Work smarter. Sleep longer. Win more games.
That is the foundation of the program new coach Alain Vigneault instituted when he began Flyers training camp this summer.
“Training-camp practices that would have been an hour and 15 minutes were 50 minutes. We didn’t have water breaks. All drills were explained before practice. It’s boom-boom-boom and go. You don’t have time to catch your breath!” said winger Jake Voracek. " It’s the biggest reason we’ve been so successful, and why have been skating well throughout the games."
So well that they tied their record for points in November, with 24. They won 11 times, and they either came back or broke a tie in the third period or won in overtime in seven of those games.
The Flyers are minus-3 in their first periods this season, but plus-13 in the second and third, and plus-11 in the third period alone. If that paints a picture of a club with modest skating talent, very good goaltending, and but superior conditioning — well, that’s about right.
They continued their late-game proficiency Tuesday, when Travis Konecny found Claude Giroux for the game-winner, the first of five goals they scored in the last 10 minutes in a 6-1 romp. After a sluggish first period it looked as if the Flyers skated circles around the Maple Leafs. That’s because they did.
“I think it has a lot to do with the practicing that we do,” said Konecny, who leads the team with 27 points. “And you know, it’s game-like. You hear, ‘Practice like you play.’ ”
Or, play like you don’t practice — or something like that. Innovative rest has been Vigneault’s other secret weapon.
The Flyers began their game at Chicago on Oct. 24 at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time, which would have meant a 2:30 a.m. touchdown in Philadelphia, which meant the players wouldn’t be asleep until 4 a.m. That meant no more than five hours of sleep, and they’d be the lucky ones. Players with kids might sleep for two or three hours.
The team was beginning a stretch of six games in 10 nights, with two back-to-backs, the first of them beginning against Columbus two days later, so every minute of rest was precious. '
That’s why Vigneault had them stay overnight in Chicago. Most got seven solid hours of sleep, and landed in Philly around midday Oct. 25. The next night, a well-rested Flyers team scored the last five goals, all in the last 10 minutes, to erase a 4-2 deficit in a 7-4 win over the Blue Jackets.
OK, neither condensed practices nor rest emphasis is exactly a secret. Still, Vigneault was an early adopter.
The Canucks, the NHL’s most distant outpost, began monitoring players’ sleep habits in 2008, Vigneault’s third year as coach, when Mike Gillis was hired as general manager.
“Mike hired a sleep company because of our travel in the west. They would analyze our schedule and tell us where we needed to sleep over, where we could fly back, because of the time we’d get back, and what our energy would be. They would look at our schedule and break it down," he said, and shrugged. “When I came out east I brought it.”
He came east in 2013 to coach the Rangers, where he began to pay attention to the Joel Embiid metric: load management. He was delighted to learn that the Flyers had incorporated a tracking device for their players years ago.
“Depending on the number of games, I know how long I can go in practice and the load I give them so we have energy for the game,” Vigneault said. “Energy-wise, even if we have a tough month of November, like we did, we can still have more energy. We have the right loads, so we have more energy.”
That held true Thursday night against Phoenix as well in a 3-1 loss. The Flyers dominated play and outshot the Coyotes, 24-13, in the second and third periods, but Brian Elliott gave up a soft goal in the first and another off a scramble late in the third, and Coyotes goaltender Darcy Keumper was brilliant, and even the best-rested team won’t trump a hot goalie on a first-place team, which is where the Coyotes now find themselves in the Pacific Division.
Considering the Flyers’ first 29 games — Switzerland for the final preseason game, the season-opener in the Czech Republic, three early West Coast games, and then their autumn marathon — it’s astonishing that a team that missed the playoffs last season still has 37 points and stands fourth in the Eastern Conference.
“Going to Europe, to going out West, to 16 games in the month of November — it’s one of the most challenging schedules I’ve ever had,” said Vigneault, who, remember, coached in Vancouver. “So far, it’s paid off.”
"It’s science. I use it.”
They love it.
It’s a far cry from how things ran in the three-plus seasons under Dave Hakstol, a legend at North Dakota who brought many of his college-level regimens to the NHL.
“That approach with that coaching staff — Hak was obviously very successful with that, where he was coaching before with his teams in college,” said Konecny. “That style wasn’t working. The change in staff is working for our group.”
Chip Kelly made the same mistakes. College hockey and football players generally don’t have to worry about 3 a.m. feedings and carpools.
“There’s a lot of studies about how the body works and what can be done to make you better as athletes. We stayed in Chicago for a reason," said Voracek, who has a 3-year-old son. “Every time you get to bed at 3:30 in the morning — I mean, instead of waking up with the kids and driving them to school, or whatever you do as a normal function in life, we stayed in bed, flew out at 11 a.m. Those extra hours make a huge difference.”
Will they make a difference in the spring? The Flyers lost 11 of 17 late in the 2017-18 season and got rolled out of the playoffs by the Penguins, then finished last season 3-10.
Voracek, who turned 30 in August, thinks it will help.
“Usually the first 20 games every team is full of energy, but I think it’s going to show even more down the road, at the end of the season, than the beginning of the year,” he said.
His Flyers haven’t won a playoff series since he was 22:
“I hope it does."