Dave Hakstol, a tight-lipped fellow from Alberta whose tenure here has not been marked by wild bursts of laughter, is currently the 19th head coach in Philadelphia Flyers history. If you choose to count Bob McCammon twice, which seems only fair, then Hakstol is the 20th.
Hakstol is coaching at the start of his third season here, still relatively new to town, but if he finishes this season, only seven of the previous coaches will have served more games. That’s a remarkable testament to the tenuous nature of NHL coaching in general, and to the Flyers’ particular tradition of changing horses at the first sign of a thrown shoe.
There are hummingbirds with more patience than the organization during most of the time it was presided over by founder Ed Snider, who didn’t like to lose and wasn’t all that fond of ties, either. The Flyers were quick to change directions with their roster, often disastrously, and quick to change the man behind the bench as well.
It is telling that eight of the team’s head coaches were horses that arrived midstream during the playing of a season. Something wasn’t going in the right direction and, by God, the compass was going to be swung around. Wayne Cashman was relieved of duty in 1998 after an overtime win against a Pittsburgh team that was on the way to racking up 98 points that season.
The point is that if Dave Hakstol had come along at another time in franchise history, maybe at any other time in franchise history, his prospect of finishing this season, or this week, would not be as promising.
Forever and ever, winning right away – tonight! – was the only measure. If Hakstol were winning, it wouldn’t matter if he ever smiled. Freddy “The Fog” Shero, bless his soul, was as goofy as he could be. If there was something he wanted to tell a player, he would put a note in the guy’s locker. He did a lot of odd things like that. But Shero also won two Stanley Cups, and that’s why his name is at the top of the list here with 711 games coached, more than 300 better than the next man.
I don’t like Hakstol’s chances of catching Freddy, but he’ll get farther with general manager Ron Hextall calling the shots than he would have during other more hasty administrations. Regardless, it would be a good idea to start winning some games soon.
The Flyers will host Boston on Saturday hoping to end a nine-game losing streak. It hasn’t been pretty, but they have extracted five points from the mess, one in a shootout and the other four in overtime losses. The Flyers have held leads in the last seven games of the stretch before melting down, including two-goal leads in four of those games.
Hakstol has chosen to repeatedly praise his team for getting those points in the manner of someone surveying a totaled car who is pleased the hubcaps are still in place. He’s accurate, of course. This could have been even worse and there is something to be said for being only a critical play here or there from winning, but it’s not the kind of thing that sits well with the fans, who absorbed Snider’s impatience by osmosis over the course of 50 years.
When the Flyers were losing, 3-1, at home Tuesday to San Jose after blowing yet another lead, chants of “Fire Hakstol” rose from the stands, reaching the balcony aerie from which Hextall watches the games.
“Obviously, results lately are not very good,” Hextall said. “We deserved better, but we haven’t gotten better.”
It could be they are getting what teams get when they are going through a difficult building period, even if it is one not acknowledged out loud, and none of it is necessarily Hakstol’s fault. The organization has given him a journeyman goalie playing with his fifth NHL team who isn’t going to lift a team. Brian Elliott is 25th in the NHL (10 games or more) for save percentage and 27th in goals-against average. In front of Elliott, the team’s top two defensemen for minutes played – Ivan Provorov and Robert Hagg – are 21 and 22, respectively.
This is a Flyers team trying to change on the fly, and the coach and GM are doing their best to hold things together while the changes take place. Claude Giroux, the face of the team for the past few years, is 30 years old now. The mixture of young and old on the roster is jarring and doesn’t make for a smooth game at times.
Hakstol has the support of the general manager, and that will help him in the locker room. It won’t help him in the stands if the results don’t improve, however. Nothing will help him in that case, because an organization that has recently discovered patience still doesn’t have an unlimited supply, even though the phone no longer blinks with yet another call from Malibu.