The Flyers' 2020-21 exit interviews arrived much earlier than the club had hoped and envisioned when it set out on this season.
A year after having the NHL's sixth-best point percentage and coming one win away from the Eastern Conference Final, the Flyers were eliminated from postseason contention with six games left on their 2020-21 schedule, finished sixth in the realigned eight-team East Division and allowed more goals than any other club in hockey.
The Flyers' 56-game season went by fast and fell hard. It started with fans abuzz and finished with many of them in anger and demanding answers.
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"There’s no doubt that it’s very hard to take," Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault said Monday. "I feel like I’ve let people down."
On Monday at Virtua Center Flyers Skate Zone, three of the leaders in charge of the organization's direction offered answers for why they felt a season with such high expectations went so badly awry.
Here are our five takeaways from Monday's end-of-the-season press conference with Vigneault, general manager Chuck Fletcher and Comcast Spectacor chairman and CEO Dave Scott.
1. 'I need a normal season'
The Flyers entered March with an 11-4-3 record and East Division-best .694 points percentage. They went 14-19-5 with a .434 points percentage and minus-46 goal differential the rest of the way.
The season went off course in March, but the derailment may have started brewing in February. The Flyers had a COVID-19 shutdown from Feb. 9-15, which seemed to cause serious ripple effects. Six key regulars had 14-day quarantines after testing positive. The Flyers got their full lineup back for the first time March 2 and played 17 games that month. They went from Feb. 27 to March 31 without having two days between games.
"We had a tough March, there’s no question," Fletcher said. "I’ve never been on a team that played 17 games in a month; I think I’ve been on a team that had 16 maybe once, but typically you’re playing 15 games a month. So it was tough, there wasn’t a lot of time to reset. A lot of other teams went through it. It was probably a harder time of the year to go through when you’re struggling — you don’t have much time to practice or reset."
The topic of the Flyers' struggles with the COVID-19-impacted season has been a polarizing one. It was a season of unprecedented adjustments. Because the entire NHL had to deal with the same adjustments, many do not want the Flyers to use them as an excuse for their failures this season. But the Flyers would be ignorant and dishonest if they claimed COVID-19 had nothing to do with the outcome of their season. As evident by the Flyers' current state, the club did not adjust to or rebound well from the circumstances.
"It was really challenging," Fletcher said. "Maybe some teams handled it better than we did. I think of the 28, 29 players that were around our team this year, counting the taxi squad, 20 players over the course of the last five or six months had COVID. We got hit pretty hard at various times. Some players seemed to come back stronger. I give [Claude] Giroux a lot of credit, [Jakub] Voracek, some of these guys came back and seemed to get better. Other players seemed to struggle. Some players got hit November and December right before camp, which wasn’t ideal for coming into a shortened camp in top shape. Look, every team had to deal with it. We did the best we could."
Vigneault emphasized "normal." If the head coach held back his feelings during the season, he did not hide them Monday. He's itching for normalcy and the opportunities it could offer the Flyers. Last season was halted, restarted and finished in the Toronto bubble. This season began late, was shortened and crammed. Vigneault is asking Flyers fans for the chance to show what he can do again in normalcy. That might not jive with some fans right now. Maybe it eventually will when the dust of 2020-21 settles.
"At the end of the day, what I need, Chuck can’t give me," Vigneault said. "Society can give me though: I need a normal season. I need people to go out and get vaccinated so that we can have a normal season next year. I’ve been here two years and we haven’t had one of those. I want guys coming into camp having trained in a normal way during the summer. I want to go through a normal camp. I want to go through a normal season that’s 82 games worth. I want to go through normal playoffs where you play in front of your fans, you feel the energy, you feel the passion, you go on the road, tight-knit group, you try and win on the road. Chuck can’t give me a normal season, but society can if we do our part. Hopefully we can all get there for next year."
2. 'That's a big concern for me'
The Flyers clearly have holes. When a team surrenders the NHL's most goals (197; 3.52 per game), sports the league's worst save percentage (.883) and owns the 30th-ranked penalty kill (73.1 percent), it needs help.
The club "didn’t fill the void" left by top-pair defenseman Matt Niskanen, as Fletcher said in March. The general manager has gone 1 for 2 in his offseasons with the Flyers and this is undoubtedly his biggest one ahead.
In order for the Flyers to fill holes, they may need to make a decent shakeup because of the flat-cap world. The decisions won't be easy.
"I think we have quite a few priorities," Fletcher said. "Looking outside the organization, certainly we could upgrade I think everywhere — up front, defense. Certainly we’re going to have to take a look at our situation in goal, which has kind of been a constant struggle here for years. So we have different areas we have to look at."
But Fletcher bluntly admitted the Flyers were let down by just about all of their younger pieces. Much of his quieter offseason last fall revolved around the stagnant cap and the Flyers trusting their youth to jump on greater roles. It did not happen. The Flyers' inexperience showed as growing pains were prevalent throughout the roster.
"We also need a lot of our young players to be better," Fletcher said, following up. "I would say really with the exception of Joel Farabee, I would say the majority of our young players either plateaued or took a step back this year. That’s a big concern for me. Since 2014, this franchise has put a lot of time and effort into drafting and developing young players. Frankly, for us to take a step forward, we’re going to need that group of players to take on a bigger role, play better and help us win games.
"We’re going to have to look outside the organization, but certainly it’s difficult to replace the whole team. You’re going to need your young players to take a step and be better. They have a big summer ahead of them, so we’re hopeful that as things normalize, this offseason hopefully it’s easier for many of these young players to skate, to train and to prepare more normally than maybe they were able to do last offseason. We’re hopeful that we’ll see an energized group of players come training camp.”
3. Talkin' 'bout practice
The Flyers mentioned one of the various challenges to the 2020-21 season was the condensed schedule resulting in less practice time. Vigneault said what compounded the problems for the younger players was having little time to correct issues in practice, particularly following the club's COVID-19 pause.
"After starting the season where we got off, results-wise, to a good start — a lot due to we had some real solid goaltending — our team started to play better, our goaltending slipped a little bit, COVID hit us and after COVID, all we basically did was play games and not practice," Vigneault said. “I think this group, because we’ve got veteran players, just a small group of players in that middle age frame of 27, 28, and a lot of younger players — those younger players, when the game slips a little bit or we’re not quite executing the way we need to to have success, you have to practice. And we didn’t have any practice time.
"I’m not saying that’s the reason; a lot of things happened. I’m going to need some time to reflect on it, but I do think that played a part in our game slipping and our season going the way it did.”
Some food for thought:
Vigneault's system is predicated on a relentless forecheck, a constant get-after-you effort and a possession-based game. The Flyers are not an immensely skilled team. They're not the Lightning or the Oilers or the Maple Leafs. Last season, the Flyers dictated games by wearing teams down. To play that style, you have to be conditioned and balanced, like a well-oiled machine. The Flyers must've experienced difficulty playing their system, the way they truly wanted to play, if they struggled with rest and recovery through a unique schedule.
"I came to Philly to win a Stanley Cup," Vigneault said. "I told Chuck when we were officially eliminated that I sort of felt like I’ve let everyone down here, from him to ownership to our fans to our players. Just after the start that we had, got the team playing better, and then, like I mentioned, goaltending, COVID and no practice time — I just wasn’t able to put the ship back on track. I’m going to need some time obviously on a personal level to reflect on the season. Like the rest of society, it’s our first pandemic that we go through — there’s obviously some things reflecting on that we might want to change how I handled and how I did things. On a personal level, I’m going to need some time here to get the emotion out of the way and analyze this properly."
4. Oh, Canada
Vigneault said he had a couple of theories for why the Flyers' season fell so short.
On the topic of preparing through a pandemic, the Flyers said some of their younger players who reside in Canada during the offseason had trouble with training amid the tight COVID restrictions.
"Talking about our young players and just Joel Farabee taking strides," Vigneault said. "The difference between Joel Farabee, an American who stayed in the States and was able to train, and our Canadian players, all the ones that went back to Canada — G had a good year, more experience. [Sean Couturier], in my estimation, had a good year but didn’t have a Coots-type season like he had with me last year. If I look at all the other players that went to Canada, they struggled. Whether it's because of lack of training possibilities, lack of skating possibilities, but one of my questions — and we're meeting with the players this afternoon — is what are you doing this summer? If things stay the way they are right now in Canada, they’re going to have to make some adjustments to their summer plans. This is just our team, I can’t reflect on throughout the rest of the NHL, but our team, the Canadian players that went back to Canada, had a challenging time."
Assistant coaches Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo have head coaching experience. Therrien led the Penguins to the 2008 Stanley Cup Final as a head coach, while Yeo has a Stanley Cup ring from his days as an assistant in Pittsburgh. Assistant coach Ian Laperriere knows the roster extremely well, having held a role in the Flyers' player development since 2012.
The 2020-21 season was Year 2 under Vigneault, Therrien and Yeo. Fletcher believes the qualifications above will steer the Flyers' youth back in the right direction.
"That’s why, to be honest with you, I’m happy we have this experienced coaching staff," Fletcher said. "A.V., Mike Therrien, Mike Yeo, Ian Laperriere, they’ve seen a lot of different scenarios during their time in the league. I’m fully confident that they’ll have the best approach for how to bring these kids back.
"Some of it has to fall on the players, it’s up to the players to be prepared to come into camp next year. As A.V. alluded to, a couple of those kids that did go back to Canada, I remember speaking with them in October and November, they were having a hard time getting ice time, they were having a hard time, gyms were shut down. Some of them had some adjustments to make and were having a tough time doing the training that they normally do. Our expectation is they'll be able to find a better path to train this offseason."
5. Will Flyers back it all up?
Scott said the Flyers' 2020-21 season was "not an acceptable level of performance — period."
But, overall, he expressed faith in Fletcher, Vigneault and the Flyers' direction. It sounded as if he certainly understood the extenuating circumstances of this season.
"We’ve all talked about it, we’re not happy where we are," Scott said. "There’s been frustration, there’s been anger, but this is where we sit. It comes down to accountability and we’re all accountable for the success of this team. That starts with me, ownership, the front office, the coaching staff and the players.
"Where we sit, I can’t help but feel for our fans. I’ve talked about this publicly — they deserve so much more, the city of Philadelphia deserves so much more, we deserve a winning hockey team.
"At this point, the season's over and I think we’re picking up our head. I think Alain said it best, it’s time to reflect a little bit about where we’re going. Certainly we have the resources to put something pretty good together this summer, we have the time. Not easy in a cap world, but I’m confident Chuck will be creative and we’ll figure a way to improve the team as we look to the next season."
Was Scott disappointed with Fletcher's second offseason?
“I wouldn’t say disappointed," he said. "I can tell you it wasn’t a lack of effort. There were a lot of conversations with different teams, tried to get some things done. We weren’t able to get everything done that we would have liked to have gotten done. Matt Niskanen left a big hole and we weren’t able to fill that hole. But I can tell you it wasn’t a lack of effort on Chuck’s part.”
Carter Hart, the 22-year-old goalie who was expected to be the backbone to the club's anticipated run in 2020-21, was one of the Flyers' young players who struggled the most with the pandemic season.
There's no ignoring the reality of the world right now. Nobody is immune to it. The Flyers were forthright in admitting they didn't deal with it well, stemming to offseason preparation.
But, boy, the pressure is on in 2021-22 to get it right. There won't be excuses if the NHL expectedly returns to normal. The Flyers are saying they can get back as the world gets back. The offseason has arrived and so, too, has the time for the Flyers to start proving themselves in 2021-22.
"I’m going to regroup, analyze and come back better next year," Vigneault said. "It didn’t go the way we anticipated, it’s adversity. If adversity can help Carter Hart become better, adversity can help Alain Vigneault get better, adversity can help the Flyers get better. Maybe the Flyers have been through a lot of that in the last little while, but it’s our job, Chuck and I, to get these players to play up to their full potential. And that’s what we’re going to do starting next year."
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