Alain Vigneault’s time in Philadelphia got off to a tremendous start, leading the team to their first playoff series win in eight years in 2020. But after 78 underwhelming games in the calendar year of 2021 across two seasons, his time with the Flyers has officially come to an end. (Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

Flyers Fire Head Coach Alain Vigneault, Assistant Michel Therrien

Twenty-three games into the 2018-19 season, the Flyers lost by six goals to an Atlantic Division powerhouse and decided enough was enough. A 6-0 beatdown to the Toronto Maple Leafs the day after Black Friday 2018 would be the final game of the Ron Hextall era, the first domino to fall in a period of sweeping change across the organization in the eight months that followed. Three years later, twenty-two games into the 2021-22 season, the Flyers lost by six goals to an Atlantic Division powerhouse and once again decided enough was enough. But instead of starting change at the top this time, the Flyers ushered in changes behind the bench. On Monday morning, the Flyers announced the firing of head coach Alain Vigneault and power-play/assistant coach Michel Therrien.

The Alain Vigneault Era: A Promising Start Derailed By A Sudden Decline

When Alain Vigneault was hired on April 15, 2019, the Philadelphia Flyers were at a crossroads. Instead of taking an expected step forward in 2018-19, the team fell on their faces. The result was the aforementioned midseason dismissal of GM Hextall, head coach Dave Hakstol, and others. Before any of the big moves to improve the team, the Flyers hired Vigneault, who at the time was tied for 12th in NHL coaching wins with 648. Most recently, Vigneault came off a five-season stint with the New York Rangers that saw him beat the Flyers in Round 1 en route to the Stanley Cup Final in his first year (2013-14) and reach the Eastern Conference Final the year after. The Rangers made two relatively quick exits in 2015-16 (1st Round) and 2016-17 (2nd Round) before missing in 2017-18, leading to Vigneault’s exit.

His time in Philadelphia could not have gotten off to a better start. The Flyers flew out of the gates in 2019-20 with dominant possession numbers in October. They earned a franchise-record 24 points in November. Off the ice, Vigneault quickly won fans over with his “money in the bank” mantra holding veterans accountable and affinity for post-win martinis. The first year of the Flyers-Vigneault relationship seemed like a perfect match.

Oskar Lindblom’s cancer diagnosis understandably threw the team for a loop, leading to a three-game losing streak in mid-December and a 1-4-1 road-trip after Christmas. But from January 8 on, the Flyers went 19-6-1, tied with the Boston Bruins for the league’s best record. Their power-play and penalty kill were both top-10, as the Flyers became a stingy defensive team (28.1 shots against per game, 3rd in the NHL) with a lethal forecheck, leading to a solid 51.38% Expected Goals mark over that run. It was enough to earn Vigneault a nomination for the Jack Adams Award for head coach of the year.

That excellence continued early in the bubble, as the Flyers swept the Round Robin in dominant fashion to earn the #1 seed in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Flyers racked up a 55.43% expected goals share and outscored the three best regular-season teams in the East 11-3. Philadelphia wasn’t just merely turning things around under Vigneault; they were soaring to heights unseen in years.

Sure enough, the Flyers did win their first playoff series since 2012 with a six-game victory over the Montréal Canadiens. But in hindsight, this series marked the beginning of a decline that, at least under Vigneault, never ended for the Flyers. Philadelphia was outplayed heavily by the Canadiens, outscored 13-11 over the series and generating just under 40% of the expected goals. It was an unsustainable formula, and sure enough, it didn’t last long. Poor special teams and a 45.02% expected goals mark led to a seven-game defeat to the New York Islanders. But on the whole, it was still an incredibly successful season for Vigneault and the Flyers. And both seemed poised to continue their success into the 2020-21 season.

Outsiders certainly thought they were doing just that, as the Flyers jumped out to a 7-2-1 start, including two revenge victories over the Islanders. But anyone watching the Flyers (including the Flyers themselves) saw a far different story. Philadelphia ranked dead last in Corsi For% (shots attempted divided by (shots attempted + shots allowed)) and 28th in expected goals percentage at the end of January. Before the Flyers could have an earnest chance of turning things around, COVID ravaged the team in February. The result was a gauntlet schedule in March (17 games in 31 days, no strings on consecutive days off) that forced them to either step or be stomped on.

Unfortunately, the latter took place. With little practice time to right the ship and goaltenders Carter Hart and Brian Elliott struggling, the Flyers all but fell apart over the final two and a half months of the season. The Flyers won consecutive games just once from February 1 to the end of the season, hardly masking embarrassing losses like a 9-0 beatdown at the hands of the Rangers and a 6-1 loss to a Sabres team that had previously lost 18 consecutive games.

The Flyers raw play-driving numbers actually improved quite a bit; the team was 3rd in Corsi after their outbreak. But once adjusting for score and venue, important considering how often the Flyers found themselves trailing, their possession numbers were more average than truly good. Yes, that still constituted an improvement over their January marks. But the Flyers hardly looked like a good team to those watching. Defensive breakdowns and forwards blasting out of their own zone without the puck plagued the Flyers down the stretch. In the end, Philadelphia regressed from a 106-point pace in 2019-20 to an 85-point pace clip season.

What Caused This Braeking Point?

The Flyers’ shortcomings last season were far from squarely Vigneault’s fault. The team never replaced top-pair defenseman Matt Niskanen; the resulting trickle-down effect had the Flyers blue-line in scramble mode all season. And as the legendary coach and broadcaster Harry Neale said, “Goaltending is 75% of your team. Unless you don’t have it, then it’s 100%.” And the Flyers certainly didn’t have it last season. Those issues and COVID were obviously out of Vigneault’s control. But his harsh messaging about the team, especially surrounding Carter Hart, and inability to right the ship certainly contributed to last season’s spiral.

Over the summer, Chuck Fletcher did his best to fix the roster holes that caused last season’s disappointment. If the Flyers’ problems were simply due to a stale core, Fletcher’s overhauling of the roster should have solved things. It clearly hasn’t. Yes, the Flyers have dealt with significant injuries all season; they’ve only had their full lineup for one game, and it was the second half of a back-to-back to boot. But there are plenty of teams like the Penguins, Avalanche, and Lightning who have also missed key players for dozens of games but are still winning games or at least driving play, if not both.

Even when the Flyers started 6-2-2, their underlying numbers still weren’t up to snuff; not as bad as last season’s, but still below break-even. Goaltending hasn’t been a weakness; in fact, it’s probably been the team’s biggest strength. Hart and Jones have stopped 8.5 goals above expected (per Moneypuck.com); only five teams have a higher total. “Our process has been off all year,” Fletcher said during his press conference on Monday afternoon. The numbers certainly back up his assertion, both in terms of 5-on-5 play and the man advantage; Vigneault and Michel Therrien’s biggest areas of responsibility, respectively.

RecordExpected Goals%Corsi For%Power-Play%PP Expected Goals Per 60
First 14 Games8-4-247.65% (26th)49.8% (18th)15.6% (25th)6.25 (T-18th)
Last 8 Games0-6-240.18% (31st)44.92% (30th)9.1% (T-26th)4.6 (30th)
Totals8-10-444.91% (30th)47.97% (24th)13.4% (30th)5.67 (24th)

Fletcher reiterated he wanted to wait until the Flyers got healthier before making a change. But with Joel Farabee the latest Flyer to suffer a somewhat long-term injury, a tail spinning team that was demolished by the Lightning less than twenty-four hours ago, and a busy week that could put the Flyers even further behind the eight ball without immediate progress, Fletcher (and Vigneault) simply ran out of time.

An Overview Of Fletcher’s Staff Shakeups

Where the Flyers go from here is anybody’s guess. For now, assistant coach Darryl Williams will take over the power-play. And assistant coach Mike Yeo goes from running the Flyers penalty kill to interim head coach. Fletcher hired Yeo as head coach of the Minnesota Wild in 2011, who he coached until the middle of the 2015-16 season. Yeo went 173-132-44 (.559 points percentage, 92-point pace) with Minnesota, reaching the playoffs in three straight years (2013-2015) and winning a round in 2014 and 2015.

He took over for former Flyers head coach Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis midway through the 2016-17 season. He impressively led the Blues on a stellar 22-8-2 finish to their season and first-round upset of Fletcher’s Wild. However, the Blues cratered after a strong start to 2017-18, missing the playoffs by just one point. He was fired less than two months into the 2018-19 season, setting the stage for former Flyers head coach Craig Berube to famously lead the Blues from dead last in the NHL on January 3rd to their first Stanley Cup just over six months later. Whether such a tale fills you with optimism or dread is a matter of perspective, although it’s probably the latter for most Flyers fans considering the team’s current state.

So where do the Flyers go from here? Well, Fletcher said he’s at least looking to hire a new assistant coach to help Yeo and Williams. As for a new permanent head coach, Fletcher said, “I’m not starting any (hiring) process, aside from trying to get this team back on track. I’ve spoken with Mike, he knows there’s no promises. The focus right now is not on interviewing people and rushing to hire a head coach. It’s to support Mike.”

But perhaps the most poignant words of not just the presser, but the entire state of the Flyers came from Yeo himself. “This is not a very good story right now, this season. But the good news is, we have the opportunity to change that.” Three years after Fletcher arrived, the Flyers are back on a collision course with change. Good teams get to approach change at their own pace. If the Flyers can’t at least right the ship under Yeo, change will come for them once again. And there may not be anything promising about it this time around.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick (except Goals Saved Above Expected, which is. viaMoneypuck.com)