Dave Hakstol is in his third season as Flyers coach, and his achievements thus far are as murkily defined as many of the decisions made to achieve them.
The Flyers surged to an unlikely playoff spot with 96 points in his first season, missed the playoffs in his second season with 88. This year, as Hakstol tried to integrate the young talent emerging from the organization’s deep farm system with less able but arguably more prudent veteran role players, the Flyers have been a cauldron of inconsistency en route to 98 points. When the team dropped 10 straight games from Nov. 11 to Dec. 2, head honcho Dave Scott mulled whether he had the right hierarchy in place.
“I think there was a moment there, we hit a few speed bumps and you ponder things,’’ Scott, the president and CEO of Comcast Spectacor, said after the Flyers surged in February. “But we doubled down on Ron [Hextall, the general manager] and the system, and we’re really pleased where we are.’’
They were then. But the Flyers’ red-hot February was followed by a tepid March that necessitated a final-week rally for them to reach the postseason. And an uninspiring performance against Pittsburgh in the first-round series that begins Wednesday could begin the pondering all over again.
Depending on the market and building ownership/lease deals, it has been estimated that NHL teams earn an additional $500,000 to $1 million for each home playoff game. That’s playoff pressure for a core group that hasn’t emerged from the first round since 2012.
But it’s also pressure for Hakstol, who, like it or not, carries the hopes of his old college-coaching peers. Interestingly, the Rangers’ wish list to replace Alain Vigneault as head coach features almost as many coaches from the college ranks as the pros, including Union’s Rick Bennett, a former NHL player who coached Shayne Gostisbehere and Mike Vecchione.
There’s a certain amount of heat still on Hextall, as well, for hiring Hakstol, reportedly after 2008 Stanley Cup winner Mike Babcock elected to take the Toronto job instead. Asked by a reporter recently whether making the playoffs amid all the tumult of this season would be an achievement in itself, Hextall sounded a little like Jim Mora.
“Achievement?’’Hextall asked. “Making the playoffs? I don’t know. We kind of expect to make the playoffs. I don’t know if I would look at that as much as an achievement but rather the first step in the process.
“It’s not like that’s our endgame. … There’s a lot to do after that. I don’t think anyone around here is satisfied.’’
That sounds like wavering support, although in the same interview, Hextall said this when asked about Hakstol’s progress:
“I think he hit the ground running. I mean, he did a lot of research. One thing about Hak: He works hard. And that first summer, he’s not a guy who’s just going to sit around and not talk to people about how to handle pros. He did a lot of research that first summer, and I think the guys had instant respect for him. Like if you work hard, players will respect you. And they all knew he worked hard. And I think he had as much respect as you can have coming from that level right off the bat.
“There’s an adjustment for anybody coming from college or junior hockey, for sure, as a coach. Because in college ranks or junior ranks, you have a team and they all make basically the same money. Which is basically nothing. You don’t have the egos and certain things that go along with pros. Guys who have been around a long time, rookies – the managing part is a lot different here than it is at the lower levels.
“In saying that, they’re still people. You’ve got to treat them like people. And I think Hak has done a good job adjusting from college, where the dynamic is totally different than the pros. The one thing I said back then was that he treated his players in college like men, not boys. And I think that’s why my feeling was that he could translate and deal with pros more quickly than some people at that level.’’
He’s done that. The irony of the recurring criticism directed his way is that he favors veterans with less upside than the mistake-prone, first- and second-year players projected to be key parts in this team’s quest to join the NHL elites. Fans and media alike are often perplexed by his trust in players such as Brandon Manning and Radko Gudas over Travis Sanheim and now Robert Hagg, or by leaving young, faster players such as Jordan Weal and Taylor Leier in the press box while he plays skating-challenged vets such as Jori Lehtera.
Hakstol rarely criticizes players in public, so the rationale for his decisions about whom he plays is often obscure, or at least incomplete. When it was suggested to Hextall that some were hard to quantify, he said: “It’s not hard to quantify. Our coaches watch hours and hours and hours of video. So I watch the game from up top, you guys watch the game from up top, they see about 50 times more than we see. So decisions are made.’’
And when veterans such as Gudas, Lehtera and, most recently, Wayne Simmonds make the kind of mistakes that rookies are benched for? “There are ramifications,’’ Hextall said. “Trust me.’’
We will have to. Because while Hakstol’s tough love toward his younger players is well documented through scratches, demotions, and lesser roles, critiques of his veterans often sound like they are about kids. Recently, for example, after Gudas had a particularly rough game, the coach conceded he needed to be stronger on the puck but then quickly lauded the six-year veteran for his “effort.’’
“There’s so many different things from recognizing details that happen during the play and on the ice to having the ability to read and react to that play,’’ the coach said. “As much as you want to prepare for that game and have structure … the more experience you have, along with hockey sense, puts you in a stronger position to make those right reads, and be able to make the play.
“Young guys are still very effective. … But don’t ever discount the importance of a veteran presence, whether it’s in the dressing room after a positive or tough situation, or whether it’s on the ice part of the action and feel from the play.’’
So what’s the grade after Hakstol’s completion of his third regular season? With two playoff appearances amid the Flyers’ transition from one of the oldest to one of the youngest teams, his job appears secure for now.
But as Hextall said that day, getting there is not an achievement.
Winning a playoff series or two would be.
“I think we’re a better team than two years ago,’’ the GM said. “Deeper. More responsible. Little bit more experience. And we’ve got some youth there for a little pop.’’
How close to joining the elites?
“We’ve got work to do,’’ he responded.