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Meltzer: Vigneault Arrives

My immediate reaction from the Alain Vigneault Press Conference

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

What can Flyers fans expect from new head coach Alain Vigneault? While past performance is not a guarantee of future results, the 57-year-old veteran of 1,216 regular season NHL games and 139 Stanley Cup playoff games coached has a vision of the type of identity he wants for his new team. 

"In today's NHL, you have to play with pace, taking our game to other team. Forwards have to support the defense, and defensemen should be able to support up ice," said Vigneault.

Apart from Vigneault's track record of previous coaching success in the NHL, including two trips to the Stanley Cup Final and three regular season President's Trophies, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said that his own vision of how he wants the team to play meshes well with the characteristics of Vigneault's top teams in Vancouver and New York after getting his NHL coaching start in Montreal.  

Fletcher, like Vigneault, envisions a Flyers team than plays with pace and is committed to a 200-foot game -- a grueling way to play with consistency -- but is also disciplined in terms of puck management, line changes and minimizing bad penalties. 

Apart from the preparation aspect ahead of games, Fletcher believes that Vigneault is one of the NHL's top in-game coaches on the bench; analyzing what's going on and adjusting personnel and tactics as necessary. 

For his part, Vigneault said there were three things that attracted him to the Flyers. 

"First thing I was looking for was an opportunity to win. An opportunity in the short term to win a Stanley Cup. When I look at and analyze the parts we have here in Philly, when I look at and analyze the options that we have in improving this team, it gets a check mark from me. Second thing that I was looking for in my next opportunity was the possibility to work with a general manager that shared a lot of the same ideas as far as building a winner, building a hockey culture that develop players, made this a possible high-end winning environment, and a place where players, coaches, management would want to be. After having a few in-depth discussions with Chuck, that got another check mark," Vigneault said.

The third component, according to Vigneault, is management that is willing to do what it takes to get the needed tools into the hands of the coaches and players.

"In today's competitive NHL, to be able to win, you need a total commitment from ownership. There's no doubt we have that here. My three check marks were there. I had a very good, straight and honest conversation with Chuck. Felt very comfortable," Vigneault said.

Fletcher noted before the Vigneault hire that, beyond systems and selective roster changes, he believes a change in mindsight and on-ice habits are needed from the team. Vigneault will need to obtain -- and maintain -- buy-in from his players, from the core group right on down the roster.

Generally speaking, he is not typically a fiery type behind the bench or when addressing players in the locker room. He usually keeps his messages straight to the point. For the most part, he believes that leadership comes from within the locker room, with guidance from the coaches.

"Throughout my time, I've felt and I believe that the best form of leadership is the one where a player has the power to influence. You can influence in many different ways. Vocal leadership, leadership by example, leadership by helping. That's true to one's self. Every person is different. Every person brings something different to the table," Vigneault said.

However, this can vary from player to player, and according to the situation. In blogging about his player management style for MSG.com, Vigneault wrote on Sept. 14, 2017, that he sees his role in dealing with players primarily as "giving players strategies to help them exploit the other team's weaknesses." The method of delivery can vary.

Vigneault elaborated in his blog, "I have to understand what each player needs to excel. Some need soft love. If I raise my voice in certain situations, I've lost them. Others need tough love. They say in golf, that to succeed you have to 'stay in the zone.' The same is true in hockey. You have to block out all the white noise."

In terms of his demeanor and day-to-day approach to preparation, Vigneault has always been a believer in working as a group leader rather than as an individual. He stays in frequent communication not only with his team's general manager, assistant coaches and video coach for overall input but also with his organization's head pro scouts, analytics director and others with specialized knowledge. The word "consensus" comes up a lot with Vigneault. 

Case in point: Speaking to The Providence on June 10, 2007, then-Canucks coach Vigneault said of his nomination for the Jack Adams Award -- he won -- that being a head coach is about teamwork not only on the ice but also behind the scenes.

"When we have to make decisions on player personnel or systems, we are usually able to come to a consensus. And when we're not, I have to make a final decision. But 90 percent of the time, we talk about it and we're able to work it out... That's people working together. That's people putting their egos aside," Vigneault said.

Vigneault believes that players pick up on whether there's a united front between the coaching staff and the front office, and they, too, are more likely to forge a cohesive direction and identity that is aligned with placing team goals above personal ones. 

This process starts well before the first puck drops at training camp. The immediate order of business now for Vigneault is to work with Fletcher in forming an assistant coaching staff. Thereafter, as the team's roster comes together over the summer, Vigneault and the staff will gear up for camp in September. While coaching the Rangers, Vigneault blogged about this process for MSG.com. Once again, he used the word "consensus" to describe the desired strategic goal:

"For three days in early August, in a hotel conference room on Manhattan's East Side, we huddled, my coaching staff and I, to take stock of our team and map out the year ahead. Over binders filled with stats and scouting reports, and between maybe a thousand video clips, we brainstormed on how... to make it click. With an eye toward maximizing the talents of each player, we broke the game down to its fine points, and when we parted, we had homework assignments. Each of us drew up schemes on the style and strategy that fits us best, in all zones of the ice, skating with and without the puck, from back-checking to special teams. When we regathered a few weeks later, we had a consensus," Vigneault wrote.

Vigneault places a strong emphasis on his team "playing fast" and consistently replicating these traits: quick retrievals, quick puck movement on the breakout, quick decision-making, consistent puck support. Defensemen are encouraged to join the attack as trailers or on intelligent pinches but not to try to lead it. 

Ideally, Vigneault's team generates more controlled offensive zone entries than dump-ins. Players are instructed similarly to the message that Scott Gordon tried to deliver this past season: open ice will dictate what to do. If there's open ice ahead of the puck carrier, make a play. If the only open ice is behind the defenders, dump the puck in and regroup.

Characteristically, a Vigneault team's offensive zone forecheck is not especially aggressive nor is he a fan of low-to-high plays with the puck as a primary option. In most seasons, his teams are not near the top of the league in terms of volume of shots generated, but there is an emphasis on shot quality. The neutral zone forecheck is designed to make it difficult for opposing teams to generate controlled entries of their own, and to create turnovers and short-ice counter attacks. 

Vigneault's teams tend to give up a pretty high number of shots; as long as the shots are mostly to the perimeter and clear sighted for his goaltender, the coach is OK with it. Defensive zone play prioritizes taking away the inside, players recognizing where to go and whom to cover, defensemen making a good first pass and forwards providing viable outlets on breakouts. The old-school method of clearing the zone -- going around the boards or chipping pucks off the glass -- is discouraged except as a last resort to relieve pressure.

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