The 2019-20 campaign has been a rollercoaster for the Philadelphia Flyers. From a mild injury crisis and some subtle panics, and the rise of a potential playoff juggernaut, this season had it all. But if we rewind back 6 months, it’s a little crazy to think how quickly the pieces have all come together.
It was set to be a new dawn for the Flyers. The team fired Scott Gordon and clearly needed a huge revamp after the Hakstol era of going all-in on the youth. A lack of playoff success presented a pressing need to ‘win-now’, and very few coaches are better at getting instant success out of a new team than Alain Vigneault, the 21st Head Coach of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Vigneault brought with him a different style of hockey and a mindset where savvy veterans lead the way. After some minor housekeeping, the Flyers had to decide who that long-term engine was going to be. Claude Giruoux, Jake Voracek, and even Sean Couturier are all proven leaders on this team, but what about the younger guys who aren’t quite ready to be manning that top line? A second-line center was the aim, and there was only ever one man for the job.
The first major building block was bringing in Kevin Hayes. The 6’5 center signed a seven-year deal worth $50M and would become the engine that the Flyers feed off. He wore the ‘A’ in his Flyers debut and it was easy to see why, with the former Ranger setting the tone through aggressive play and hustle on both sides of the Ice.
“With the contract I’ve signed, I’ll be here for a while, so I want to be a leader on this team, both vocally and how I play on the Ice.” Hayes told me after a practice in Prauge. “I’ve never had that in my career and now I do. I’m excited for it.”
Hayes, who had 229 points in 381 career NHL games prior to signing, chose Philadelphia. He chose his former Head Coach. He chose stability…and there was no way he was going to let complacency from the era before him bleed into the next season.
“I set goals every year, but they don’t even come close to the team goals.” He explained. “We want to get into the playoffs and if you don’t want to win a Stanley Cup, you shouldn’t be here.”
Believe it or not, the Flyers actually moved to 18-0-1 when Hayes scores a goal back in February – right around the time he notched an eyebrow-raising 9 points in a seven-game span. The same span in which the Flyers kickstarted their undefeated run.
There was a lot of criticism early in the year surrounding the stats. Hayes wasn’t someone firing in a goal every other game and that worried some fans. But on a line with Travis Konecny, who had a breakout like no other, Hayes soon found his role in facilitating the growth of both TK and names like Joel Farabee.
On the season, Hayes has rallied to 23 goals and 18 assists in 69 games, becoming a cornerstone in embodying the 200-foot game that Vigneault demands.
“It starts with a coaching staff, no panic it starts with our leadership and starts with everyone pulling the same rope.” Hayes said during the winning streak. “I feel like we are at that point now in the season where road is pretty much defined, and you know what you are supposed to bring to the team. I feel like tonight it was a full 60 effort from everyone.“
That’s not to mention how his wholesome mic’d up footage ended up winning the hearts of Flyers fans everywhere…
Hayes was the sassy, chirpy, vocal player that the Flyers had been missing. Injecting a sense of fun, but only in the right instances alongside a style of play that just demands your attention. Hayes wasn’t just the ultimate facilitator, but the ultimate teammate. Something that Vigneault knew he would bring to the table right from the very beginning.
“Haysey, we knew coming in would be able to play the 200-foot game, he would be able to help us on the penalty kill.” The Flyers HC Said. “Since we didn’t know exactly what would be available as far as free agents, I think Chuck did the right thing. We were able to sign him before free agency opened, gave us more depth up front. And he’s become a big part of this team, plays both ends, plays the power play and penalty kill, and he’s got a nice personality that fits in well with this team right now.“
He may not be flashy, but he doesn’t have to be. It’s scary to imagine exactly where the Flyers would be without their ultimate hype-man. Would Konecny have burst out of the gate in the way he did? Would that second line still be as scintillating? Luckily, we’ll never know. Hayes is here for another six years and Flyers fans should be elated.
Photo Credit: Alex Mcintyre