PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 18: Head Coach of the Philadelphia Flyers Alain Vigneault looks on from his bench during his game against the Los Angeles Kings on January 18, 2020 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
At news conferences, Alain Vigneault, who is in his first year as the Flyers’ head coach, can sometimes come across as Dean Martin or Jimmy Fallon.
He is engaging, funny, and doesn’t take himself too seriously.
That said, he DID become a serious candidate for the Jack Adams Award, given to the NHL’s coach of the year.
His credentials are solid: Vigneault directed the Flyers to a 41-21-7 record in the pandemic-shortened regular season and to a second-place finish (one point behind Washington) in the Metropolitan Division.
The Flyers were on pace for 106 points, 24 more than last season. They made the biggest improvement of any NHL team.
“I think his experience is most important in tie games, close games,” right winger Jake Voracek said late in the regular season. “When it goes down to the wire, he doesn’t lose his cool. He’s always real calm and I think that comes from past coaching. It’s been a fun change, and I think you can tell by the way we play” [that the calmness translates to the players.] “I think we’re playing better hockey than ever.”
Vigneault, 59, who had a brief NHL career as a defenseman with the St. Louis Blues, is always at ease with the media. He can be analytical and thought-provoking, but he can also be downright amusing.
After a hard-fought 3-2 win over powerful Washington on Jan. 8 at the Wells Fargo Center, for instance, Vigneault was asked about the team’s home-road disparity this season.
“You know, at this time right now, I’m going home and I’m going to have a martini and enjoy the win,” he said, “and I’m going to get back to you on that.”
Beyond the affable personality is a brilliant hockey mind of someone who has the 10th most wins (689) in NHL history. And while general manager Chuck Fletcher’s shrewd offseason moves have contributed greatly to the Flyers’ success, Vigneault has been the biggest reason for the turnaround.
Right from the start, he held players accountable, something that wasn’t always done by Dave Hakstol, who coached the team from 2015-16 until partway through the 2018-19 season.
Vigneault’s coaching style has endeared him to Philly fans.
Whether you are a star-making $8 million a year or a fourth-line forward, Vigneault treats everyone the same. Produce and you will get lots of playing time. Falter and you will be demoted to a lower line or be benched.
“Obviously he’s a demanding coach,” said Voracek, who was briefly demoted to the fourth line earlier this season but was on the top unit when the regular season was suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak and later declared finished, “and if you don’t play the right way, you’ll find your ice time is a little bit cut short. But the next day is a new day and he’s going to focus on the next game.”
“You know where you stand with him,” said center Kevin Hayes, who played under Vigneault for four seasons when he coached the Rangers. Having Vigneault in Philadelphia, Hayes said, was one of the main reasons he signed with the Flyers.
Vigneault is a great communicator, say his players, and he’s “very detail-oriented,” left winger James van Riemsdyk said. “I actually haven’t played for a coach like that since I played with the U.S. program, where you know the drills before the practice, which is really nice because then there’s no reason to screw things up out there.”
Vigneault, known as “AV,” has been around the block. This is his 17th season as an NHL head coach, and he had stints in Montreal, Vancouver, and New York (Rangers) before being hired by the Flyers after last season, becoming the 21st bench boss in franchise history.
“One thing I’ve really liked about him is how smart he is and how progressive he is about knowing when to push us a little bit in practice and when to give us those days off,” van Riemsdyk said.
Before the season was paused, van Riemsdyk said that physically and mentally, “this is the freshest I’ve felt and I think that has a lot to do with how he does things.”
The Flyers’ regular-season success didn’t surprise Vigneault. Before the season, he said he liked the team’s size and skill. “I feel good about this group,” he said. “I like the skill set. I like the youth that’s pushing up.”
The Flyers, he said, remind him of the 2006-07 team he took over in Vancouver—one led by the young Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik—and helped the Canucks make a 13-point improvement in his first season and play two playoff rounds.
“It was a young team on the uprise; they were making changes. They brought in [Roberto] Luongo in goal, and it was a team that sort of needed direction in building,” he said. “It took me five years before bringing it to the Stanley Cup [Finals], but we built it and we came one win shy from winning it all. This has a lot of the same components.”
When the playoffs are expected to begin in August, the Flyers will be aiming for their first Stanley Cup since 1975. Vigneault has been to the Finals twice but has never won the Cup.
The Flyers had won nine of their last ten games before the season was paused, climbing into second place and establishing themselves as Cup contenders.
Will they be able to regain their momentum?
“That is going to be our challenge,” Vigneault said. “We were playing our best hockey of the season at that time. I don’t think we can go into this showing any signs of emotional frustration. The world has been put on pause and with what people are going through right now, when we come back, we can help them by doing the best job we can as far as playing on the ice. We’ll be exactly like everyone else. We’ll have the exact amount of time” to get ready.
During their nine-game winning streak, which, as it turned out, came toward the end of the regular season, the Flyers led the league in scoring (4.33 goals per game) and allowed the second-fewest goals per game (1.89).
“Our team was in a good place and it’s going to be all our jobs—from coaches to management to players—to get back to that good spot we were in,” said Vigneault, a Quebec City native. “Teams have to improve during the season, and I believe that’s what we were doing in all aspects of our game. We were getting better individually and as a team.”
The players deserve a bulk of the credit, but Vigneault has pushed all the right buttons. Being away from the game the previous year—he had been fired by Rangers—seemed to agree with him.
During his year away from the sport, Vigneault watched some hockey but didn’t go overboard. Instead, he spent more quality time with his two grown daughters, reconnected with close friends, and basically enjoyed himself and his freedom.
“I made the most out of my time away from the game,” he said in his charming French-Canadian accent. “I spent some time with my family. I bought a place in Florida and played a lot of golf and tennis and lost 10 pounds. I watched hockey, but I was watching more as a fan than anything else.
“I rejuvenated myself, mentally and physically,” he added.
This season, Vigneault got another extended break. Assuming the NHL’s 2019-20 tournament starts in August, it will be close to five months since teams were playing games.
During the latest break, Vigneault went to his home in South Florida for a while, then traveled to Gatineau, Quebec, and spent time with his girlfriend, Monica Cotton, who is an emergency nurse in Ottawa. She has been “on the forefront” of the coronavirus, Vigneault said.
Vigneault has kept in touch with his coaching staff during the break and plotted ways to help his team regain its mojo. He also spent time getting involved in the Flyers’ Phone-Linemates program, one in which weekly calls are made to people living at the Abramson Senior Care Center in North Wales, Pa., Montgomery County.
“It’s just a small little thing we can do,” he said. “My parents are 84 and 86 and they’re both in their senior residence. They’ve both been isolated since day one (of the coronavirus outbreak). My mom has had a little more challenging time, mentally, in the past few months, but my dad is still as sharp as he can be.
“There’s no doubt that with him going through this by himself, he’s very lonely. So when the Flyers brought this program to my attention, there were a couple in my group that talked about it. It’s something we felt that if we can help in any minuscule way, we wanted to.”
Now his attention is on hockey and trying to direct the Flyers, who haven’t won a playoff series since 2012, to their first overall title in 45 years. Vigneault coached the Rangers and Vancouver to the Finals but has never won the Stanley Cup.
“I felt coming in that we were going to get into the playoffs and have an opportunity to challenge for the Cup,” he said before the long break in the season. “I haven’t changed my mind.”
In his office at the Flyers’ practice facility in Voorhees, Vigneault keeps a miniature-sized Stanley Cup on his office desk to “remind myself that’s why we’re in this job.”
It’s a job he loves. A job, he said, that won’t feel complete until get gets to hoist the Stanley Cup one of these years.