Leave it to the offseason to keep us entertained while we wait for the puck to drop on the 2021/22 season. With the trades and signings all but complete and the roster nearing finality, there’s little left to talk about that hasn’t already been discussed. One thing that seems to continue to rear its ugly head is the stigma that seemingly surrounds Alain Vigneault and his affinity for veteran players.
It was discussed at length when Vigneault was hired due to what many had heard from Canucks and Rangers fans. In a way, it was debunked. We’ve seen him play some of the younger players over veterans with the Flyers. Nicolas Aube-Kubel actually thrived during his second season with the team compared to the previous season under Dave Hakstol. Oskar Lindblom played every game up until his cancer diagnosis instead of being benched in favor of Jori Lehtera. Joel Farabee was given a fair shake and turned in a fairly successful 2020/21 campaign. So why is the discussion still popping up from time to time?
It’s at least worth some discussion considering Alain Vigneault’s approach to Carter Hart in press conferences. It’s no secret that AV has come off as a bit of a martinet when discussing Carter Hart. After the season Hart had, it kind of makes sense. His 9-11-5 record did little to instill confidence in the bench boss, let alone his .877 save percentage and 3.67 goals against average this past season.
When you’re used to having guys like Roberto Luongo and Henrik Lundqvist manning your crease, exceptional goaltending becomes the expectation. Carter Hart’s season this year was bad. It was even worse considering Luongo’s worst season under Alain Vigneault. Luongo’s 2012/13 season was his worst under AV, and he still went 9-6-3 with a .907 save percentage and 2.56 goals-against average. Even in two losses during the playoffs that season, Luongo posted a .915/2.58 stat line. It just so happened to be AV’s last season with Vancouver.
Subsequently, Henrik Lundqvist’s worst season with Vigneault was AV’s last season with the Rangers. He went 26-26-7 in 63 games for the Rangers that season. In the process, he posted a save percentage of .915 and a goals-against-average of 2.98.
Overall under Vigneault, Luongo was a fantastic 233-121-44 in seven seasons. He had a .919 save percentage and 2.36 goals-against average. In Lundqvist’s five years under AV, he was 155-104-26 with a .917 save percentage and 2.57 goals against. Luongo played for AV from the age of 27 to 33, while King Henrik was 31 at the beginning of AV’s tenure and 35 at the end. A stark contrast between Hart’s 33-24-8 record and .899/2.90 stat line.
Just or Unjust?
There are two sides to this coin here. On one side, it’s hard to blame AV for having such high expectations when he’s dealt with bonafide Hall-of-Famers during his entire NHL coaching career. On the other side of the said coin, AV knew what the goaltending situation was when he arrived in Philadelphia. He knew that Carter Hart wasn’t Henrik Lundqvist or Roberto Luongo. Vigneault was very much aware that he wasn’t acquiring a superb goaltender in the prime of his career. AV knew there was work to be done.
Making remarks like “He needs to work harder,” and “He needs to work better,” are signs of a coach that may not have anticipated the growing pains that come along with a young, promising netminder. That’s quite alright. It’s a tough adjustment going from top-tier talent to up-and-coming youngster. However, it’s an adjustment that AV needs to make in order for both to be successful in Philly.
All of the moves Chuck Fletcher made this offseason were indicative of him trusting the coaching staff. Bringing in leaders, locker room voices, and veterans of the game was all part of the plan. It’s now clear that Fletcher has Vigneault & Co’s back. However, those moves also positioned Vigneault and his assistants’ feet squarely above the flames. Now that the locker room culture has changed drastically, next up on the chopping block is the coaching staff. If they cannot squeeze every ounce of potential out of this group, they may be next in the line for turnover.
There are two routes to take from here on out for Alain Vigneault. First, you can stay par the course and continue the “tough love” approach. Second, you adjust your expectations a bit and take more of a compassionate approach. That doesn’t mean that he has to baby Carter Hart. There are enough fanboys out there who can take care of that. It’s essentially just a shift in his approach towards working with Hart. Maybe lean away from the harsh criticism in the eye of the media. It could be as simple as praising the kid when he has a good game, something he wasn’t incredibly prone to doing last season. It may seem like he’s coddling the kid, but it’s a positive reinforcement over anything else.
If he were to continue with the harder approach of the two, AV could find himself playing a dangerous game. To this point, he’s taken that approach and the results have varied. Hart’s 2019/20 season wasn’t anything to marvel at, but it was solid enough considering the circumstances. His showing in the 2020 playoff bubble was fantastic. This past season, without sounding too redundant, was bad. If Hart isn’t going to respond to Vigneault’s version of tough love, does that say more about him or Vigneault? Does that force Chuck Fletcher to cater to his franchise goaltender or a coach with a very successful track record?
This next season will likely tell us all that we need to know about the direction that this relationship is headed. It will be Hart’s first full season as a goalie in the NHL, and Vigneault’s first full season as the Flyers head coach. If these two can get their relationship on the tracks, that train is going to roll. If they can’t, the party may be over before it ever really got started.
Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire