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Hungry Flyers fans may continue waiting for change and here’s why

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Timing is everything

2018 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Chances are if you’ve been watching the Flyers or reading Flyers-related content on the internet, you’ve come across an article or two that suggests (to put it mildly) the Flyers need to make changes. The voice of fan discontent has gotten louder after another slow start, but when might change come and how? The answer may be, “not as soon as you’d like”.

Change among NHL teams, at least, the significant kind, is often prefaced by the standard, more minor attempts to resolve issues. It’s typical to see line juggling and strange healthy scratch patterns that lead to fans questioning the coach, particularly if they don’t produce results. Most of those things have already started to happen here, just 11 games into the season.

On Sunday, Tyrell Goulbourne and Nicolas Aube-Kubel were both called up to the Flyers, replacing Mikhail Vorobyev, who was sent back to the Phantoms. Aube-Kubel likely deserved a call up, as a player who has been relatively productive at the AHL level and who has been known to get physically involved, sometimes even crossing the line. Goulbourne, in all fairness, is a hard worker and the type of player who thrives in an energy line role, but seems unlikely to get enough time to make a significant difference over the long term.

These moves, however, appear to be roughly the typical mid-point in diagnosing and eventually dealing with change. That is to say, these types of moves are almost always the type of moves that have to come first, before a team admits it needs to do more. So, if we’ve already seen some line juggling, Andrew MacDonald sitting out and now the call up of 2 energy line type players, why might significant change not be that close behind?

This time the answer is timing. No one wants to wait, but we may have to and here’s why....

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Colorado Avalanche Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Coaching

It’s clear that whether it’s his perceived lack of emotion, the way he handles the roster or just the repeated failures of the Flyers to be able to gain consistency, people are tiring of Dave Hakstol. By all accounts, Dave Hakstol seems like he’s trying a number of different avenues to spark things, but the sporting world is a results-oriented business. Whether you’re a nice guy or a brilliant mind, it only carries you as far as your results dictate and right now, for the Flyers, that means the coaches (not just Hakstol) are going to be under the microscope.

However, while the fans have begun clamoring for Hakstol’s removal, even if the Flyers are swayed to agree, it may not be quite as simple as that. More so than money or wasted time, the bigger issue with removing a coach is making sure he’s being replaced with the correct fit. In frustration, fans often suggest “anyone would be better than this”, but an NHL team is unlikely to take the same stance.

The end result is, if the Flyers do decide to remove Hakstol, they have to know who the next bench boss will be before doing so. Is anyone within the system ready to take over? It seems questionable at best.

The most likely candidate, at least in my eyes, might be Scott Gordon, the current coach of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, who is required to coach a system that closely mirrors the Flyers’ system. As most people seem to question the Flyers’ system, it’s likely, if promoted, Gordon would be free to integrate his own system, over time, into the Flyers game. Therein lies the rub; Scott Gordon’s previous NHL head coaching record is 64-94-23, where he coached the Islanders to exactly no playoff appearances. Has he improved since then, having been a head coach at the AHL level for some time? Perhaps, but would the Flyers be sure enough of that to let go of a coach who currently has a record of 126-93-38? It’s tough to say.

The other in-house candidate, might be Kris Knoblauch, who was hired as an Assistant Coach to Dave Hakstol in 2017-2018. Knoblauch, who came from the Erie Otters of the OHL, has a career OHL/WHL head coaching record of 298-130-29, along with 2 Championships (one in the OHL and one in the WHL). While Knoblauch doesn’t have NHL head coaching experience, he does have experience coaching NHL prospects like Connor McDavid, Alex DeBrincat, Andre Burakovsky, Dylan Strome, Sam Reinhart, Brayden McNabb and many others. While that’s an impressive resume, is it enough to potentially give him a shot at an NHL head coaching job right now, given he’s never held that honor previously? Again, it’s tough to say.

Both of these options would involve a leap of faith, whether it’s trusting Gordon to be significantly better than he was in the past or trusting Knoblauch to transition from high octane junior level head coach to elite level NHL coach. If the Flyers do decide to change head coaches, being that there’s no room for error, they may feel it only makes sense to do so with a proven commodity or their ideal candidate.

Going with an outsider mid-year means hiring someone who is currently unemployed and not simply calling up the league’s best coach and asking him if he’d like to move to Philadelphia. This means the options would be limited, especially in October or November. A few of those options might include Alain Vigneault (most recently the ex-New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks coach), Lindy Ruff (Dallas and Buffalo) or Dan Bylsma (Pittsburgh and Buffalo).

Of the available options, potentially the most interesting may be Alain Vigneault, who has made the playoffs as the Canucks or Rangers coach in 10 of the last 12 years, making almost as many final appearances (two) as he has 1st round exits (three). Vigneault has an NHL head coaching record of 648-435-35-98, which is fairly impressive, but potentially more impressive when you consider, over the past 12-year span, his record is 539-316-94. The only issue as it relates to the fan’s current complaints is that he’s often been viewed as a coach who is somewhat reserved on the bench and a guy who is apt to let his players work things out. If the Flyers do need a more hands-on motivational approach, is Vigneault the one to dig in and push them?

In the end, there are certainly options that could be considered legitimate solutions, but are they the ideal fit here? If not, it’s more likely the Flyers could be hoping to get back to respectability and make a decision at a later date, when they can pick from a larger pool of contenders. Fan pressure could influence that, but I’d actually argue that making the correct hire if a coach is let go is actually more important than the firing itself. The Flyers and specifically, Ron Hextall, can ill afford to bungle a potential new hire.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Players

Almost as frequently mentioned as Dave Hakstol in recent days has been the Flyers core and the suggestion that the roster simply needs a shakeup. While the roster does probably need - at a minimum - some tweaks, the time of year, again, comes into play.

Whether in late October or early November, it’s not easy to make a groundbreaking trade. With the possible exception of The Kings, Blues, Red Wings, Rangers and Panthers, there aren’t many teams that are likely open to considering a major move. Other teams may slide down the standings, making for clear buyers and sellers, but that process isn’t usually clear for another 30-60 days.

If the Flyers decide they’re sellers, perhaps they may shop someone like Wayne Simmonds, looking to maximize their return on a soon-to-be-expiring contract, but that’s only likely to happen with plenty of teams in the mix. I’m sure most contenders would love to have a player with Wayne’s talent and toughness on the roster, but his value likely rises as the year moves on.

If the Flyers decide they need to change the team’s makeup and move a core player, as some have suggested, again, they need a willing dance partner who is open to moving a significant piece. Draft picks don’t replace a core player, at least not soon enough for this group. The teams most likely to move real assets are also going to be a collection of teams that have similar flaws, making a deal tricky. Add to that, this early in the year it could be hard to lure top talent out of any club, even if they’re looking to make their own changes.

Last year there were approximately 14 trades from October 1st until December 1st, with most being garden variety, minor league or depth player deals. The only very notable exception is the trade of Matt Duchene to Ottawa, which sent Kyle Turris to Nashville and Shane Bowers, Vladislav Kamenev, Andrew Hammond, Samuel Girard and three picks to Colorado. That deal, over a year in the making, came about as the result of months and months of prior negotiation and an unfulfilled promise to deal Duchene at the prior year’s deadline and draft. All of this to say, while it’s possible the Flyers could make an earth shattering move at any time, the likelihood that they’re ready to pack it in for the season or that they can find a trade partner who would do the same this early is uncertain, at best.

2010 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The GM

Some have even suggested that it’s time for Hextall to be relieved of duties, specifically if he’s unprepared to make changes. Even the most ardent of the supporters for change are, if they’re honest, probably seeing this as a very unlikely scenario. While many have, fairly, called into question how much patience a city like Philadelphia should have with this team, myself included, I certainly don’t get the sense that Hextall is the one on the hot seat.

It would seem much more likely that, given his ability to navigate and correct cap issues, as well as his successful draft history, Hextall is safe. Will he be pressured? Will he be required to potentially change his ways to some extent and stick out his neck with a move or two? I feel certain that’s much more likely and frankly, required, if the organization wants to keep the fan base from completely tuning out.

That said, Hextall did inherit some problems, and he has resolved many of them. The Flyers now have roughly $8.8 million in cap space (give or take), a healthy prospect base and nine picks in the 2019 draft.

However, those who continue to blame the NHL roster’s failings on Ed Snider’s desire to win or prior GM’s decisions are, unfortunately, mistaken. This team is now the responsibility of the current GM. While Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Andrew MacDonald were all signed by Paul Holmgren, the majority of the rest of the roster was signed, drafted, traded for or re-signed by Ron Hextall - meaning he has had the opportunity to either let them walk, trade them or adjust accordingly. In short, it certainly is time to start crediting Hextall where he deserves credit, but also, blaming him where he’s at fault.

It seems the most likely scenario would be that Hextall remains GM and that he’s given the chance to turn his focus from the future to the present. How successful he is at that endeavor in the next year or two will likely impact how long his tenure continues to be. Even as an active critic of Hextall’s aggressive patience, I can see the possibility for him to take the next step. However, no one, and I mean no one, wants another wasted year and a long wait for a draft party, unless it comes with a permanent long-term solution to these recurrent problems. Patience left town a while ago.

Colorado Avalanche v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Conclusion

The Flyers organization and their fans seem to agree that this year came with expectations. The GM, players and their coaches all said as much throughout the offseason and preseason. That must mean something.

In recent days, there’s also been the suggestion that the players are having a hard time dealing with the pressure of those expectations, which, at best, can be described as “disheartening”. Philadelphia has, at it’s core, been a full-throttle competitor and playoff bound opponent for the vast majority of it’s existence and playing here, under those circumstances, involves expectation.

For the last five years, under Ron Hextall’s plan of rebuilding on the fly, fans have vacillated between mild excitement and disappointment, but in most cases, the pressure hasn’t been that great. Most fans were willing to concede that prospect development and slow growth were going to make up the lion’s share of the Flyers modern revitalization. Those lowered expectations, however, can’t last forever.

As expectations rise and the fan’s hunger for wins and excitement remains unaddressed, the organization and everyone that’s a part of it must accept this is life in Philadelphia. Though it may not be the hockey town it once was, largely due to the team’s performance, it desperately longs to be. The fans crave a return to contention and glory. Those who have become apathetic want to be called back.

The changes that spark this revival may not happen today or tomorrow, but they must come or the Flyers risk becoming irrelevant to a town that wants nothing more than to stand behind them, cheering, rather than in front of them, yelling.

Until then, we wait.