Alain Vigneault has been an NHL head coach for 16 years, and the most welcome development of his brief stint with the Flyers has been his willingness to use that credibility to call out the team’s top two players in a way they’ve never been before. There was Jake Voracek, sitting at his locker at the Skate Zone after the Flyers practiced Thursday afternoon, untying his left skate, and Vigneault stood in the center of the room with his back to him and demanded that Voracek and Claude Giroux deliver a higher caliber of play and leadership. Back-to-back lopsided losses to the Islanders and Penguins had compelled the coach to send his stars a message, and one of them was on hand to hear it. Voracek sat there and laughed. Was it something the teammate seated to his right, James van Riemsdyk, had said? Was it something else?
“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 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. 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.”
And if it isn’t? Well, Vigneault already has dropped Voracek to the fourth line once this season, and maybe it’s time for a Flyers head coach to point out the limitations of the two players the franchise has for years regarded and treated as indispensable.
Giroux is a great player but is not and has never been an inspirational one. The seminal sequence of his career – his thunderous body check of Sidney Crosby and his goal seconds later in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals – did not spark the beginning of a long playoff run. It was his last consequential moment of that postseason. The Flyers were eliminated in the next round, and they haven’t advanced that far since. Voracek is an offensive genius, a free spirit who channels his energy and creativity into scoring and setting up goals. But he considers diligence in the defensive zone outside the scope of his role and above his pay grade – a rich attitude for a player who is scheduled to earn $8.25 million annually for the next five years.
The Flyers organization, at least at the NHL level, has been stagnant since these two became their full-fledged centerpieces, and it’s long past time to consider it a coincidence. If you injected Vigneault’s predecessors – Scott Gordon, Dave Hakstol, Craig Berube – with sodium pentothal, you would likely hear similar critiques of Giroux and Voracek. But you never heard those critiques out in the open. Those three coaches, at the time they were here, didn’t have the cachet to make them. Vigneault does, and his strong words have ramifications beyond merely stopping a two-game losing streak.
This remains a young and relatively inexperienced team, and as general manager Chuck Fletcher’s array of roster moves Thursday attested, young players are unpredictable in their play and production and can be for a while. Development and maturation happen in fits and starts. After a promising 21 games as a rookie last season, Phil Myers had a poor training camp and began this season at Lehigh Valley before the Flyers recalled him Thursday. German Rubstov is 21 and missed much of last season with a shoulder injury. Travis Sanheim is 23 and undergoing what Vigneault acknowledged was a crisis of confidence. Carter Hart has struggled after a brilliant beginning to his season.
Even with their summertime additions of Kevin Hayes and Matt Niskanen, with some skill and experience, the Flyers entered the regular season with an average age of 26.5, according to hockey writer and statistician James Mirtle. Their average age was the same last season, and they were a tick younger (26.3) in 2017-18. The last three Stanley Cup champions – the 2017 Penguins (28.4), the 2018 Capitals (27.5), and the 2019 Blues (27.3) – were all roughly a year older than the Flyers have been. The league might be trending toward youth because of the sport’s overall speed and the restrictions of the salary cap, but as Niskanen said, there’s a “sweet spot” that a team can hit in its age demographic, and the Flyers remain fairly far away from it.
Until they find it, it’s on their most experienced and important players to establish an example, a standard, and maintain it, and the Flyers’ inconsistency over time has spoken for Giroux’s and Voracek’s abilities in this regard. The team is 5-5-1 through 11 games. It was 4-7 last season. It was 6-5 the season before that. Out of the playoffs in ‘19. In the playoffs in ‘18. Out of the playoffs in ‘17. At some point, these slow starts stop being about the head coach. Of course not all of this history and burden falls on just Giroux and Voracek, but two things can be true about the Flyers at once. They need that pair to be better, and they need to be patient with their young players. Perhaps if the former happened, the latter would happen faster.
“Starting the right way, playing the right way, starts with your top players,” Vigneault said. “It starts with their leadership, their involvement in making sure that everybody is dialed in, tuned in. I want those guys to step up and show us the way.”
By now, Voracek had left the locker room. Giroux had, too, several minutes earlier. Their head coach, the most credible one they’ve had in years, hadn’t asked them for more. He had demanded it. On Friday night, the Flyers play their third straight divisional game, in Newark against the Devils. Your move, boys.