Alright, gang. Enough is enough. It’s time for the Flyers to move on from Dave Hakstol.
On the surface, calling for a team to fire their head coach just eleven games into the season looks a bit hasty, but this thought has been lingering in many heads, my own included, for over a year now. This isn’t some conclusion made on a whim in the midst of a cold streak, no, this has been a long time coming.
Before we get any further, let’s first take a trip through history, starting on May 18th, 2015, the day that the Philadelphia Flyers announced that Dave Hakstol would be taking over as the team’s head coach.
A relative unknown to the Philadelphia faithful, Hakstol was met with gleaming eyes filled with hope for a better tomorrow. Gone was Craig Berube and his antics that ranged from the inability to place now-star forward Sean Couturier in a position to succeed, to pulling then-Flyers goaltender Steve Mason because he couldn’t see past his own team screening him, and here was a forward thinking coach coming out of a very successful program at the University of North Dakota.
Ron Hextall described the play style of Hakstol’s teams at UND as fast and aggressive, noting that this was the direction that the league had been heading towards for a while now, and even Hakstol himself said everything we wanted to hear. He talked about the importance of playing with speed, and more importantly the activation of his team’s defensemen. And to his credit, he’s implemented the latter well, but looking back on this day almost three and a half years later, one quote in particular stands out more than the rest.
When asked what his coaching style is, Hakstol had the following to say:
“I don’t know if I can sum it up in one word. I can tell you the way I approach my business on a daily basis is in a very direct manner. I think expectations are quite simple of myself, of my staff and our players. Maybe to sum (it) up in one word, accountability, to one another, to our organization.”
Re-read that last sentence. Now re-read it again.
Accountability. The one word that Hakstol described his style of coaching with was accountability. It’s a striking quote given that accountability might be one of the fan base’s biggest gripes with Hakstol. There’s clearly two different standards that are held for veteran players and young, inexperienced players, which at it’s core is not necessarily a bad thing. There’s something to be said for the reliability of a veteran player because, for the most part, you know what you’re getting from them on a nightly basis. However, where’s the accountability when the only thing that “reliable” player can be relied on to do is deliver another sub-par performance?
The lack of accountability expected out of veteran players reared its’ ugly head last season when Valtteri Filppula, one of the worst forwards in the entire league at 5-on-5, was consistently given a top-nine role in the lineup while forwards Scott Laughton and Jordan Weal struggled to crack the lineup and get consistent minutes. Of course the biggest example from last season has to be the decision to play Brandon Manning, among others, over Travis Sanheim, but you’ve heard this argument so many times before that I’ll spare you another trip down that nonsense. If you haven’t had your fill of it, or need a reminder, I’ll point you here, here, and here.
Not to mention the countless times where accountability seemed to be nonexistent, like when you ask yourself who is being held accountable for the team’s penalty kill progressively finishing lower in the standings each season and the answer is nobody. Not Ian Laperriere, who runs the penalty kill, nor the players themselves. In fact being a constant on the penalty kill unit that finished 20th, 21st, 29th, and is currently sitting 31st in the league, dead last, has somehow granted players job security. Jori Lehtera, who to his credit has been good this season, has been a constant in the Flyers’ lineup because of his role on that same penalty kill. That same penalty kill that, with him being a part of it, finished 29th in the league last season and has somehow managed to be worse so far this year. The penalty kill’s struggles do not fall on Hakstol’s shoulders alone, but he has to have a say in who his assistants are, and If he wanted to, he could hold both players, and an assistant coach, accountable for the team’s lackluster performance on the kill and he hasn’t. There’s no accountability.
While there were a ton of reasons to believe in the team’s new head coach at the time, there was just one problem. Outside of his stoic presence, the Hakstol that was advertised was not the Hakstol that we would be getting.
A ghost unleashed and the birth of the untouchables
The first season of Hakstol’s NHL coaching career will be remembered by Flyers fans as the year that Shayne Gostisbehere showed everyone that there was a new star defenseman in Philadelphia. Following Mark Streit’s run-of-the-mill-extremely-common-no-we-did-not-need-the-details injury that placed him on long term injury reserve following Hakstol’s just 16th game as head coach, Gostisbehere would embark on a history-filled rookie season.
Gostisbehere scored 46 points in 64 games in his rookie season, a 0.72 point per game pace, and went on to break both league and franchise records that year. None more memorable than his 11-game point streak through late January to early February of 2016.
An 11-game point streak is the longest by a rookie defenseman in NHL history.— NHL (@NHL) February 13, 2016
Shayne Gostisbehere has it.https://t.co/l5EBXISuuz
That goal still gives me chills to this day and also serves a nice reminder that watching the Flyers can be fun! I know a lot of us, myself included, find excitement hard to come by with this team, but it’s right there, just below the surface, and one day we’ll get there again. So while his first season behind the bench showed us that a rookie defenseman, an offensively focused one at that, could thrive under his guidance, we were also given a glimpse into what would plague the Flyers over the next two seasons.
Coined by the fan base as the “untouchables,” the fourth line of Chris VandeVelde, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Ryan White quickly became a crutch for Hakstol. While the top nine forwards could be shuffled on a moment’s notice, there was one thing everyone around the Flyers knew every game day; the fourth line was going to be the same.
According to Corsica, the untouchables spent 470 minutes together at 5-on-5, putting them ninth in the league in minutes played that year, and almost double the amount of the Flyers second most common line. If the fourth line had been winning the shot battle and out-scoring their opponents, sure, keep them together, but to find a line that performed worse than they did according to advanced metrics, and still played a large amount of minutes together you’d have to go to the line ranked 38th overall in 5-on-5 ice time. And via goal results? You just have to go one line further. The trios of Jeff Skinner, Phil Di Giuseppe, and Victor Rask in Carolina and Joel Ward, Matt Nieto, and Patrick Marleau in San Jose were these two lines, and they both failed to crack the 300-minute threshold. Fast forward two years later and two-thirds of the untouchables couldn’t crack a NHL roster, while the other would enjoy success as a member of the now-defending Western Conference Champion Vegas Golden Knights.
While Hakstol has yet to find a trio to fill the role of the untouchables, we’ve seen individual players given the same treatment. After the disbanding of the Honey Bees, who were actually good, Lehtera was on his way to becoming the new Bellemare. Since the start of the new year he has been scratched just three times out of the team’s 61 games, playoff games included, and has even been moved up the lineup at times last season despite poor play. This all ties back into how somehow having a role on one of the worst penalty kills in the league grants you a constant spot in the lineup, which is asinine, to be blunt.
A position swap made of gold
When you look at everything that Hakstol has done since joining the Flyers, the decision to move Claude Giroux to left wing has to be his crowning achievement. Following a third straight season of declining offensive production, people began to question if Giroux’s best years were behind him. Was the Flyers’ captain getting hit hard by the aging curve? We now know the answer was not exactly, although a move to a less taxing position may have been enough to mask the effects if there were any.
Giroux primarily played the left side of the ice with Sean Couturier as his center and Travis Konecny on the right, when Konecny wasn’t being benched, and together they were one of the best lines in the league last season. Not only did it lead to Giroux’s best season of his career, the line change also finally allowed Couturier to show his offensive ability, and at a level that even his strongest defenders didn’t see coming.
All three of Giroux, Couturier, and Konecny scored at the highest rates of the career at 5-on-5, and they also each saw an increase in their on-ice metrics. This season has been the exact opposite, as the first line has been thoroughly outplayed and the line shuffling done thus far has yet to light a spark. Nobody can deny that the decision to move Giroux to wing was a big win for Hakstol, and his biggest to date, but how well does it’s impact hold up when compared to the negatives?
Point shots and slow starts
Low to high. Three simple words that can sum up what this team has does in the offensive zone under Hakstol. It’s no secret that the most effective way to score a goal is to take shots from the slot, I think just about anybody watching their very first hockey game could tell you that, and the Flyers just haven’t been able to do so. Now, getting there is not easy, but deciding to defer to point shots instead of trying to build a system that focuses on shot quality seems like a misguided plan.
Just take a look at the Flyers’ heat maps over Hakstol’s four seasons as head coach.
The biggest issue with @NHLFlyers 5v5... and issue that's been pretty much same for years, is emphasis on point shots from Dmen results in - generally - v.few shots from slot/in close.— Alexander Appleyard (@avappleyard) October 28, 2018
That is almost certainly main reason why they struggle to consistently score at 5v5. #Flyers pic.twitter.com/1UqnhVBOZa
With an offensive strategy that leads to results like that it’s no surprise that they’ve lost more games than they’ve won under Hakstol and have been blown out in both of their playoff series. That, and you know, decisions like taking Konecny off the top line to start the playoffs after he had produced at a superstar level, or in that same series scratching Sanheim and leaning on the pair of Brandon Manning and Radko Gudas to handle the heavy minutes while Ivan Provorov played with basically one arm attached, or in that same series when he decided to promote Filppula to first line center in the absence of Couturier. Yeah, fun times.
Rather than setting this team up to constantly attack the net, he has them always looking to get the puck to the point and blast away from afar. Every so often it works, with a deflection goal here and there, but most of the time they just end up boosting the opposing goaltender’s save percentage. While the Giroux line was able to make it work last year, this isn’t a play style for electric, creative players to thrive in, this is a style made for slow, or “heavy” players, as he describes them.
Speaking of slow, let’s talk about the Flyers’ starts. Our own Jake Fahringer took a look at the team’s inability to start the season, and their games, on the right foot last week and the numbers are jarring. Last season’s 6-5-1 record in October, which was followed up by a dreadful 2-5-6 November, was the first and only time that the team left the first month of the season with a points percentage above .500 under Hakstol. At the time of his piece the Flyers were 4-5-0, and have since dropped their next two games, resulting in a record of 4-7-0 and guaranteeing themselves their worst record in the opening month of the season in quite some time.
Furthermore, these slow starts carryover to the actual games. Under Hakstol the Flyers have given up the first goal over 57% of the time and have been one of the worst first period teams in the league over the past three-plus seasons. The rosters Hakstol had in his first two years were in no way spectacular, but they’ve shown no signs of righting this ship. The Flyers have become known for third period comebacks, partly because they’ve had to play from behind so often, but they haven’t even shown the ability to do that this season.
Putting the numbers aside for a second, this team just looks disengaged. There’s no urgency, there’s no push back, there’s no life. Last year this team wasn’t bad. They may have been infuriating at times, but they weren’t bad. Now they’re bad. So bad that it looks like they can barely complete a tape to tape pass at times.
One of the more telling moments had to be when Scott Laughton was the only positive that Ron Hextall could point to nine games into season. Sure, the blame can be placed on individual players, specifically the team’s stars, but you can’t just fire the whole team except Laughton. Something needs to change and the path of least resistance is for Hextall to accept that the guy he worked so hard to get to come here is not the guy that will lead this organization to a deep playoff run, let alone lead them to their third Stanley Cup. This is not just a slow start, this is four years of slow starts.
Should this move be made, what comes next is anyone’s best guess. The interim head coach could be Laperriere, the longest tenured member of the coaching staff, or Kris Knoblauch, who some thought was hired to be Hakstol’s replacement down the line, or it could even spell the NHL return of Lehigh Valley Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon. Don’t forget that Paul Holmgren has experience as a head coach in the NHL, so he has to be a possibility as well, albeit an outside the box one at that. So, of the in-house options, Laperriere has never been a head coach, Knoblauch has seven years of experience as a head coach in the WHL and OHL but is only in his second NHL season, and both Gordon and Holmgren have a record well below .500. While none of the in-house options are a slam-dunk decision to make, Knoblauch would be the choice with the highest upside, while the safest bet would be Gordon.
Looking outside of the organization, one name that always seems to pop up nowadays when a team is searching for a new head coach is Sheldon Keefe. Keefe, who is currently in his fourth season as head coach of the defending Calder Cup Champion Toronto Marlies, is widely considered to be the next in line to make the metaphoric jump to the big league. However, would Hextall hire another coach without having the experience of being a head coach in the NHL? I’m not so sure he would after watching the jobs that Berube and Hakstol did under his watch. That takes us to experienced head coaches. There are a few current head coaches seemingly on the hot seat, like Mike Yeo in St. Louis and John Stevens in Los Angeles, but would either of them be a fit for this team? Not only that, but they’d also have to be fired, which is no guarantee. Then there’s Darryl Sutter. He has said that he is done coaching in the NHL, but would he be willing to make a comeback? We’ve already seen the Los Angeles connection take shape with Dean Lombardi reuniting with Hextall in Philadelphia, could there be another in the near future?
Deciding on a replacement is a complicated decision to make, but forcing yourself to make that decision is an easy one. Something needs to change, and firing Hakstol, before this season gets away from them, is the right move to make. I can get not wanting to make a change before or during a West Coast trip, but if they can’t beat both the Ducks and the Kings, two teams who have also had their share of problems this season, this is a move that has to be made.
Data courtesy of Corsica.hockey, Hockey Reference and HockeyViz
If you had the power to do so, would you fire Dave Hakstol today?
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