Short-term evaluations of hockey teams and their coaches are always a bit subjective because of the usual mitigating circumstances, be it injuries, schedule and/or individual player up-and-down performances.
Which is why any speculation about Flyers coach Alain Vigneault’s future is just that, speculation.
Questions are being asked, and perhaps rightly so, whether this hockey team is still responding to what its coach wants. You know the old line about how teams in any professional sport start to tune out a coach after a certain number of years.
Usually it takes the Flyers about four times around the block to get bored with the same old message. In their 54-plus year history, only Hall of Famer Fred Shero made it into and past season five and it took him two Stanley Cup titles just to make it to seven, where it ended.
Vigneault, who is only in his third season, couldn’t get the Flyers to respond well enough to make the playoffs last season and, while the aforementioned injuries and schedule have been brutal realities during this seven-game winless streak, there are critics who say even with a full lineup and an offseason busy with the addition of new players, things look pretty much the same around here.
During a Tuesday press conference scheduled for the first-quarter mark of the season, general manager Chuck Fletcher indicated he has no intention of making any coaching changes at this time. Whether he changes his mind if the Flyers don’t make the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since the early ‘90s remains to be seen.
“A lot of the things we wanted to correct was how we defended in-zone, defending against rush, giving up fewer odd man rushes, our PK, our overall goals against and goaltending. All of those areas were better in the first 10 games,’’ Fletcher said. “We haven’t given up as many odd man rushes as last year. PK has been better. Goaltending has obviously been good. There’s still been some areas of improvement, but the last 10 we slipped in a lot of areas. I think it’s coaching, players, all of us. We are all in this together.’’
With the Flyers entering a stretch of five games in seven days starting Sunday against Tampa Bay, there appears to be a sense of urgency to accrue some points before they tumble even farther out of the projected playoff picture.
Fletcher was speaking in between decisive losses, the first at New Jersey last Sunday (5-2) and Wednesday night’s 4-1 defeat by the Rangers in New York.
“On the one hand, clearly, we have some work to do if you want to compete with the top teams in the league,’’ Fletcher said. “On the other hand, this is the toughest stretch we’re going through and when you go through the end of next week in terms of compression of the schedule and the quality of the teams we’re playing. It’s tough and we’re not playing well right now. It makes it a double-edged sword. I’d like to get some guys back here. Let’s get through the next little stretch. Let’s try to win a game and let’s see what we have. In saying that, the coaches were here all day yesterday (Monday). The mood on the ice is still great. The guys still believe we can win, but it’s on us now to find a way to win a game.’’
Indeed. Judging a team on its first 20 games or even 40 can be done at one’s peril. Remember three years ago when St. Louis was buried in last place in the first week of January and then had coach Craig Berube lead them all the way back to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since the Blues’ inception in 1967?
It’s not like Vigneault arrived here with an unproven resume, as was the case with his predecessor, Dave Hakstol. Vigneault has been to a pair of Stanley Cup Finals, albeit with victories in neither, but he does have a career winning percentage of .632, which is .99 points higher than the record of New York Islander coach Barry Trotz (.533), who does have a Cup ring.
And oh, by the way, Trotz’ team went into weekend action without a win in nine straight games and, yes, the Isles have been hit hard by COVID and a 13-game road trip to start the season, but there hasn’t been any grumbling about the job he’s doing.
The bottom line is this: While the Blues did watch Berube perform nothing short of a miracle, the odds of a coaching change in midseason completely turning a team around are long at best. Let’s give this more time to play out before jumping to any hasty decisions.