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System Analysis: Vigneault on Identity and Preparation

Final part in the series at examines the new coaching staff and their system

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer /

New Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault and his assistants -- newcomers Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo as well as holdover staff members Ian Laperriere (in a reconfigured role), goalie coach Kim Dillabaugh and video coach Adam Patterson -- have already had some preliminary staff-wide discussions.

Along with general manager Chuck Fletcher, there is a belief that the team needs to establish a clear-cut identity on the ice. The systems and the expectation for players to be accountable for staying on-system must be established early in training camp and adhered to throughout the season. 

"Philosophically speaking, we want to be a team that takes pride in playing the right way. That takes work. It means we get into good habits and paying attention to detail consistently. Consistency is where you raise the bar. It's all about consistency in those terms you hear a lot: playing 200 feet, playing with pace, clean breakouts, good gaps, puck support, giving our goalies a chance to make saves. It means our goalies step up for us. I know that every team talks about those things. But the really good teams don't just talk about it, they do it and do it consistently. That's where we need our team to get to," Vigneault said.

What will the specific systems be: breakouts, entries, forecheck, neutral zone play, defensive coverage responsibilities, special teams, etc.? Those will be determined before the start of the season.

It is customary around the NHL for coaching staffs to get together in August for a series of in-depth meetings that cover an array of topics. In the case of a brand new staff, there is a lot of time spent on discussing system details and the personnel responsible for executing them. 

In big-picture terms, Vigneault explained what he and the other coaches will be doing in the weeks to come. Much of the systems-related detail will come together at a series of daily meetings in August, and then reviewed, and more or less set, come early September.

"It's a week-long brainstorming session. We're going to spend a lot of time on systems and our players, but that's not the only thing we cover. I want everyone who has a hand in what we do to come in with their ideas, and we'll discuss them. It's lots of thing. We'll talk about how we want our farm system guys to play so they can step in when they're called up. Maybe someone will want to talk about a sports science article they saw and wanted our people to know about. Maybe it's a practice drill you want to try out. Maybe it's something you noticed during a video session the day before. These are just examples. It can be a lot of things, but whatever it is, let's talk about it," Vigneault said.

In preparation for the upcoming meetings, all of the attendees are currently gathering their ideas both individually and based on previous discussions over the summer.

"Wherever I've coached, I've told the staff the same thing. Come in with ideas and an open mind. There's no such thing as a stupid suggestion at these meetings. We'll all bring our big note books. We'll do video sessions. We'll cover as much ground as we can, and then we'll leave with homework for everyone to do before we get together again. The Tuesday after Labor Day, we'll have another meeting and that's where our training camp agenda will largely get set, although there can also be some changes. Then you go through camp, see what you have and you adjust as necessary before you go into the [regular] season," Vigneault said.

Throughout his NHL head coaching career, Vigneault's staffs have usually included at least one assistant who has previous NHL head coaching experience: Dave King in Montreal, Rick Bowness in Vancouver, Scott Arniel and, later, Lindy Ruff with the New York Rangers. There were also typically a couple of holdover assistants from the previous regime. 

The same has happened in Philadelphia, with the hiring of former NHL head coaches Therrien and Yeo as assistants and the retention of Laperriere, Dillabaugh and Patterson. 

"I've been fortunate in my coaching career to surround myself with really good, bright hockey people. That's for two reasons. First, it's gotten results. We've done a lot of winning together that way. Second, those guys make me look good. As the head coach, you are looking at the big picture, and the assistants look at the details in the areas they coach. They notice things, bring them to my attention. They suggest good adjustments. You'll never have all the answers by yourself as a coach. So you need good people around you, and an experienced staff around you can help a lot," Vigneault said. 

On most issues, including systems, the head coach gets the final say on what the team will and will not do. However, Vigneault said that he prefers to work by consensus. He encourages dissenting opinions as topics and details get discussed before decisions are made. 

"Sometimes you come in with an idea and you have all these reasons why we should do it. Everyone should listen. But then maybe as you process it, someone else has reasons why we shouldn't do it. You talk about the pros and cons. Most of the time, in my experience, we come to a consensus by the end," Vigneault said. 

Vigneault said that he is open to lots of different possibilities with his Flyers roster, not only for systems details but also for the arrangement of his personnel. 

For example, some coaches -- especially in more recent years -- have a preference for regular "pairs" on forward lines (a center with a particular winger) and a rotating third member of the line. Some still seek out steady trios, while others change up both wingers on a line on a regular basis.
"I don't have one thing that I go with all the time. It really depends. For example, when I was in Vancouver, the Sedin twins were together about 95 percent of the time but at first we rotated a lot of guys on the other wings. But eventually, Alex Burrows clicked with Henrik and Daniel and they became a trio that we used together most of the time. With other lines, I would change things more often," Vigneault recalled.

In other areas, Vigneault does have some specific preferences. 

"Ideally, I like to pair a left shot defenseman with a right shot defenseman, on their natural side. With Chuck bringing in [Matt] Niskanen and [Justin] Braun, we might be able to do that on all three of our pairs," he said. 

In addition to the aforementioned veteran defenseman, youngster Philippe Myers is vying for a right defense spot on the Flyers roster. Vigneault was not as familiar with Myers as the other two, but started to form some observations when he coached Myers on Team Canada at the recent IIHF World Championships in Slovakia.

"He flew over on short notice, because we were in a bind with injuries, and he was the next guy up on our depth list. He hadn't skated in about a month [since the Flyers did not make the playoffs], but he came right over and was in our lineup. It took him a few days to get going, which was to be expected, but he started to settle in and got better and better," Vigneault said.

"I like a lot of what I saw in him. He has very high potential. I like that he's righthanded. Big size. Big shot. Very good skater and range. He's still raw in his details but there's a lot we can work with."

Vigneault said -- as have both Fletcher and Yeo -- that the acquistions of Niskanen and Braun were made for two reasons. First was to balance three pairings and add a pair of veterans accustomed to playing 20-plus minutes on winning teams. Secondly, it was to provide leadership for the younger defensemen in order to help put them in the best possible situation to succeed. 

"When you have guys who can play some of those tough minutes and do the hard things that don't really show up for them on the [stat] sheet, it can make things easier on other guys to do their thing. Shift to shift, it's like putting together a puzzle," Vigneault said.

Sometimes, Vigneault said, lineup decisions get made not because of dissatisfaction with one player or line but, instead, to help spark another player or line that may need a boost. 

"Every team needs to do this," he said. "People sometimes don't understand why this player is with that one or why you moved this guy off that line. You do it because you need balance on your lines, and because one guy might add a particular element that can help someone else. An easy example is a playmaker and a finisher, but it might be that the third guy is a good forechecker or he can help the two-way play on the line.

Vigneault said that the addition of Kevin Hayes to the Flyers roster is not an indictment of Nolan Patrick. He sees it as a means of making the Flyers deeper and helping Patrick to flourish in his third season in the league.

"I have talked about Patrick a lot with Chuck, and also talked some with Scott Gordon. Having Kevin here should benefit Nolan in developing into the kind of player we all think he will become," Vigneault said. 
Last season, Patrick had five goals and 11 points at the statistical midpoint of the season, and eight goals and 23 points in the second half. However, from Jan. 14 to Feb. 16 of this season, Patrick had a 13-game run in the second half where he produced 12 points, including a pair of two-goal games and the first three-point game of his NHL career.

Underlying Patrick's surge was a lineup depth chart move by then head coach Gordon to move Claude Giroux back from left wing to center for several weeks, have Sean Couturier centering the second line and moving Patrick to the third line. The move did not benefit Giroux offensively but Patrick had his most productive stretch of the season during that time. 

Similarly, Vigneault believes that having Patrick as the third center of a 1-2-3 punch with Couturier and Hayes will be beneficial to Patrick's game without overtaxing Giroux by taking off left wing. 

"With Couturier and Hayes slotted into the situations they'll probably play, we can also get Nolan into matchups that will be favorable for him and his line. At the same time, he can continue to develop, and we can be better as a team for that. You don't want to talk about first line, second line, third line, fourth line. You want everyone to be able to be effective for you, and contribute in different ways. That takes depth," Vigneault said. 

"When I look at our roster, I like what we have to work with. Before I came here, I told Chuck that I've done a lot in my coaching career [Stanley Cup Finals with two different teams, a Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year, winning the President's Trophy in the regular season] but I've never won the Stanley Cup. That's what drives me." 

What will it take for the Flyers to take next steps? 

"Three ingredients: strong goaltending, depth at every position including goalie, good work habits, and consistent reinforcement of 200-foot play," Vigneault said. 

During his previous stops in the NHL, Vigneault has been had outstanding clear-cut number one goaltenders on his roster with Roberto Luongo in Vancouver and Henrik Lundqvist in New York. While he said that he is extremely high on the upside of Carter Hart, with whom Vigneault got a first-hand look with Team Canada at the Worlds, the new Flyers head coach wants to avoid a situation where he places too much burden on the 21-year-old throughout the season.

"I think the days were you see one goalie play 65 games -- or 70 to 75 with a guy like Martin Brodeur -- are done. You need two guys who play for you with some frequency during the regular season. More and more, I think teams are using a model like the one Boston had this season. They split the time between Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak pretty evenly, and then went with Rask during the playoffs. With all the back-to-back, three-in-four, four-in-six games on the schedule these days, I think you have to do it that way or you will wear your goalie down. I anticipate that we'll get a lot of work for both Carter and Brian Elliott and then, in the playoffs, the model may change," Vigneault said.

In terms of play in front of the netminders, Vigneault reiterated that he 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 will be instructed similarly to the message that 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. 

"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," Vigneault said.

Within the defensive zone, Vigneault said he focuses more on the shot quality against than the quantity. As long as the shots on his team's net 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. 

In most of Vigneault's preferred systems, 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. Clean breakouts with possession have been a major area of emphasis.

These are all simply general parameters of how Vigneault wants his team to play. Within these ideals -- and within the specific details of the systems -- Vigneault believes in letting his players be creative.

"I think you can get in the way as a coach if you aren't careful. 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," he said.

In recent season, the Flyers have been prone to extremely streaky play during the campaign: trying to climb uphill after November or December swoons and then getting hot to climb in the standing as the stretch drive approached. Too often, long winning streaks would be canceled out by long losing spells. Slow starts in games would often be followed by dominant middle frames or vice versa. Giving up the game's first goal happened far too frequently. Additionally, goaltending injuries and instability were major factors.

Vigneault said that he doesn't have a diagnosis for everything that caused the team's streakiness that led to playoff bubble status (or missing the postseason entirely). However, he does believe that he has a grasp on what it will take to move decisively beyond that stage.
"That's a hard question for me, the inconsistency. I wasn't here. I can't really say exactly why the team would win 6 or 8 or 10 but also lose 6 or 8 or 10. What I can say from my own experience, and it's something Chuck has talked about, is that consistency comes from good habits. You're always going to have ups and downs but when you have those good habits, then losing two or three probably doesn't become losing six or eight. It's great to get on a roll. That's fun for everyone. But you can't let bad habits start to come in, or else maybe you lose another five or six after you do get beat once or twice," Vigneault said.

Vigneault said that his goal is not to be satisfied with simply getting back into the playoffs. His goal is to help put his team in position to play much deeper into the spring. 

"I said this when I took the job: I want to win, now and in the future. I wasn't looking for a rebuilding situation. I'm here to win a Stanley Cup, and the Flyers can be that team. I wouldn't have come to a team where I didn't think there will be the total commitment to doing that. We've got a lot of work to do, but we've got a good roster. Chuck, all of our coaches, our players and me personally, we all want the same thing. I am really excited to get going with our group," Vigneault said.

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