From the moment he was hired to finish what Ron Hextall started, Chuck Fletcher has approached the Flyers general manager’s job with hard hat, goggles and protective fencing all around the rebuilding project.
Fletcher is less accessible than his predecessor, less committing perhaps, too, and his hire of Alain Vigneault to be the team’s head coach is the latest indication that he entered this second go-round as an NHL general manager with a list of dos and don’ts from his nine years as the Minnesota Wild GM.
One month after taking the job there, Fletcher hired Todd Richards, an AHL head coach who had never coached in the NHL before. When Fletcher let him go after two seasons, he hired Mike Yeo, another first-time NHL head coach. Yeo fared much better than Richards, lasting five seasons, but most of those were spent with rumors of his dismissal swirling around.
With that backdrop, it’s easy to see why Fletcher resisted hiring Scott Gordon, who had limited head-coaching experience with the Islanders, full time, despite the urging of many Flyers players and the interim coach’s success in coaching a truly lifeless team back from the dead during the second half of this season.
The Wild were in need of a rebuild when Fletcher took over in 2009. He was embarking on a major renovation, with time on his side.
He walked into the middle of a renovation here. With the arrival of long-awaited goaltending prospect Carter Hart, it might even be in the later stages of one. The core of proven stars is approaching or just beyond the age of 30, hockey’s version of middle age. Besides Hart, the onset of what Hextall saw as a parade of prospects turning pro has begun. Oskar Lindblom has dropped hints that he could be really special. Travis Sanheim, too. Including him, three of the six defensemen the Flyers will likely play next season are 6-foot-4 or taller. All can skate well, and two of the three hit people hard.
One — Samuel Morin — especially hard.
Hextall might have done himself a favor had he not opted to promote a college coach with his first and only coaching hire. He might have done himself a favor by not sticking with him for as long as he did. He might still be here, too, if he had pushed Hart along as the team descended in the standings and in morale during that infamous Western Canada trip. And as anticipated as Morgan Frost’s arrival is, it was clearly in Hextall’s short-term interest not to trade Brayden Schenn away for the right to draft Frost.
But Hextall played it in his first GM incarnation the way Fletcher did in his, with an, um, ``pucks’’-to-the-wall approach.
Unlike Fletcher’s, Hextall’s ownership didn’t give him nine years to deliver.
Gordon might well have succeeded given a second chance to coach an NHL team from start of the season to finish. But this time, Fletcher wasn’t going to take that chance.
So he went with a known commodity, an NHL coaching lifer who has truly seen both the good and bad that the job has to offer — he, too, a byproduct of the lessons learned coaching in more than 1,000 NHL games. Vigneault has been to the Stanley Cup Final with surprising teams twice and been fired for underachieving ones, as well. He is said to be a players’ coach, and when he was fired two springs ago by the Rangers, his team was described with many of the adjectives attached to this year’s version of the Flyers.
Fragile, passive, inconsistent. Easy to play against.
The convenient corollary, embraced by some fans and promoted by some media, is that many of the younger Flyers need a swift kick in the butt, and they will begin to perform as their respective draft statuses suggest. But sluggish starts and inconsistent stretches over several games and even inside of a particular one precede many of these kids, and might be more indicative of a lack of understanding of what the coach wants, or a lack of confidence in the plan they were asked to execute.
The idea that Gordon was some sort of taskmaster belies why he was so successful in getting players such as Nolan Patrick, Lindblom and Ivan Provorov to perform to their levels of expectation. In praising Gordon, several players lauded his use of individual meetings and singular video sessions as a teaching tool. His perceived bench jockeying was, without fail, explained by both parties as an extension of those lessons, and often induced better play. Simply, he was a teacher more than he was a taskmaster.
Vigneault comes to the Flyers with the same reputation. There will be no talk of ``jam’’ as there was when Peter Laviolette arrived, or ``bigger bites’’ as Ken Hitchcock so often spoke of. But if he does as well at the start of his tenure as Gordon did in his brief one, the hire will be seen as not just safe, but also smart.