Did you ever think it’s funny how Hextall hired a guy to coach his team with a last name so similar to his own? Am I the only one? Well anyways, Dave Hakstol, the former head coach of college hockey powerhouse North Dakota, has been at the helm of the Philadelphia Flyers for two years now, and his third starts in a little over a month.
His first two seasons have been a rollercoaster. His first, the Flyers unexpectedly made the playoffs, and nearly pulled off a miraculous comeback against the President’s Trophy winner, the Washington Capitals. Last year, he regressed and finished the season after 82 games. Did the Flyers expect to make the playoffs? Probably, because let’s be honest, the Flyers don’t rebuild. Despite whether you agree or not, the Flyers will always look to contend, especially with the amount of talent they have, and the immense amount of talent they have coming up through the minors.
Hakstol didn’t exactly inherit a gem of a team either. After two seasons under interim coach Craig Berube, the Flyers put up less than stellar numbers in his last year as head coach of the club. It was clear from the get go that Hextall was biding time until the reinforcements arrived on the blue line, and performances became the sacrifices. Big contracts were still being shed, money was still tight, and there wasn’t much anyone could do about it.
In his first year as head coach, Hakstol went 41-27-14. That was good for 5th in a very crowded Metropolitan division, and slid them into the playoffs to faceoff against the number one seeded Washington Capitals. During the season, the Flyers started out pretty slow, going 4-4-2 in October and 5-6-3 in November. However, the team flipped the script in the last two months of the season and went 8-4-3 in February and a stellar 9-3-2 in March. That late season push did enough to get them into the playoffs after border-line underachieving all year long.
The 2015-2016 season was full of bumps also. You have aging Vincent Lecavalier, who clearly couldn’t find his spot among the Flyers forwards. He got shipped to Los Angeles with Luke Schenn, another big acquisition who just couldn’t gain his footing with the club, in exchange from promising youngster Jordan Weal. Nobody knew then, but Hextal pulled off a miracle with that trade (as explained here by fellow PSN author Austin Mitchell).
Hextall hasn’t made things easy on Hakstol, or should I say that Paul Holmgren hasn’t made it easy on Hextall and in turn, things have been difficult for Hakstol. It’s the dreaded contracts, big name acquisitions, and flat out carelessness with these big contracts that Holmgren would sign players to that have kept Hextall in a financial bind. It’s tough to play the best 19 you can when someone is getting paid like a top 2 defensive pairing, but playing like a minor leaguer (I’m looking at you, Andrew MacDonald.)
Regardless, even given the circumstances surrounding the 2015-16 season, Hakstol pushed towards the playoffs. He was absolutely decimated during the first three games, however, and then decided it was time for a change. In comes first year Flyer Michael Neuvirth, and boy did he come in hot. The Flyers took the next two games behind some absolutely stellar crease work by Neuvy, and came into game six with some newly found swagger. Despite the two game comeback, the Flyers ultimately fell 1-0 in that game. Even though he gave up the only goal of the game, Neuvy still looked great.
Start of season two, and expectations have risen. Hakstol comes into the season ready to continue the success he achieved the year before, but other things got in the way. He was still plagued with an aging blue line despite the debut of rookie sensation Ivan Provorov. Most importantly, Hakstol seemed to “over coach” at certain times during the season, sitting players like newcomer Travis Konecny, Shayne Gostisbehere, Michael Del Zotto, and even established scorer Brayden Schenn. All the while, players like Chris Vandevelde and Pierre Eduoard Bellemare were rarely healthy scratched despite completely pedestrian numbers. Sure, Bellemare exemplified leadership and was a key cog on that fourth line, but producing is producing, and neither of them were doing that.
Hasktol seemed to make some confusing decisions through out the season, and at the most puzzling of times to boot. Sitting young players like Ghost and Konecny could have potentially stunted their growth as players, and we still may see that affect this coming season. In his exit interview after this past season, Shayne Gostisbehere was visibly irritated by some of the healthy scratches he experienced. He knows what he is capable of, and made it clear he was going to play his style of defense because that’s what he knew and that’s what he was good at. He was quoted saying, “I’m going to make plays and I don’t care if I get yelled at but I’m going to play my game and make my plays.” He also said about his style of play, “People can look at it as risky but most of the time it works for me.”
With all this being said, Hakstol comes into his third year with an entirely new situation. He is going to have a new batch of rookies, this time more along the blue line. Newcomers Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg are likely to fill the holes left by Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz departing, and Oskar Lindblom is likely to slot into a second line that will likely be centered by another newcomer Flyers fans will need to get used to for the future, Nolan Patrick. With a potential four rookies making the team and starting, Hakstol has his work cut out for him, but exactly what is going to be expected of him?
Realistically, the playoffs seem to be a longshot for the club. Whether you want to admit it or not, the Flyers are rebuilding. We aren’t talking about the 10 plus year rebuild that the Sixers are going through, we are talking a rebuild on the fly. The Flyers are expected to still be competitive, but excuses can be made for not succeeding. However, should Hakstol still be held accountable for potentially missing the playoffs even with a young club still adjusting to the NHL game?
While having an unexpectedly good first year, and a down year the next, Hakstol should still be held accountable for what happens this year. These defensive prospects that are coming up are as highly touted as they come. They fill holes that have been a glaring weakness for some time now. Morin will come up to sweep the porch clear in front of the net. Hagg can be a great defensive defenseman, while still assisting on plays. Not to mention, they still have Provorov and Gostisbehere, who have been two absolute bright spots on a defense that has needed contributions much like the ones they give.
Up front, you have a top line, presumably, of Giroux, Voracek, and Konecny, who are going to produce, and a second line with two rookies in Patrick and Lindblom, playing alongside veteran Wayne Simmonds. The Flyers top two lines have the potential to be point scoring machines, and their bottom to are nothing to gripe about either. Sean Couturier centering Jordan Weal and Valtteri Filppula on the third line while Mike Vecchione or Scott Laughton centering a combination of Jori Lehtera, Dale Weise, and Michael Raffl on the fourth line, either of those lines could easily contribute a goal or two a night. From top to bottom, the Flyers are built to score a lot more than they did last year. Yes, that scoring hinges on whether or not Patrick can stay healthy and adjust to the pace of the NHL, and Lindblom adjusting as well, but if they play up to par with what experts are calling for, the club should have no problem at all putting pucks in the bin.
Overall, this season seems like a freebie to Hakstol, although it shouldn’t be treated as such. According to otherleague.com, Hakstol has four years remaining on his current contract. It’s believed that Hextall wants to see this youth movement through with his administration in tact. Firing Hakstol half way through this movement would be an injustice to not only him, but the players playing for him. These young kids coming up through are learning his system, and at a rapid pace. To get rid of Hakstol too early could spell disaster for the development of these kids. Hextall owes it to Hakstol to see it through the end of his current contract, and help get these kids developed to the point where they can become consistent contributors at the NHL level.
Hell, Hakstol thrived in North Dakota where developing players was his job. Hakstol all but specialized in this aspect of the game. He deserves to at least see these kids through their entry-level contracts. The most logical situation would be for that to happen, and re-evaluate the situation closer towards the end of his contract.
Hakstol took a subpar team in 15-16 to the playoffs and was two games away from an upset of the number one seed. The guy has proven that he can coach at the NHL level. Doubters will obviously be vocal during his tribulations. However, during the high points, there’s no doubt that Hakstol is a great coach and deserves to stick around in Philly for at least a few more years. Here’s to hoping he doesn’t get the same treatment Peter Laviolette got when he lost the first three games of the 2013-2014 season.