The knee-jerk reaction after a game like Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to Vancouver, after a streak of harrowing mistakes and missed chances that has now extended throughout eight of their last 10 games, is to look hard at the coach.
When Ron Hextall tabbed Dave Hakstol to replace Craig Berube as his head coach three Junes ago, he lauded the “culture” that Hakstol had instilled at the University of North Dakota and spoke optimistically of it translating at the pro level.
Amid the Flyers’ roster upheaval and youth infusion, that has proved much more difficult for Hakstol to establish. Holding the puck too long, hurrying shots, bad line changes: these are many of the things that led Hextall to replace Berube.
Which leads to the obvious debate. Is this the offshoot of a bad coaching choice the general manager is reluctant to own up to? Is it the offshoot of too much youth infused in too little time?
Or is it — and given the Flyers’ rich recent history in this department, this is the most unnerving possibility — evidence that the young, lauded talent has been overvalued?
In other words, are we looking too hard at the guy coaching the players and not hard enough at the guy or guys picking them?
Did we fall in love with Travis Konecny too soon?
Is Jordan Weal returning to the player the Flyers waived a year ago?
Is the fact that 21 games in, Samuel Morin has just now been promoted to this unimpressive and oft-injured defensive corps, and that Travis Sanheim has struggled mightily at times, not a reflection of Hakstol’s coaching as much as Hextall’s evaluating?
Or is this — here’s a calming thought — just one big dose of growing pains that feels worse than it is because of a rash of injuries that have pushed players such as Sanheim and the now-demoted Mark Alt into more prominent roles? And because of the Flyers’ recent history of playoff absences and early departures?
Consider some of what occurred in Tuesday’s loss.
Sanheim and Alt left the ice simulataneously — a hockey no-no — at precisely the same time Jordan Weal sloppily turned over the puck in the neutral zone, allowing Vancouver’s Brock Boeser to skate in unencumbered for the Canucks’ second goal.
A 2-for-2 on power play goals allowed in the second period, one game after allowing three in Saturday’s overtime loss to Winnipeg.
That followed a game in which Sanheim, replacing the suspended Radko Gudas, made a costly offensive-zone pinch that allowed a momentum swinging odd-man rush and goal the other way.
“It’s tough,” Hakstol admitted after Tuesday’s ugly home loss, the sixth in the Flyers’ last seven home games. “Though, and I’ll be honest, I think we knew we were going to go through a couple of tough times.”
Think, for a moment, about Brett Brown and what he has been through with Sam Hinkie’s process. Brown’s record as an NBA head coach was 84-260 heading into Wednesday’s game against the Trail Blazers. But even his detractors would agree that’s an unfair measurement of his coaching acumen.
After all, the guy won a league championship in Australia, took that country’s national team on a surprising run in the Olympics, and was lauded for his work as Gregg Popovich’s trusted assistant in San Antonio.
Did Brown suddenly get bad? Hardly, but some of those high draft picks surely did.
Even now, five years into The Process and three seasons after Joel Embiid was drafted, we don’t know whether his injury history is simply the offshoot of a child growing into a man’s body or a chronic problem that will threaten his impact and longevity.
The same can be said for the string of injuries rookie center Nolan Patrick has suffered stretching back to his Midget days. Will they be footnotes of an anticipated stellar career? Or defining characteristics of an unfulfilled one?
Will the abundance of draft picks Hextall has accumulated eventually allow us to see Hakstol’s true coaching acumen? Or — again, the unnerving thought — have we seen it in this latest edition of what has been, for most of his tenure, a maddeningly up-and-down team?
“You go through some nights like this where, honestly, not a lot of stuff goes right,” Hakstol said late Tuesday night. “You have got to own it. We have to do better. You can’t sit back and rest on a lack of confidence. You give yourself confidence by preparation and work ethic, togetherness. Those are things that we have to put back into our game [tonight].”