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Philadelphia Flyers 2017-18 Midterm Report Cards: Dave Hakstol

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The third-year coach’s performance this year has opened up a lot of questions from the fanbase.

Dallas Stars v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

At long last, the bye week has reached its end, and with it, so has our mid-term report card series. After going through the seasons of each of the main 23 players on the Flyers’ roster on Monday through Thursday (apologies for missing yesterday; as always, you can blame that on me), we complete the series today with the man behind the bench.

Yes, we must take a look at the job that head coach Dave Hakstol has done, and how that work has contributed to the Flyers’ current standing in the 2017-18 season. We’ll depart a bit from the format we’ve utilized for our player reviews, and will instead ask four key questions about the Flyers’ bench boss and go in-depth on each one, though we’ll still put a grade at the bottom of the evaluation and will include a poll so you can do the same.

We will refrain from explicitly grading assistants, such as Ian Laperriere and Kris Knoblauch. Without much clear visibility into how much a decision (and its in-turn result) is the product of a given assistant and how much goes to the man in charge, it’s tough to really allocate credit and blame thusly. So we’ll roll everything up under Hakstol.

With that, let’s begin.


1. What are some of Hakstol’s biggest pluses and jobs-well-done this season?

The decision to turn Sean Couturier into the Flyers’ first-line center, and to put Claude Giroux on his wing, was a fairly risky move that has ended up being an absolute home run for all parties involved. Couturier, one of the few Flyers to see his play and statistical profile meaningfully improve during Hakstol’s tenure in Philadelphia, has gone from a player who posted good results in second-line minutes to a legitimate first-line center posting a point per game. Giroux, feared by many fans to be in steep decline after a rough 2016-17 season, is currently on pace for a career-high in points and would be a legitimate Hart Trophy contender if the Flyers were a better team. Any player who jumps up to the wing alongside Giroux and Couturier instantly looks like a world-beater. Without the efforts of its top line, this team would be in a lot of trouble. (About that...)

If we’re giving out partial credit here, his recent decision to pair his two best defensemen together at 5-on-5 has not only made them both more fun to watch but has helped them both show off their immense potential after they both spent most of the season with pretty unimpressive partners. (About that...)

Essentially, if you wanted to make a case for Hakstol, you could argue that right now he’s getting the most out of his best players, which is crucial to keeping his team in the playoff race. Of course, that could have to do with the rest of the lineup, which brings us to our next point ...

2. What are some of Hakstol’s biggest mistakes and questionable decisions this season?

Well ...

  • Spent the healthy majority of the season pairing his two most talented defensemen with third-pair-at-best defensive partners (hey, we did say partial credit up there, didn’t we?)
  • Insists on justifying certain decisions based on experience and who is/isn’t a veteran, but then gives his actual best veteran defenseman third-pair minutes while giving worse defensemen top-4 minutes
  • Has got just about nothing out of the team’s second overall pick from seven months ago
  • Has played Jori Lehtera 24 different times, when his level of play while on the ice suggests that he should be playing more or less in case of emergencies only
  • Seems to understand Dale Weise’s limitations since he is is often a healthy-scratch and has the second-lowest average ice time among forwards, yet repeatedly puts him with top-9 forwards and sometimes even on the power play when he is active and in the lineup
  • Has kept Valtteri Filppula in a top-6 role all season despite play that has unquestionably trended in the wrong direction after a decent start
  • Has either overseen a penalty kill that has been below-average for the third season in a row or has given entirely too much free reign to an assistant that has overseen a penalty kill that has been below-average for the third season in a row
  • Has given an oversized role to a defensively-oriented rookie defenseman who has largely been propped up by unsustainably high on-ice save percentages
  • Has given a diminished role to an offensively-oriented rookie defenseman who has largely been dragged down by unsustainably low on-ice save percentages
  • Has, on that note, shown increasing difficulty showing faith in any sort of underlying process with certain players and has instead seemed to base many ice time and usage decisions simply on whether the puck went in on a given sequence or not
  • Has, also on that note and most importantly, mostly struggled to show tangible, on-ice progress in developing young players, something he was explicitly brought here to do (more on this in a bit)

Are there more? There may be more. Those are the ones that bug me the most.

3. Clearly, there is some degree of frustration with Hakstol from a lot of the fanbase. Despite that, Hextall has stood by his coach and publicly supported him, even in the midst of the 10-game losing streak. At this point, it’s extremely difficult to envision the Flyers firing Hakstol in-season. With that said, what would have to happen between now and the end of the season for Ron Hextall to decide that a change is necessary behind the bench? And how likely is it that that happens?

It is evident that firing Dave Hakstol is not something that Ron Hextall wants to do. And on the surface, that’s understandable. Hextall was the one who stuck his own neck out to make a somewhat unorthodox hire, bringing a coach with no NHL experience straight from the NCAA to hockey’s highest level — something that hadn’t been done in the NHL since the 1980’s and giving him a lengthy contract*. The situation would have to be pretty clearly untenable for Hextall to drop the ax on his coach at the end of the year.

The read from here (and I speak with no inside sources) is that as long as there’s something that the GM can, on behalf of his team, claim a victory on at the end of the season, the head coach will get enough credit to stay on board. There need to be serious problems in the here-and-now and major questions about the long-term, I think, for Hextall to decide he has to admit defeat and move on from Hakstol.

If the Flyers finish the season with 90 points and just miss out on a playoff spot (as they’re currently on pace to do), Hakstol probably is safe. A narrow miss while fighting in one of the deepest divisions in recent NHL history probably buys the head coach another year from his boss. It’d be easy enough for Hextall to justify painting the season as a victory, with the team staying somewhat competitive despite an influx of young players onto the NHL roster.

It would probably take an end-result like the one that the Flyers had in 2014-15, in which they ended with 84 points, the seventh pick of the draft, and a head coach out of a job. In other words, they’d probably need to be somewhere close to a “.500” record, which would definitely keep them out of any sort of playoff race.

If this were to happen, it’d mean that there was a meaningful step back in the season’s second half that made the team non-competitive down the stretch. That’d be a bad look in general; it’d be a particularly bad look, more importantly (in my opinion), for a team with as much youth on it as the Flyers have, as you would hope that players that are getting used to the NHL would be improving as the season goes on (and that the team would, in turn, be improving with them).

Is that “within reach” for this team? Probably, yes. This is a team of high-variance and inconsistency, even by the lofty standards of high-variance and inconsistency that the NHL sets for itself. If the top players cool off just a bit, if the goaltending goes off the tracks, and if other players don’t take big enough steps forward to make up for it? It could happen. But as of now, it seems likely that this team will need to be even worse than it currently is for Hakstol to lose his job after the season.

* Initial reporting at the time of the deal from Frank Seravalli, then of the Daily News, was that Hakstol’s contract was a five-year deal. More recent reporting from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman has suggested that it is a six-year deal. We at BSH cannot confirm either report.

4. Now let’s flip that last question on its head: what would have to happen between now and the end of the season to convince those that are out, or close to it, on Hakstol that he deserves another year as head coach of the team?

I can’t speak for everyone here, as I know there are people who are irretrievably out on Hakstol and won’t be satisfied with any result that doesn’t involve him being fired. I’ll try to answer here as someone who has major concerns but isn’t at the point where I couldn’t possibly be convinced otherwise if things change.

The long-term questions with Hakstol, in my view, more or less boil down to these two things:

  1. Can he take the 23 players on his roster available to them and, more often than not, optimize that group into something close to the best possible lineup (and exploit the strengths of that lineup) to win games?
  2. Can he get the most out of this team’s young players as they attempt to develop into real NHLers and potential future core pieces?

I’m of two minds regarding the first point. On the one hand, if it wasn’t clear from question number 2 a bit earlier, I have several gripes with Hakstol’s lineup choices. Even if this roster reaches legitimate contender status, I have little doubt that I’d have at least a few bones to pick with the 19 guys that Hakstol chooses on a lot of nights, as well as with how those 19 guys are used. But on the other hand, I also think that pretty much any coach that the Flyers may hire is going to have these same kinds of concerns, and that firing Hakstol is probably not going to cure this issue. (Please let it be known that “other guys struggle at this too” is by no means a defense of Hakstol doing it poorly, just an acknowledgment of the reality that getting rid of him is likely not going to solve this issue to a noteworthy extent.)

The question regarding youth is maybe more pressing, as the Flyers have given four rookies fairly regular ice time this year and will likely have another three or so next season. There is obviously tremendous upside in a group that was hailed as the top prospect group in hockey by some heading into the season, and with that tremendous upside should come tremendous responsibility that the coach handle and develop it properly.

And yet, through our player-by-player reviews, what has been said about young players that reflects positively on the coach? The fact that Robert Hagg is good in his own zone? Travis Sanheim, after being one of the best offensive defensemen in the AHL last year, can’t crack sixth-defenseman minutes on a regular basis and is getting scratched right now, halfway through his rookie year. Nolan Patrick has been one of the least productive rookies in the NHL. Travis Konecny has been basically the same player that he was last year. So has Ivan Provorov.

In an interview with NBCS Philly the day after fans chanted “Fire Hakstol!” during a loss to the San Jose Sharks, Hextall went out of his way to mention how great Hakstol is with young players, even mentioning that ‘Hak does a lot of things behind the scenes for young players’”. I’m sure that’s true, and that he’s trying to teach these guys.

But no matter what’s going on behind the scenes, us commoners out here can only judge what we’re seeing out on the ice. And from what we can see, it’s tough to shake the feeling that there’s a degree of stagnancy in how the potential future core of this team has progressed throughout the season. In a year where the youth movement was really supposed to be kick-started, that’s as big of a disappointment as anything.

And that, to me, is the biggest key to getting people on the fence back on Dave Hakstol’s side. Nolan Patrick ending the year in the 30s in points, rather than the 18 he’s currently on pace for. Travis Sanheim (and even Robert Hagg) getting top-4 minutes because the coach knows he’s earned them, and not just because he may have had a few lucky games with PDO. Provorov and Ghost and Konecny posting top-of-the-lineup results like we know that their talent levels suggest that they can. (And it should go without saying that, if these things are happening, the Flyers are probably a good enough team to find their way into the playoffs.)

Those kinds of steps would go a long way — and not just for those players, but for the fates of these other guys that have helped make up one of hockey’s best prospect pools. If I can grow confident in how Hakstol is handling the likes of Patrick and Sanheim, I can be more confident that he’ll fare well with the likes of Phil Myers and Morgan Frost when the time comes. I just need the former to happen before I can get to the latter.

I have had my concerns about what’s gone on this season, and I think Hakstol’s job status is probably more secure right now than it should be. But if it’s April, and Hakstol has this team in the playoffs on the backs of strong second-half performances by both his talented veteran players and his talented young players? Those are the pieces that matter far more than anything else in the big picture, and if Hakstol is pushing the right buttons with them by April, I’d be forced to reconsider my opinion of how he’s doing.

But until then ...

5. What’s his grade for the season?

C-.

I am also sure that grade (one which, for reference’s sake, has one comparable among our 23 player grades, that being Valtteri Filppula) is not going to be low enough for a lot of our readers, so allow me to elaborate a bit.

The average Flyers fan entered this season probably expecting this team to be a bubble team, one that would be right in the playoff chase and something of a coin-flip to make the postseason or not. As we stand today, the Flyers ... are just barely eighth in the East in points percentage, have a +1 goal differential as a team (+4 if you toss out shootouts), and have probably just a bit less than a coin-flip shot at making the postseason. The over/under line on standings points for the Flyers entering the season at Bovada was 90.5. As we stand today, the Flyers ... are currently on pace for 90 points.

At a macro level, this team is about where most probably expected it to be, maybe just a bit below. In that vein, despite all of my objections, an F or something along those lines for the coach seems excessively harsh.

And yet, if the first 17,000 or so words of this series weren’t enough of a hint, we don’t just look at this team at a macro level. If you had told me before the season that Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Jakub Voracek would all be at or above a point-per-game this season, and that the Flyers would be third in the NHL in 5-on-5 save percentage, I would have emptied my bank account on the over on that aforementioned 90.5-point line, and I’d be feeling pretty nervous about it right now. Even if you want to give Hakstol credit for the resurgences/emergences of the Ginger Beard Men (and, as I acknowledged above, I’m willing to do that to some extent), the fact of the matter is that this coach is getting very little out of somewhere around two-thirds of his lineup. That, simply, is not good enough.

Is that because he’s not playing the right players? Is it because he has certain players in the wrong roles? Is it because young talent hasn’t developed under him the way we were hoping it would? Is it because, systemically, he’s not getting enough out of the players on the ice? Is it on the players themselves for not being good enough? Is it on the general manager for not acquiring and/or promoting better players?

I think it’s some combination of parts of all of those explanations, and while not all of those are problems that lay at the feet of the coaches, enough of them are that some questions have to be asked.

Dave Hakstol was brought to the Philadelphia Flyers three summers ago, above all, for one reason: to usher in the youth movement that Ron Hextall was putting in place on this team. Halfway through Hakstol’s third season, we’ve yet to really see that movement take flight the way we were hoping for, even really just at basic levels. If you were iffy or even just on the fence on Hakstol coming into the season, what you’ve seen since has almost certainly not changed your mind for the better. That’s pretty discouraging, and whether the front office agrees or not, the second half of this season should require meaningful improvements for Hakstol to be this team’s coach again next year.

Poll

How would you grade Dave Hakstol’s job in the first half of the 2017-18 season?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    A+
    (5 votes)
  • 0%
    A
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    A-
    (3 votes)
  • 2%
    B+
    (17 votes)
  • 5%
    B
    (40 votes)
  • 8%
    B-
    (59 votes)
  • 8%
    C+
    (56 votes)
  • 19%
    C
    (133 votes)
  • 14%
    C-
    (96 votes)
  • 16%
    D+
    (115 votes)
  • 10%
    D
    (75 votes)
  • 5%
    D-
    (37 votes)
  • 6%
    F
    (45 votes)
683 votes total Vote Now

If you’re asking “hey, where’s the Hextall report card? You told us at the beginning of the week that there would be one!”, there will not be, for two reasons:

  1. I kind of just ran out of time to write this week. (It’s mostly this one.)
  2. Grading a GM’s job mid-season is hard, if only because so much of what happens in a given season is a product of what a GM’s done over several seasons and not just one, and because there are long-run objectives of being a general manager that go beyond “how is this team performing this season”.

But, because we love you, we’ll put a poll in here for you all to vote on what you’ve thought of Hextall’s work and how it pertains to the Flyers’ performance this season, free from any potential influence of our own opinions. (If you’d like to be influenced by our opinions, however, my thoughts from early December on where this team is going long-term still more or less capture where I am on things.)

Poll

How would you grade Ron Hextall’s job performance as it relates to the first half of the 2017-18 hockey season?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    A+
    (10 votes)
  • 4%
    A
    (22 votes)
  • 5%
    A-
    (27 votes)
  • 13%
    B+
    (64 votes)
  • 22%
    B
    (109 votes)
  • 14%
    B-
    (67 votes)
  • 8%
    C+
    (41 votes)
  • 13%
    C
    (66 votes)
  • 6%
    C-
    (33 votes)
  • 2%
    D+
    (13 votes)
  • 1%
    D
    (7 votes)
  • 1%
    D-
    (5 votes)
  • 2%
    F
    (11 votes)
475 votes total Vote Now

Previously in Flyers 2017-18 Midterm Report Cards: