When the Flyers first hired Dave Hakstol as the 19th Head Coach in team history, reactions were initially mixed. Many fans wished the Flyers had hired an experienced NHL head coach like Mike Babcock, Todd McLellan, or Guy Boucher, among others. Others were satisfied with the Flyers choosing to go with a coach of the future, a progressive head coach who specializes in working with young players.
Two years later, the jury is still out on Hakstol’s long term fit with the Flyers. After one highly successful playoff season and one disappointing campaign that will finish .500 at best and saw many frustrating personnel decisions, Year 3 of the Dave Hakstol regime will be the most critical in determining his place in the Flyers’ future.
So what exactly made Hakstol’s first season such a success? His players got off to a slow start, but banded together as they bought into his system around the turn of the new calendar year. Hakstol’s aggressive forechecking system forced turnovers in the neutral zone, and the Flyers’ skill players were there to pick up the loose pucks and convert them into goals down the other end. His goaltending was also among the top tandems in the league.
Nothing much has changed in terms of the Flyers’ strategy this year. In fact, the team even got a bit younger and faster. Therefore, one would think that the Flyers would only improve.
The thing is though, the Flyers have become predictable. At even strength, they consistently rely on dumping and chasing the puck in the offensive zone and often settle for shots from the blue line or the circles rather than areas in the high slot. On the power play, the Flyers are running the same alignment they have for the last 6 years, and opponents are finally figuring out how to stop it. The penalty kill has applied minimal pressure, and has given up many high-quality scoring chances.
Defensively, the Flyers have been inconsistent. Some players, like Ivan Provorov and Radko Gudas have tried hard and are playing good hockey, but others just suffer too many untimely breakdowns. And when you have as unreliable a goaltending duo as the Flyers do, this is ultimately going to result in lots of goals against.
Not all of this is Dave Hakstol’s fault. The Flyers do have a flawed roster and are a team in transition. However, Hakstol has been adamant on not changing his philosophy to work with what he has been given. And when combined with his penchant for playing certain veteran players more than some of his talented rookies, he has made some Philly fans question if he is truly the right fit for the job.
Let’s break this down. Hakstol has three years remaining on a five-year deal he signed back in 2015, and he isn’t going to completely change the way he coaches just because of one mediocre year. Hakstol is a firm believer in his coaching technique, and Flyers management obviously is too. He was signed to be the coach of the Flyers of tomorrow, so shouldn’t we at least give the guy a chance to work with the next crop of great Flyers prospects? Hakstol definitely needs to retool the Flyers’ strategy, but he does not need to completely renovate it.
As for Hakstol’s personnel decisions, there really is no excuse for some of the moves he’s made. He has healthy scratched players like Travis Konecny, Matt Read, Nick Cousins, Michael Del Zotto, and even Shayne Gostisbehere on occasion. Now I do support making players a healthy scratch if their play has declined and there is a valid alternative. At the times when these players were scratched though, none of these criteria were met.
These are integral young players that provide speed to the Flyers lineup, and the alternatives included Chris VandeVelde, Roman Lyubimov, Andrew MacDonald, or Nick Schultz. Futhermore, these players often received big minutes, with predictable results. Even when these players were in the lineup, the VandeVeldes and MacDonalds of the world were there to take their minutes, however undeserved a punishment it was. This is something that Hakstol has to change fast. There is no excuse for a team in transition to be repeatedly playing ineffective veterans over eager prospects.
The Flyers have accepted that they will miss the playoffs this year, and have resorted to recalling some of their top prospects from the American Hockey League. Jordan Weal, Sam Morin, Anthony Stolarz, and veteran Colin McDonald have been recalled from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in recent weeks (along with Union College signing Mike Vecchione), and have provided a spark to the club. This is the group that Hakstol is supposed to be doing his best work with, and so far the results have been encouraging.
But if the Flyers are going to return to the playoffs next year, they will need to get more out of their veterans. Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn notwithstanding, the Flyers haven’t gotten the expected production from their roster. Claude Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere were hobbled for much of the season following surgery, and their play consequently lagged. The goaltending was streaky and the defense was frustrating, and GM Ron Hextall has to make the right moves this summer to ensure that he builds a better squad for next season.
Ultimately though, it comes down to what Dave Hakstol can do to help the Flyers down the road. Hakstol has guided his team to a 41-win playoff season and a 39-win playoff-less season. This year really hasn’t been that big of a dropoff in the win column, which is a bit hard to believe given how poor the Flyers have looked at times.
Next year, Hakstol will be given his youngest, fastest team yet. The aforementioned prospects will be given every chance to make the club out of training camp, and more help could be on the way with budding Travis Sanheim, Robert Hagg, Oskar Lindblom, and Greg Carey only a phone call and a 2-hour drive away from Philadelphia.
Hakstol has not had an easy go of things in Philly, but he knew this when he accepted the job. He was given assurance that he will have time to build his own unique team, and he deserves that right. Next year will be his first chance to show just what kind of team the Flyers have in store for the future. If the team bounces back, Hakstol simply had a miscast roster and needed more time. But if the Flyers falter again next year, Hakstol’s time as bench boss could be running out.