It might not happen today, and it might not happen tomorrow, but sooner or later the Flyers will end up searching for their next coach. The firing of coach Joel Quenneville has led us all to wonder: if the Flyers were even willing to entertain replacing coach Dave Hakstol, would Philly be a contender for Quenneville? How attractive would the Flyers look to a potentially legendary coach evaluating the possibility of coming here?
When the Craig Berube coaching era ended, and the Dave Hakstol experiment began, Philadelphia had high-end skill but just as many problems in the lineup. No one scored consistently unless they played on the top line and a bunch of high dollar contracts, combined with some Holmgren-era holdover issues, meant it was more common to find $50 in the street than finding the Flyers with two nickels to rub together. Much like everyone’s post-Thanksgiving meal pants, things were very tight.
The Flyers had yet to discover Shayne Gostisbehere’s powerplay proficiency and couldn’t have been sure whether Travis Sanheim, Robert Hagg and others would develop as they’d hoped. Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny were merely NHL hopefuls themselves, still a year away from full time duty. Everyone was constantly reminded that prospects are the way forward and the kids were not to be rushed. For the first time in a while the Flyers were beginning to fully invest in the future.
Ron Hextall also made it a point, almost ad nauseam, to mention the Flyers were going to be patient. Patience sounds great to a GM who wants time to build, but it almost never sits well with a coach who is looking to win now. So, with the prospect base only starting to repopulate, a small margin for error, very little cap space to work with and a GM that publicly acknowledged the team’s need for patience, pulling in someone like Mike Babcock was always unlikely at best.
In 2018, things are very different…
The NHL assets
If you’re a fan of the Flyers it’s hard not to acknowledge that there’s been a substantial amount of frustration regarding the futility of this club in the past 5 or 6 years. Repeatedly, slow starts and a subsequent late year race for points have left the team out of the playoffs or exhausted and gasping for air by the time the playoffs have started. Sure, under Berube and Hakstol the Flyers failed in the playoffs and there are trouble spots that we often like to pick at verbally when we discuss the team, but today’s roster…well, it isn’t that bad.
Gone are players like Evgeny Medvedev, RJ Umberger and Nick Schultz (who surprisingly did actually give Philadelphia some serviceable games). In their place are players like Ivan Provorov, Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Konecny, Robert Hagg and Nolan Patrick, just to name a few. Youth, to a large extent, is being served, and players like Travis Sanheim and Oskar Lindblom appear to be poised to take the next step, especially with proper direction.
Additionally, the key contributors on this team are still churning out the hits. Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds are still important pieces and Sean Couturier recently had the breakout year many people had been waiting for. The mix of savvy veterans and youth might not be perfect, but it’s a far cry from the mix we had in 2015-2016. Oh and by the way, James vanRiemsdyk, a player who absolutely should put up decent numbers offensively, has only played two games.
I know things seem bleak at times and goaltending is still an issue at the NHL level, but if we’re being honest, how many NHL teams had a Hart candidate (Claude Giroux), a Selke candidate (Sean Couturier), another point-per-game forward, a defenseman in the top 5 in scoring and yet another defenseman tied for the lead in goals by a defenseman? I’ll give you a hint…it’s zero. The point being, although the Flyers aren’t performing up to their potential, this time it’s not because of lacking talent, and any NHL coach who has been around the block as long as Joel Quenneville would know that.
As a coach who won with star forwards like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (as well as winning after upheaval due to cap concerns) this roster would feel fairly familiar. Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere may not yet be Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in their prime, but they’re also not in their prime. Claude and Jake aren’t Toews and Kane, but they’re at least a reasonable facsimile. This roster, with all it’s flaws, is still more attractive than many of the other potential landing spots for Coach Q.
Show me the money
In 2015-16, when Hakstol took over, the Flyers simply didn’t have much cap space to work with. Making matters worse, the financial issues they had were very deeply rooted. Ron Hextall’s attempt to replace Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn and a collection of other players had to be done on the cheap but with a limited prospect base that meant he had to get creative. To be clear, when I say “get creative” I really mean stretch marginal players into regulars which was not his, or probably anyone’s, strong suit.
Signings of players like Evgeny Medvedev (which I will never understand), long shot acquisitions that turned into overused veterans, along with pre-Hextall hold overs such as Andrew MacDonald, Brandon Manning and Chris Vandevelde, were unsurprisingly ineffective. Depth became a massive issue. With too few assets and a budget that looked more like “great, it’s another Ramen and water night” rather than “let’s do something special for dinner,” things weren’t getting better anytime soon.
Any coach looking at the place the Flyers were in would have to know, while the top talent was here, they were either signing up for a rebuild or a long grind. With Hextall’s plan of patience set into motion and “rebuilding” seemingly not an option, it would have been obvious to any seasoned coach that the plan in Philly was going to involve doing more with less.
The current iteration of the Flyers, in large part thanks to Hextall, is significantly healthier. The Flyers presently have roughly eight million dollars in cap space per CapFriendly.com, with only a small handful of teams having a bigger stockpile of financial freedom. That becomes even more impressive when you consider Philadelphia, unlike some of the teams with more available cap space, doesn’t have limitations placed on it by its ownership. Philadelphia can, and probably will, spend up to the cap in the future, whereas teams like the Carolina Hurricanes or the Arizona Coyotes may not due to their ownership.
With that financial freedom and ownership that’s committed to spend where needed, it’s fairly clear that that Flyers have erased their long-term issues. Yes, other players will need contracts and salaries will fluctuate in time, but by next year Jori Lehtera (4.7 million), Brian Elliott (2.75 million), Michal Neuvirth (2.5 million) and others will come off the books. By 2020, if not sooner, Andrew MacDonald’s 5-million-dollar hit will also be erased.
All that being said, perhaps the most important financial concern for a coach is how much they can actually earn in the market they’re working in. Joel Quenneville, simply put, is going to want to get paid. Mike Babcock is currently earning $6.25 million a year to coach in Toronto per CapFriendly.com. While many other coaches have accepted amounts which pale in comparison to Babcock, another top coach probably won’t. So how does Philly stack up as an employer?
According to Forbes.com and their 2017 valuation of NHL hockey franchises, Philadelphia is the 7th highest valued hockey team in the NHL and boasts yearly revenue of 170 million dollars and 26 million in operating income. These figures both seem likely to rise as the team performs better and wins playoff rounds, not only because it adds more home games, but also because happy fans buy…stuff. They buy lots of stuff. I know from experience.
Beyond all the dollar figures and tertiary reasons the Flyers can afford to pay a coach a larger than average salary is the fact that they’re owned by a division of Comcast - and they have famously deep, deep pockets. They’ve never hesitated to spend, whether it’s been player acquisitions, buyouts or hiring staff. I don’t suspect they’d hesitate now either.
Without limitations by cap space or earnings, it seems comparatively likely that the Flyers would be an attractive fit for a coach who knows what he’s worth and isn’t likely to settle. Joel Quenneville, perhaps more than many others, isn’t likely to settle, and that’s fine because sometimes you get what you pay for.
Any coach deciding on his next job is going to do a full deep dive on the organization, including their prospect system. It’s not just about what players they’ll have to work with today. It’s as much about what’s coming and how many assets the team has to work with to get what they need. Though in the past it had been decimated, the Flyers prospect system is now overloaded. Recent drafts have already born significant fruit and seem poised to keep delivering for some time.
Most recently Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim have taken a step forward, claiming full time roster spots and Samuel Morin, Phil Myers, Carter Hart and German Rubtsov may not be too far behind. Nicolas Aube-Kubel has shown himself to be a competent NHLer and potential pest, which the Flyers sorely need, and there is no shortage of potential long-term talent in the wings. Morgan Frost, Joel Farabee, Isaac Ratcliffe, Jay O’Brien, Adam Ginning, Wade Allison and countless others highlight just how deep the Flyers system really is.
It’s impossible to note how immeasurably different the prospect base is today, especially when you consider how many young players are already on the Flyers. Players like Nolan Patrick, Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny and others have only begun their NHL careers, while in 2015-2016 young players with that level potential weren’t even rare, they were virtually non-existent.
Any coach considering Philadelphia has to see that while the NHL roster is pretty good, the potential to improve it via trading a few assets or simply developing the right kids is quite strong. While there may be no Connor McDavid waiting in the wings here, it’s pretty easy to argue that the depth of the system, coupled with the young talent on the NHL roster, make Philadelphia a very attractive landing spot for prolonged success. Perhaps the final kicker for Quenneville is simply knowing the Flyers still hold all of their draft picks, meaning should he need them, Ron Hextall does have the assets to acquire reinforcements.
The town of Philadelphia has been known as many things. Perhaps only slightly less notable than the birthplace of our nation is “a passionate sports town”. It’s hard to imagine a city with more loyalty, fire and passion for their teams than Philadelphia - in good times and bad. Though the fans may boo in the worst of times and demand your best every night, no one loves their teams harder when they push themselves to the limit. No one.
For a coach like Quenneville it’s clear that choosing Philadelphia means your future would be spent in limelight. While perhaps not under as much of a microscope as Carson Wentz or the Eagles, it’s still a big deal. This city isn’t the Midwest, where you can fly under the radar and coast through stretches of games, nearly invisible and not hear about it. It’s a place where there will be great demands, but incredible rewards as well. How many times has Jason Kelce bought a beer for himself since the Eagles Superbowl win? I suspect the answer is not very often.
Joel Quenneville, like Philadelphia, is passionate about his teams and he’s delivered the goods. He’s unlikely to be intimidated by fans who are equally passionate. Quenneville is hard-nosed and he’s got a big personality, but he’s also famously loved by fans and players alike. While he’s occasionally come under fire in the advanced stats era for leaning on old stalwarts he’s won cups with, he’s also won a lot. With a glass half empty sort of view, there may be minimal cause for concern, but there’s definitely not enough to dim the shine of his championship rings. A passionate winner who would force this team to have an identity and likely be a big media presence himself? Sounds like a perfect match for Philadelphia fans, no?
The coach-GM relationship
Ron Hextall is probably what most of us would describe best as unyielding or possibly even stubborn in his beliefs. Hextall became the GM, and he immediately went to work on a plan which revolved around the aforementioned “patience”, in a town that is very notably impatient. This wasn’t “the process” as it was with the 76ers, where fans could see the team tanking and raking in top draft choices and it certainly wasn’t Ed Snider pushing for a cup year after year, this was a grinding, slow burn of attrition type plan.
Perhaps that type of plan is what the team truly needed at the time and perhaps Dave Hakstol was the right coach for that period of hockey, but is it the same today? It’s probably time for Hextall to evolve, at least slightly. Hakstol’s hire was one that was more than likely dictated as much by Hextall’s belief in him as a coach as it was the situation he was hired to coach within. Hextall didn’t need an established NHL coach with a lot of cache, constantly kicking down his door demanding he make moves. Hextall needed a competent coach and developer of players who would sign off on that incremental improvement, knowing it likely meant not as much talent off the bat.
Again, times have changed. The Flyers are in a different and better place and now if they’re truly going to compete, they need a coach who is tactically gifted and capable of squeezing every bit of effort and talent out of the club. If Quenneville truly becomes a target of the Flyers, it would mean Hextall would have to be willing to sever ties with his first coaching hire, which appears to be something he’s not necessarily eager to do. It would also require him to accept a big personality directly underneath him, the kind who asks questions and can’t be expected to be exceptionally patient.
A coach like Joel Quenneville is unlikely to get himself into a situation where he has to battle with the GM. Quenneville is going to want to have some pull. True, he’s not the GM and the GM has to make GM decisions, but Quenneville isn’t going to exclusively sit on the outside looking in. After being ousted from the Blackhawks not so much because of his coaching ability, but more so because of the moves of the GM above him, Quenneville will want to know he’s on the same page as the GM before he signs up for the job.
Could a relatively stubborn GM and a hard-nosed, fiery coach make it work? It’s possible, but is it probable? It’s hard to say. This is the area I most question the viability of a move, because it involves Hextall doing something he’s notoriously not seemed to want to do…change.
While there may be other contenders and the Flyers may end up choosing not to enter the fray, Philadelphia is clearly a much more attractive destination for Quenneville than it would have been at any point in the past five or more years. The Flyers have cap space, a talented roster, the freedom and assets to make moves and a fan base that supports the team financially, even when they’re asked to be aggressively patient.
Maybe this wasn’t part of Hextall’s plan, but sometimes good things come to those who wait - isn’t that what we’ve been waiting for? Joel Quenneville probably shouldn’t be on the market, but he is. Is he the right guy for Philadelphia should they decide to make a change? His resume suggests, more so than anyone else who is likely to shake lose in the future, he probably is.