The crowd of reporters filling the elevator foyer at the bottom of the Wells Fargo Center numbered more than 30 as the clock ticked past 5 p.m. Thursday, some speaking English, some murmuring French, all waiting for Alain Vigneault.
The Flyers had beaten the St. Louis Blues the night before, losing an hour on the trip home once they crossed back into Eastern Standard Time, so they’d held no morning skate, and Vigneault was a few minutes late for his meeting with the media before Thursday night’s game against his old team — one of his old teams, to be precise — the Montreal Canadiens.
“Holy ---,” he said when he exited the locker room and saw the size of the group. “You beat the Stanley Cup champions, you get more people.”
That overtime victory over the Blues wasn’t the only reason everyone was there. The Canadiens were Vigneault’s first team as an NHL head coach, a natural story line. The Flyers were his fourth, and at the moment, 48 games into his first season here, he is in a comfortable place, despite his team’s inconsistency.
The Flyers’ four previous games had been against arguably the league’s best teams — the Washington Capitals, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Boston Bruins, the Blues — and they had won three of them, before their 4-1 loss Thursday. Through a succession of injuries and unfortunate circumstances, the postseason remains a viable possibility.
The Flyers hired Vigneault last summer to get them there. Over his previous 12 seasons, with the Vancouver Canucks and New York Rangers, his teams reached the Stanley Cup Final twice, which was as many times as they failed to qualify for the postseason. He had a track record and the credibility that accompanies it. It’s too early in his tenure for him to have lost that credibility.
And yet … the Flyers are his fourth team. The Canadiens never made the playoffs during Vigneault’s three full seasons with them, so they fired him. The Canucks won the Pacific Division five consecutive years under him, and after the fifth, they fired him. The Rangers had three seasons of at least 100 points under him, and after they missed the playoffs his fourth year, they fired him.
He has had better staying power than most NHL coaches. And yet … the Flyers are his fourth team. What an unforgiving profession.
He estimated that, during his seven years in Vancouver, the NHL’s other five Canadian franchises at the time made “over 20 coaching changes,” and his memory was sharp: I counted exactly 20 among the Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Edmonton Oilers, the Calgary Flames, and the Ottawa Senators. Just this season, seven coaches have been fired. Mike Babcock and Peter Laviolette say goodbye, Alain Nasreddine and Geoff Ward say hello. (Hello, hello …)
If it can feel like there’s a Looney Tunes-style conveyor belt out there, cranking out and recycling NHL coaches, it’s understandable.
The New Jersey Devils fired John Hynes in early December. One month later, the Nashville Predators fired Laviolette after four seasons — they made the playoffs each year and advanced to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final — and replaced him with Hynes.
Just this week, the Vegas Golden Knights fired Gerard Gallant, who two years ago had led them to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. They replaced him with Peter DeBoer, whom the San Jose Sharks had fired in mid-December, three years after he had led them to their first Final appearance.
Success in this sport can feel so arbitrary — a few bounces of the puck here, a hot goalie there — and teams often dare to catch a bolt in a bottle with a new coach. What a crazy way to live, right?
“Coaching is a different business, but it’s great,” Vigneault said. “You’re surrounded by great people. You know, when you get into it, at some point you’re going to lose your job. That’s just part of it. You’ve just got to go in there and do what you think is right and do it to the fullest. That’s what I’m trying to do here in Philly.”
It’s still so early for him here, and he knows that, too. So do his players.
He is not Dave Hakstol or Scott Gordon. He does not have to prove himself, establish his bona fides, to anyone in the locker room. That dynamic gives him power.
It’s funny. Vigneault’s reputation with the Rangers was that of a players’ coach, a softer hand. But based on his willingness to call out the Flyers’ best and highest-paid players when they have been less than stellar — Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, James van Riemsdyk, Kevin Hayes — that perception seems true only in comparison to the coach who preceded Vigneault in New York: the famously bellicose John Tortorella.
Even Thursday, when asked to account for the Flyers’ irregular play this season — when they are good, they are very good, and when they are bad, ugh — Vigneault pointed at his top line: Giroux, Hayes, Travis Konecny.
“I expect more,” he said. “They have gotten some looks, but I expect those guys to be better.”