While the title on his office door reads “Hockey Coach,’’ Alain Vigneault’s job description also could very well include team psychologist.
The day Chuck Fletcher hired Vigneault last year, the Flyers’ general manager made it clear he wanted a culture change in Philadelphia.
In just one season, Vigneault has done that – from fitness, diet and rest to attitude, approach and accountability.
So it came as no surprise this past Monday when “AV’’ spent a portion of his media conference call addressing the production – or lack of it – during the playoffs. Specifically, the veteran performers.
Vigneault indicated he wanted to see his “older’’ players re-dedicate themselves to better conditioning during the offseason.
That alone would have been pretty powerful stuff. But then the coach started naming names, including a trio of over-30s: Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek and James van Riemsdyk.
While many took that message at face value, some second thought might reveal the sermon was directed at everyone and we mean everyone – from all the players, to ownership, to the coaching staff, to the fans, to the media and so forth.
What Vigneault might have been saying was: I want more from my leaders, because they’re the ones who inspire everybody else. When they do well, our team does well.
And he’s right. People have been waiting years for high-salaried players such as the aforementioned to come through in the big moments.
In essence, the coach was saying it was nice to win a playoff series for the first time since 2012 and push all the way to Game 7 of the second round.
But it’s not enough. Not in Vigneault’s world, which includes trips to the Stanley Cup Final with two different teams (Vancouver, the New York Rangers). Both those outfits didn’t have the talent of Boston and Los Angeles respectively, yet those two series were highly competitive.
All season long, Vigneault made it a point to name a player who wasn’t performing up to his potential, so Monday’s proclamation shouldn’t come as a shocker.
Vigneault inherited a roster which pretty much had most of its pieces in place. Newcomers included Kevin Hayes, Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, with others such as Nate Thompson, Derek Grant and rookies Joel Farabee and Nicolas Aube-Kubel entering the picture along the way.
It’s not easy to “change the culture’’ quickly when a team is so set in its ways. A coach should move somewhat delicately at first, knowing when a mutual trust has finally developed.
However, the time to worry about hurt feelings is over. That train has left the station for good. While Vigneault isn’t a Mike Keenan or a Peter Laviolette, he can be tough when he has to and Monday was one of those moments.
“I believe that we’ve got a lot of personal growth that we can do within our group,’’ Vigneault said. “We had the most first-year players that played their first NHL game this year. We’ve got quite a few young players that are coming into their best possible game and have learned a tremendous amount about playing the right way this year. They are going to learn a tremendous amount from our playoff experience and losing that Game 7.
“I also believe that our veteran players, the Girouxs, Voraceks and van Riemsdyks, guys that are little older, they understand where they are in their game and the evolution of their game. I believe I can help them get their game better.’’
He already did with this call to arms. And the purpose of that was to tell anyone who would listen that everyone is accountable. There can be no more reasons for failure.
When Giroux was asked about his postseason performance (one goal in 16 games), he acknowledged he could have played better. Then he offered some pushback about fitness by stating he always comes to training camp in the best shape possible.
Maybe so. But the guy players should really emulate is 23-year-old defenseman Ivan Provorov, who eats, sleeps and breathes hockey conditioning.
It will be interesting to see. . .no, make that compelling to see, where Vigneault takes this group from here.
Can these players advance on what they accomplished in 2019-20? Will they show the world they are more like the February-March Flyers team than the August-September one? And will the players continue to willingly take marching orders from a demanding coach?
With the exception of Fred Shero, all the great coaches in Flyers history have lasted only three or four years.
The clock is ticking.
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