As the 2019 Flyer-less playoffs began, I found myself researching some of the more entertaining playoff series of the last decade. Even without an allegiance to a Pennsylvania team, everyone should have the 2012 series between the Keystone State rivals in their top five. But that’s a story for another time. I was soon immersed in a series I can’t recall watching during it’s time—the 2011 Western Conference Quarterfinal between Chicago and Vancouver.
The matchup featured a bevy of story lines. This was the third consecutive year they met in the postseason. The Blackhawks, under Joel Quenneville, won the last two series and were the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Canucks, headed by Alain Vigneault, had won the Presidents’ Trophy that year.
The series was a grueling seven-game battle that saw the top-seeded Canucks narrowly avoid the reverse sweep after losing a 3-0 series lead, finally expelling the Blackhawks from the playoffs in their third consecutive attempt. Vancouver played with a nasty edge you wouldn’t find in today’s NHL. They combined gruesome hits with puck possession and an all-out offensive attack. Vancouver was one of the most feared teams in the NHL that year.
Well, that, and they played Raffi Torres on a nightly basis. But I digress…
Had the Canucks’ rise in prominence not coincided with the Blackhawks’ dynasty, we may be singing a different tune today. What infatuated me with the 2011 Canucks’ style of play was their attention to detail. They did not often lose 50/50 puck battles, their backcheckers worked relentlessly to negate odd-man rushes, and no one got in front of Roberto Luongo without some welts and bruises. That brand of hockey brought the Canucks to within one game of the team’s first Stanley Cup.
Vigneault brought those same systems to the 2013-14 New York Rangers. New York was another team with an elite goalie, but this one had a much less impressive roster in front of him. Alain returned to the Stanley Cup Final that year but fell short to the Los Angeles Kings. The Rangers eventually relieved him of his duties after five seasons. During his Vancouver and New York tenures, he won the Presidents’ Trophy more times than he missed the playoffs.
Is Past Prologue?
This sprung some thoughts in my head. What if he brought similar systems and the same accountability of leadership to this Philadelphia Flyers team that desperately needs a shift in philosophy? Could I forgive Vigneault’s heavy reliance on veterans and apparent stunting of his young players’ development?
Questions about Alain’s struggles developing young talent are not baseless, but the answer may not be as black and white as some believe. His 2014 Rangers roster relied heavily on young talent complemented by veterans who still had gas in the tank. Their top 10 scorers included six players under 27 and only one over 30. The same group of players carried the team through the playoffs, with 24-year-old defenseman Ryan McDonagh, 23-year-old top center Derek Stepan and 22-year-old rookie Chris Kreider leading the way.
That Monday morning when the Flyers named Vigneault the 21st coach in team history came with mixed reviews and shock. Alain, quoted by Adam Kimelman of NHL.com, said in his introductory press conference, “There’s not one coach that will not play a player that will permit him to win. I firmly believe that talent has no age. If a guy who’s 19 can step in and help the Flyers win and be competitive, he’s going to play. Talent has no age.”
These words sobered some of the doubters who pointed to the coach’s tendencies to lean on veterans at the expense of young talent. He infamously glued Dan Girardi to Ryan McDonagh’s hip for most of his tenure. Vigneault also struggled to find a spot for Pavel Buchnevich, who headlined a prospect pool of less-than-inspiring futures for the crumbling New York Rangers.
A Good Fit in Philly
The Flyers boasted an average age of 26.5 entering the 2018-19 season. Most expect a slight rise in that number after the dust of the offseason settles. Interestingly enough, several key members of Vigneault’s former teams are unrestricted free agents this off-season, including Carl Hagelin (Yes), Kevin Hayes (Oh yes), Mats Zuccarello (Ok), Derick Brassard (What happened to you?) Alex Edler (Meh), Anton Stralman (No thanks) and Dan Girardi (Please, God, no). And Chuck Fletcher and company have money in the bank to reward Alain with some of his favorite toys.
The Philadelphia Flyers already boast a roster that, on paper, could contend for the Metropolitan Division. It’s talented enough to exorcise the demons of their three first-round exists since 2012-13. Philadelphia offers Vigneault arguably the best mix of youth and vets he’s ever controlled. Couple that with a promising young goaltender and world-class mascot, and Vigneault has the ultimate opportunity to show what he’s made of. He may finally cross off his final bucket list item, the Stanley Cup.
And if he brings Tanner Glass out of retirement, we burn the city to the ground. It wouldn’t be his first riot.