dramatic and inspiring to see Lindblom skate and play again after completing his cancer treatments, of course, but it also showed how desperate Vigneault was to deliver an emotional lift to his players, presumably because they and the leaders in the locker room weren’t generating one themselves.
You have to wonder if Alain Vigneault is tired, after a season of saying the same thing over and over again, of having to resort to such tactics, and how tired.