Like his enigmatic hockey team, Flyers coach Dave Hakstol had an up-and-down season.
There were decisions that turned golden – such as moving captain Claude Giroux from center to left wing before the season – and others that left you scratching your head.
There were long losing streaks that seemed to be followed by stretches when the Flyers refused to lose in regulation.
There were numerous wins against the conference’s best teams – on the road, no less — and too many losses to also-rans. Oh, and way too many losses on home ice.
Put it all together, and Hakstol gets mixed reviews. If we were grading, he’d get a “B” for steering his team around numerous obstacles and into the playoffs, but it would drop to a C-plus because of the Flyers’ erratic performance in the conference quarterfinals against flawed Pittsburgh.
Next season, the fourth in his five-year deal, the bar should be set higher, much higher.
General manager Ron Hextall finally has some cap space and should add a couple of pieces that enhance the team. Coupled with the expected continued development of the young players, the Flyers should be poised to win their first playoff series since 2012.
If they don’t, Hakstol might not get to the final year of his contract.
In other words, the honeymoon period between Hakstol and the man who thought out of the box to hire him out of the college ranks, Hextall, should be over.
After they were eliminated by the Penguins in six games, Hextall said the Flyers’ play this season was “too inconsistent.” The same could be said for the always-stoic Hakstol. Here’s a look:
Moving Giroux to left wing turned out to be a stroke of genius. Not only did Giroux have a career year with 102 points, but he also brought out the best in his linemates, Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny. Couturier, known for his defensive work, became a legitimate top-line center (31 goals, 76 points), and Konecny had a career-high 24 goals.
Under Hakstol’s direction, several young players took impressive steps. In addition, the Flyers excelled on the road (20-13-8), not an easy feat when you consider the team’s defense usually included three or four players in their first or second full seasons.
Hakstol’s Flyers (98 points) had 10 more points than they had the previous season, improved dramatically in five-on-five play, and showed remarkable resilience. They became the fifth team in NHL history to win six straight games immediately after a 10-game skid.
There was also a 10-0-2 run that put the Flyers briefly in first place in the Metropolitan Division on Feb. 20. They had been in last place a little less than three months earlier.
The Flyers, who had the NHL’s fifth-most points from Dec. 4 to the end of the regular season, finished on a 7-1-3 run to clinch their second playoff spot in Hakstol’s three years.
There was the aforementioned 10-game winless streak, a late-season slump when they lost seven of eight, the disappointing home record (22 wins, 19 losses), and the maddening way they played up or down to their competition.
Hakstol overused goalie Brian Elliott – giving him 16 straight starts at one point – and it might have led to his core-muscle injury that required surgery.
He stubbornly stuck with the Radko Gudas-Brandon Manning defensive pairing as it struggled mightily, and his late-season benching of rookie Robert Hagg – one of the team’s most physical and dependable defensemen for most of season – was extremely curious.
Hakstol struck gold when he put Konecny on the top line on Dec. 23. Trying to get more balance, he took Konecny off that unit in the last two games of the regular season and in the playoffs. The move backfired.
Konecny finished with 20 goals in his 41 games with the top line, and just four goals in his 40 games on other lines — and only one tally in the playoffs.
Having the last line change is supposed to help the home team and its coach, right?
Not against the hated Penguins.
The Flyers lost all five home games against Pittsburgh, including three in the playoffs. They were outscored by a 28-9 margin in those five games at the Wells Fargo Center, and 18-6 in the playoffs.
Even though the Penguins were missing two of their top-six forwards, the Flyers blew a 4-2 second-period lead in Game 6, partly because Gudas’ two turnovers led to goals that enabled Pittsburgh to tie the score. Another reason: Hakstol inexplicably played the gallant Ivan Provorov for 20 minutes, 31 seconds (no Flyer played more than his 28 shifts) even though he had a separated left shoulder and had problems stickhandling and shooting. He committed two turnovers that led to two third-period goals, including the winner.
Hakstol made a major mistake by not dressing seven defensemen and by leaving Travis Sanheim in the press box. Hakstol has directed two teams into the playoffs in his three seasons, and they have been outscored, 38-8, in their eight losses.
The Flyers need to make strides in several areas next season – better starts, improved consistency, more inspired play at home – and it’s imperative that Hextall upgrades the weak penalty kill (among other areas) in the offseason.
If they do and they actually win a playoff series, Hakstol will be on his way to becoming just the second man in franchise history to coach at least five full seasons, joining the iconic Fred Shero.
If they don’t, Phantoms coach Scott Gordon, who has done a great job developing many of the young players now playing for the Flyers, is waiting in the wings.