In his first season, Philadelphia’s new coach took the first steps to establish a meritocracy based on accountability. In his second season, emboldened by a playoff berth and with the team completely in his grasp, he is free to squeeze.
Alain Vigneault is already squeezing Jakub Voracek.
“When we went into the bubble and into the playoffs, I thought Jake played well in that first round against Montreal. I thought he wasn’t as effective against the Islanders,” Vigneault said Friday.
Friday was the day Vigneault sent Voracek to the second-string power-play unit.
“I talked to Jake about this. I challenged him about this season. There’s a man who’s been in the league for a long time,” Vigneault said. “Basically, he’s won two playoff rounds.”
That, in Vigneault’s estimation, clearly isn’t enough. Not for a player Columbus drafted seventh overall in 2007. Voracek has earned almost $60 million in 11 seasons, with $6.25 million more due this year. He has seen one All Star Game in 12 years. Generally, winners get invited to those.
Vigneault plans to make a Stanley Cup run in 2021. Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick returned from their illnesses. Recent first-rounder Joel Farabee is eager to earn minutes, and recent first-rounder Morgan Frost might not be far behind. This year, Vigneault won’t wait for Voracek to get with the program.
“Making the playoffs is non-negotiable here. To do that, we need Jake to get his game to that top level,” said Vigneault.
And if Voracek fails?
”I think there are a lot of young players pushing him,” the coach said. “He’s going to have to earn that ice time that he’s been able to get the last few years.”
If that sounds like a shot across the bow of the 31-year-old winger -- the Flyers’ perpetual X-factor -- it was. Voracek is 6-foot-2 and 214 pounds, and when he’s hot, he’s among the game’s best players. But, too often, he disappears. In the Flyers’ first eight games last season, he managed four points -- 0.50 points per game -- and was minus-3. His indifferent defense and sloppy play was driving Vigneault to tears, and the team was 4-3-1.
“It took him a while to get going -- I’d like to say it took him the month of October,” Vigneault said. “When he found his stride, our team started to find [its] stride a little bit. I’m hoping that, right off the hop, he’ll be where he needs to be.”
When Voracek tightened his play, he collected 52 points in the next 61 games -- 0.85 points per game -- and was plus-17. The Flyers went 37-18-6, won all three of their round-robin playoff games, and took the top seed in the East (Voracek didn’t play in the play-in finale). They beat the Canadiens in six games, in which Voracek netted six points.
Then? Then, he had one point in the Flyers’ second-round, seven-game loss to the Islanders. The Flyers are teeming with young talent. If Voracek falters again like this he’s more expendable than ever.
NHL teams play just 56 games in this COVID-shortened season, so the Flyers can’t afford to have Voracek use the the first eight to acclimate himself. He’s got to be ready when the puck drops for the opener Wednesday against Pittsburgh.
Is that possible? Voracek has never been a fitness nut, and a second lockdown in his native Czech Republic in October restricted his offseason training options and frustrated his efforts to enter training camp in top form.
“It’s weird times we’re living in right now, I’ll be honest,” Voracek said.
When Jake Voracek is mad that he can’t work out, yes, the times are weird.
Vigneault isn’t sure just what he’s got in Voracek. The coach said the restart agreement between the NHL and the players’ association does not allow teams to clinically measure players’ fitness levels, but it doesn’t sound as though he’s impressed by Voracek’s current VO2 max.
“He looked OK,” Vigneault said. “It’s tough to exactly tell you where his conditioning is because we aren’t allowed to test players on the ice or test players the aerobic or anaerobic tests that we usually do off the ice, because the rules that were changed this year as far as the players’ association. I can only give you my subjective look.”
Subjectively, nothing will be given, either in January or May. Especially May.
Voracek collected nine points and was plus-3 in his first seven playoff games with the Flyers, where he landed via trade in 2011. He managed nine points in his next 23 playoff games, with just three goals, and was minus-8.
“There’s no doubt that Jake, with his talent level, can be a force on our team and force in this league,” Vigneault said. “If our expectations are to win, he knows that he’s going to have to be a top performer in the role that he is given. Our expectations of Jake are very high. ... We’re not in this to win one round.”
It sounds as though Voracek’s expectations are just as high. His family won’t arrive in the United States until March -- possibly, by design.
“We lost in the second round,” Voracek said. “We couldn’t close the deal in the playoffs.”
He has more than $21 million coming to him in the three seasons following this bizarre 2021 schedule. He’s 31, but he just logged a season in which he averaged 0.81 points per game, the fourth-best average of his career and his third straight season over 0.80. So, maybe he’s figured it out.
The Stanley Cup Finals end in early July.