Recently, while reading an article by BSH Radio analyst Charlie O’Connor on The Athletic about the Flyers struggling to create offense at even-strength, I decided to read the comments (huge mistake, typically). I came across a question from a reader asking about the tactics Dave Hakstol implemented at the University of North Dakota.
It has long been a debate on BSH Radio whether Hakstol developed and adapted his conservative approach out of need, deciding point shots on low-to-high plays were the safest way to create offense and not risk odd-man rushes because of the horrendous goaltending to begin the 2016-17 season, or if the lack of high-danger scoring chances was a choice made out of desire instead of necessity. The same goes for the coach’s lineup decisions, choosing “safer,” lower-ceiling players over options with more dangerous skill sets.
Hakstol coached UND for 11 seasons, making seven trips to the Frozen Four, including a national championship appearance in 2004-05, before moving on to the NHL to man the bench in Philadelphia in 2015. Hakstol’s Flyers made a playoff appearance in his first year behind the bench, but the eight-time finalist for NCAA coach of the year roused the ire of fans on Broad Street in his sophomore season.
Questionable lineup decisions, a seeming aversion to offensive creativity and goaltender management that left the fanbase scratching its collective head on a weekly basis lead Philadelphia to a sixth place finish in the Metropolitan division, seven points out of the second wildcard spot.
With more questions than explanations about Hakstol’s coaching style, I turned to Brad Elliott Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald for a look into Hakstol’s coaching style and the way he is perceived in North Dakota since his departure.
Schlossman (via his GF Herald bio) has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald for over a decade, has served as a member of Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees and has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007. In 2016 Schlossman was named top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.
Below is the exchange cited on the September 11 edition of Broad Street Hockey Radio while discussing Hakstol’s coaching style, the low-to-high offensive system and the head coach’s decision making.
Hakstol spent a decade as the head coach at UND and had quite a bit of success despite falling short of a national championship, which UND won his first year away from the program. How is Hakstol thought of now that he’s been gone for a few years?
Schlossman: Hakstol is still very popular here. Although they didn't win a national title, they never had even an average year. They were very good every year. He was a terrific recruiter and developer of teams (essentially all of his teams were better at the end of the year than the start). They did win the national title with a dominant team the first year after he left, and I think the fans recognized all the work he did to help put that team together.
Last season Hakstol came under fire from fans and some members of the media for his perceived inability to optimize his lineup, oftentimes choosing “safer” and “grittier” players like Chris VandeVelde and P-E Bellemare over higher-upside skilled players. Was this the case at UND?
You have to be a reliable player to play for Hakstol. He does take potential into equation, but he also places importance on performance as well. During the 2010-11 season, Hakstol dressed an undrafted, unheralded kid named Carter Rowney instead of a drafted, highly touted kid named Mike Cichy several times. There was some talk among fans at that time about playing Rowney over Cichy, but as we watched Rowney win the Stanley Cup this summer, we now know Hakstol was making the right call.
There were other drafted players, perceived as higher skill guys, who were unreliable and they often found themselves out of the lineup by the end of the year. Most of those guys left school and went elsewhere, though none of them took off at their new stops, either. That's not to say he didn't let players make mistakes. But as the year rolled on, he expected players to learn from it and fix their game and be reliable. If he couldn't trust them to win board battles and play smart, they wouldn't be in the lineup.
Former L.A. Kings alternate captain Matt Greene once told me that one of his favorite parts about playing for Hakstol is that he didn't care where you were drafted. He cared about what you did on a daily basis or you could risk getting scratched. I believe that's part of his culture building.
If you have top guys who feel they don't have to play hard or they can get by with doing less, that permeates through the rest of the team. If you have top players skating with the energy and tenacity of fourth-liners, that forces everyone else on the team to match that level. That's something he was able to do at UND.
Upon his hiring, it was believed that part of the reason Hak was brought into Philly was because of his experience with young players, spending 11 seasons with college-aged players at UND. However, last year many questioned his treatment of young, high skilled players like dynamic defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who had restrictions put on his playing style and was a healthy scratch for a handful of games. Was “sitting and learning” part of his development strategy in college?
One thing that I think a lot of Flyers fans lost sight of was that last year's team was never going to win the Stanley Cup. Now, a few years down the road, they may be in contention. And that's the end goal for Ron Hextall and Hakstol. They are developing this team for the future and for the longterm. If they have to sacrifice a random Wednesday game in November to build a better team for the longterm, I think they'll do it.
If Hakstol can sit a guy for a game here or there to get a better player down the line, I think he'll do it. Fans have to look at the big picture. I remember when Hakstol scratched a very skilled player named Evan Trupp one game in the middle of the 2008-09 season. I don't think that any UND fan can tell you today whether they won or lost that game, but everyone remembers how Trupp developed into a dynamite, consistent player by the end of his time at UND. Was that one scratch the reason for it? No. But did that help Trupp understand the level he has to reach every night? Probably. It wasn't common for Hakstol to scratch skilled players, but he's a very thoughtful person and isn't doing anything on a whim.
If Gostisbehere turns into a dynamite defenseman for powerful Flyers teams in a couple years, nobody is going to remember that random Wednesday in November 2016 that he didn't play.
The Flyers took far more shots from 50-feet away than the average team last season, oftentimes relying on point shots to generate offense, utilizing a low-to-high strategy rather than taking advantage of high-danger scoring areas with their top offensive talent, like Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek. The members of BSH Radio have different theories why the offensive zone play was so risk-averse. I believe part of the reason was because the goaltending was putrid to begin 2016-17, so Hakstol adapted to not committing as many players deep in the zone. Others believe, due in part to reining in players like Travis Konecny and Gostisbehere, that he is simply a conservative coach. How would you classify his coaching style and system at UND?
I would guess it's a little bit of both. At UND, he had a lot of different styles of teams and was able to win with all of them. UND had some very talented defensive corps during Hakstol's last few years, and he definitely wanted them to be involved in a five-man cycle. There is a structure in which they play, but Hakstol liked his defensemen being involved offensively... and not just with point shots.
We’ve seen in Philadelphia a growing contingent of Eagles supporters in ND since they drafted Carson Wentz out of NDSU. Is there a similar interest in the Flyers among UND supporters/North Dakotans (is that what natives of North Dakota are called?)?
Yes, we are called North Dakotans. People here do follow the Flyers, but there are a ton of other former UND players in the pros, too, and they like following those guys as well. A lot of people here are fans of Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews and T.J. Oshie and cheer for them. Although not a lot of people here seem to be real fond of the Penguins, a lot of people were cheering them on because of Carter Rowney this year. If the Flyers make the playoffs, you'll see everyone here cheering them on because of Hakstol.