July 10-- PHILADELPHIA-The Flyers are scheduled to begin camp Monday and restart their season on or around Aug. 1, and as long as they get themselves back into game shape in less than three weeks, wear their masks, don't give each other any high-fives or fist-bumps or handshakes, don't sweat or breathe on each other too much while they're on the ice or in the locker room, and don't have too many of their players test positive for the deadly virus that has been rampaging across North America for the better part of four months, the hard part for them is over.
They were about as together as a team can be when the pandemic froze everything in place back in mid-March. They were humming along, having won nine straight games before a perfect performance by one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, Tuukka Rask, for the best team in the NHL, the Boston Bruins, prevented them from winning 10.
They're one of the four teams in the Eastern Conference that earned a bye in the postseason's opening round, which means they'll play a round-robin for seeding, which means they'll have an opportunity to get their skating legs back before their games take on the pressure and importance of potential elimination from the tournament.
Assuming that an ideal scenario or something close to it plays out for the league over these next several weeks-that is, there are no major COVID-19 outbreaks, and the teams complete the playoffs-the Flyers would seem well positioned and prepared to make a decent run at the Stanley Cup.
Sure, that's an awfully big assumption, given the volatility of the virus' spread and our collective reaction to it. But when you're a franchise that hasn't won a championship in more than 45 years, and when one asymptomatic carrier might cause a sport's entire jury-rigged structure to crumble, you take what hope you can get. In that context, in this fragile situation, the Flyers have reason to be more hopeful than most teams.
"The biggest part of being coaches is selling your system, selling your game plan, and we don't need to sell our game plan," Flyers assistant coach Ian Laperriere said in an interview Wednesday. "Guys bought it. We were having a really good season. It's not like we've got to go in the room and convince the guys it's the right way to play because they know it's the right way to play. We were successful with the system. It's going to be more repetition and reminders."
The notion that all the Flyers have to do to become contenders is reconvene, refamiliarize themselves with their head coach's teachings, and fall back into a groove they were already in is pretty wild, even if it's probably true.
The roster additions and changes that general manager Chuck Fletcher made before the the season-most notably, Kevin Hayes and Matt Niskanen-account for a good bit of that shift from the stagnancy of the Flyers' recent history. So do the maturation and improvement of several players who were already here: Carter Hart, Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, Travis Sanheim, etc.
But there's no getting around one important factor, maybe the most important factor: the instant credibility that coach Alain Vigneault had with the players.
"Let's be honest here: It's the same system that we used with Dave Hakstol," Laperriere said. "That's what cracks me up. People think we just threw a magical system out there. I think it's more the approach of AV. AV was more like, 'If you don't play my way, you're not playing.'
"I hate to go back, but you can't ask a Dave Hakstol to coach like Alain Vigneault. They don't have the same pedigree. AV has a Jack Adams Award, two Stanley Cup Finals. The guys maybe listen a little bit more. For me, that was the biggest difference."
After playing in the NHL for 16 seasons, Laperriere has been working for the Flyers since June 2012 and has done so under five head coaches: Peter Laviolette, Craig Berube, Hakstol, Scott Gordon, and Vigneault. He has been around long enough to appreciate the effect that a coach with a track record such as Vigneault's can have on a team, provided the team has the requisite talent and depth.
He's right: Coaching systems around the NHL are cut-and-paste stuff these days. Other, more intangible qualities matter more.
Put Vigneault behind the bench for the 2014-15 team that Berbue coached or the 2015-2017 clubs that Hakstol had, and the results are likely similar: The Flyers still would have been, at best, a team on the margins of the playoffs.
Put him behind the bench of this team, with an infusion of solid, experienced players among younger, developing ones, with goaltending stability, with some highly paid stars who probably needed a kick in the tail, and the result was the best Flyers season in nearly a decade.
"A lot of coaches will think, 'If you don't play my way, you're not playing,'" he said. "And the guy keeps playing, because he was a top guy. I can look at James van Riemsdyk and Jake Voracek, guys who at the beginning of the year didn't play the way AV wanted them to play. Guess what? They dropped down to the third and fourth lines.
"A lot of coaches, they talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk. AV gave a speech in training camp: 'You've got to play my way, or you're not playing.' And to his credit, he did it day one. If guys didn't play the way he wanted, he took their ice time."
That was the challenge for Vigneault and the Flyers. From a pure hockey standpoint, that was the hard part. They're past it. If there were ever a time when they could wash their hands of all these years of frustration, it's now.
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