They’re far away.
That’s the word on the streets, mostly from Philadelphia fans who barely noticed the little run their hockey team made over January, February, and early March, distracted as they were by the Bryce Harper watch and the back health of Joel Embiid and Carson Wentz.
"I don’t think we are,’’ Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher was saying after introducing Alain Vigneault as the latest coach attempting to solve what has become hockey’s answer to the Rubik’s Cube.
The Flyers have failed to make, or been quickly eliminated from, the playoffs for seven years running. The only consistent element has been slow starts to seasons and games, and the exhausting streaks both ways that suffocate confidence, momentum, and yes, civic enthusiasm.
It’s been said before, but when the No.1 story of your season is the invention of a furry mascot, well, that sounds as if you might be far off.
Enter Vigneault, last seen behind the bench of a moribund bunch in New York, a Rangers team playing out the string the way the Flyers played out their final week of the season, which is to say quite badly. It likely eliminated any slight chance Scott Gordon had of remaining as their coach, even after Joel Quenneville chose to winter in Florida instead of here.
But judging Vigneault from that final Rangers team is as unfair as judging Gordon by that final week. He had nine consecutive playoff appearances before that, taking two of the three teams he has coached to the Stanley Cup Final. And in the first season of his tenures in Montreal, Vancouver, and New York, he guided teams that were considered underperformers in the previous season into the playoffs.
That’s what attracted Fletcher, who as a GM in Minnesota had done it the other way, promoting young coaches with little to no NHL experience, resulting in little to no playoff success.
"Look at the job that Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz have done,’’ Fletcher said Thursday, citing the turnaround by the New York Islanders this season. "They’ve gone from a team that looked far away and lost a key piece over the summer. And they’re in the second round right now.’’
Hired as a free agent after guiding the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup, Trotz coached the Islanders to a second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division this season, despite the free-agent departure of team captain John Tavares to Toronto last summer, and despite entering the season with the dubious goaltending tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.
The Islanders were 31st among 31 teams in goals allowed before Trotz arrived.
They finished first overall this season.
New York’s 103-point total was a 23-point improvement from the previous season, and with minimal changes to the roster.
"There have been teams you’re surprised have been knocked out already,’’ said Fletcher. "We’re all close. And winning and confidence and momentum early in the season can really lend itself to great things. That’s why the most important time of the year will be our training camp.’’
Minutes before, Vigneault said the same thing. He also said that he didn’t expect big changes, that he took the job in part because he was excited about the group already here.
Indeed, he inherits in Carter Hart what Dave Hakstol never had, a young A-1 goaltender with little tread on the tires. Behind him are highly regarded prospects Felix Sandstrom and Kirill Ustimenko.
Vigneault will be charged with developing the games of big-bodied defensemen Phil Myers and Sam Morin, and in straightening out Shayne Gostisbehere, who may benefit by his new coach’s belief in integrating his blue-liners into the offense.
"We feel that we’ve got a good-skating, good-skilled team that can play a high-tempo, good puck-pursuit game,’’ he said. "We need to make sure that this team has the right mind-set to use its qualities and attributes …’’
The Flyers surrendered the first goal in 50 of their 82 games last season. Thirty-two times that ballooned to 2-0.
Some of it was due to their goaltending carousel, for sure. But some of it was that mind-set of which Vigneault spoke.
"Let’s not shy away from the players’ responsibility in this,’’ he said. "It is their responsibility to get themselves in that mental state, that mental zone where you go out on the ice and you execute, you perform, and you compete. I’m going to make sure that each and every one of our players understands his part in this …’’
He’s been able to do that before, in places where the populace also believed its hockey team was far from contending. Vigneault, who came within one victory of winning a Stanley Cup in Vancouver, said that if he believed that, he too would have remained far away himself.