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Analyzing Dave Hakstol’s first three seasons as Flyers head coach

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There’s a lot to be frustrated with, but it’s not all bad.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been three years with Dave Hakstol at the helm of our (sometimes) beloved Philadelphia Flyers. When he took over heading into the 2015-2016 NHL season, he was replacing Craig Berube, who had fizzled out after a solid first season in 2013-2014. Berube wasn’t exactly given the best roster, but he didn’t do himself any favors with questionable lineup decisions and a fairly ineffective system.

Enter Dave Hakstol.

Hakstol coached the University of North Dakota for 11 seasons, and never posted a losing record. Praised for his player development prowess at UND, many saw this move as a risk, but most likely a step in the right direction for the Flyers franchise. He wasn’t someone with any former connections with the Flyers other than coaching Brett Hextall, and that was once again seen as a very good step for the organization. It was seen as a commitment to break from the previous regime of Paul Holmgren and Bobby Clarke, a clear attempt to adapt to the new-age NHL.

Fast-forward, we’re going into Hakstol’s fourth year as bench boss of the Philadelphia Flyers. He’s drawn ire from fans for player usage and the make of his system, but has gotten the Flyers to the playoffs two out of his first three years. They’ve been knocked out in six games in the first round both of those times, but it is playoffs in two out of three years nonetheless. So we know he’s achieved some success at the NHL level, but how is his system really performing, and how have the team’s underlying numbers fluctuated over the past three years. Basically, how has Dave Hakstol progressed at the NHL level, and how have his teams progressed?

Statistical Analysis

First, let’s examine the Flyers ranking over the past three years in some of the basic categories:

Basic Stats 15-18

Points GF GA Shots Shots Against Made playoffs
Points GF GA Shots Shots Against Made playoffs
96 214 218 2540 2456 Yes
88 219 236 2585 2334 No
98 251 243 2683 2506 Yes

The big ticket for Hakstol has definitely been making the playoffs in two of his first three seasons. In his first season, he rode the wave of then-rookie Shayne Gostisbehere and snuck into the playoffs on the second to last game of the regular season. The Flyers’ 214 goals were good for 22nd best in the NHL, and their 218 against for 15th in the league. This was a season in which many expected another rebuilding year, but they pulled it off and made the postseason. Although the Capitals disposed of them in six games, the future appeared bright.

The following year, abundant with questionable lineup decisions and overworking goalies, the Flyers missed the playoffs despite having a ten game win streak from late November to mid December. They improved their goals-for ranking by two positions, yet saw their goals-against rank drop three. The biggest controversy of the year came with the decision by Hakstol to bench the likes of Gostisbehere and Konecny at multiple points throughout the season. Then, we come to this past season.

This year we saw Hakstol’s Flyers lose ten straight games and somehow still make the playoffs as the third seed in the Metropolitan Division. Throughout much of 2017, the Flyers lineup always appeared to be sub-optimal. Whether it be players such as Andrew MacDonald, Brandon Manning, or Jori Lehtera, someone who should not be getting top player minutes got them. We saw Travis Sanheim sent to the AHL despite making the team out of camp because his coach simply wouldn’t play him. Despite all of this, the Flyers saw their goals rank take a huge leap to 13th in the NHL, and their goals against improve to 16th. The Flyers made the postseason again, only to once again be bounced in the first round, in six games, but this time to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

At a glance, Hakstol’s first three seasons have been somewhat of a success. Two playoff appearances with a team still waiting for their top prospects to fully develop. The biggest issues have been lineup decisions, and the constant need to essentially take away the coaches “toys”. We saw how much he overused Chris VandeVelde and Pierre Edouard-Bellemare, and now we’re seeing it with Lehtera and MacDonald (although for Mac, that’s been going on for awhile). So now, let’s journey into how the Flyers have fared in possession metrics in Hakstol’s tenure.

Possession Metrics 15-18 (5v5)

CF% CF/60 CA/60 SA CF% SCF% HDCF%
CF% CF/60 CA/60 SA CF% SCF% HDCF%
50.63 57.65 56.22 50.25 48.71 49.76
51.09 57.6 55.14 50.56 49.74 50
49.79 55.05 55.51 49.88 48.48 49.19

Under Hakstol, the Flyers have consistently hovered around the 50% or break even mark in possession. They’ve also done this in regards to their score adjusted Corsi-for percentage, scoring chances for percentage, and high danger chances for percentage. What’s interesting here, is the dip in year three with respect to Corsi-for per 60 minutes. In years one and two, Hakstol’s Flyers posted almost identically CF/60’s and CA/60’s, but this past season we saw the CF/60 decrease by 2.55 and the CA/60 raise slightly by 0.37. This was also the lowest raw and score adjusted CF% by a Hakstol-coached Flyers team.

The discouraging factor in all of this is that it appears Hakstol either doesn’t know much about possession metrics, or he just doesn’t feel value in them. We saw Travis Sanheim benched this season for some defensive zone issues — and while there are some actual concerns with his zone coverage — he had a huge amount of bad luck. Sanheim finished the season at a 53.69 raw CF% in 49 games played. He was one of the best play driving defensemen on the team this season, yet seemed to be in the dog house of Hakstol. Now whether this is simply a case of the coach not trusting rookies — or not giving a hoot about the analytics available to him — it was a huge issue this past season. Especially when fellow rookie Robert Hagg was posting very poor possession numbers, yet was only sucked into the dog house come the end of the season and playoffs. The difference between the two? Hagg had a better goals-for percentage.

So the Flyers have not been a great possession team in Hakstol’s tenure, but not a bad one either. These numbers point more and more to the notion that the Flyers more or less are what they are, a very average team. But this information also leads me to continue to believe Hakstol doesn’t see the value in these metrics, and isn’t trying to improve them considering some of his personnel decisions. But hey, maybe we’re going a little too far, we still haven’t dug into the Flyers expected goal based metrics. Let’s take a look.

Expected goal metrics 15-18

xGF% xGF/60 xGA/60 SA-xGF%
xGF% xGF/60 xGA/60 SA-xGF%
49.29 2.22 2.28 48.98
49.34 2.18 2.24 49.12
50.54 2.28 2.24 50.73

Hmm...I’m noticing a trend here. Once again these are very mediocre stats, although there has been some noticeable progression. The raw expected goals for percentage has increased each of Hakstol’s three seasons, with a whole 1.2 percent jump from 2016-2017 to this past season. The expected goals against per 60 have been consistently around mid pack in the NHL, with their xGA/60 from 2015-2018 coming in at 15th best in the NHL. Where they’re lacking is unsurprisingly the xGF/60 category. Over the past three seasons, the Flyers rank 20th in the NHL in xGF/60.

The shot quality debacle

Of course, the old trope of “well maybe it’s more on the players, and not the coach” is a possibility. The Flyers certainly have been lacking depth talent for much of Hakstol’s tenure with players like Bellemare, VandeVelde, R.J Umberger, etc. filling out the bottom six. These players definitely play a role in the Flyers issues with producing better expected goal numbers. However, something else that pays huge dividends in expected goal numbers, is shot quality, and this is where the head coach is dropping the ball.

This has been a top complaint among the fan base for seemingly all of Hakstol’s reign, but it became even stronger this past season. At 5-on-5, the Flyers have consistently seen most of their shots come from the point or outside the face-off circles. There are effective ways of generating shots from the point, and sometimes the Flyers do execute it well, but too many times we see very poor execution. If I asked you to name a time where a Flyers defenseman took an unscreened point shot, you could probably rattle off a couple handful of times just off the top of your head. The Flyers do this way too many times, and it almost always ends with a weak shot, easily stopped by the goaltender. If we take a look at Peter Laviolette’s final full season as head coach of the Flyers, you’ll notice a stark contrast to the past three years under Hakstol.

Just a little bit different, eh?

We’re not going to get into Peter Laviolette’s style of coaching, and whether the Flyers should have fired him or not, but there’s something here. Truly good teams are shooting from where the Flyers were in 2011-12 or at the very least in the general area. Tampa, Toronto, Boston, Vegas, etc. are all hovering around the slot, the front of the net, or at least around the face-off circles. The Flyers’ reliance on point shots is clearly not working and Hakstol needs to adjust. Sure, acquiring a player such as James van Riemsdyk should help this cause by being a (at times) dominating net front presence but, this should not be the Flyers main plan of attack.

Player usage must improve

A growing concern with Dave Hakstol, especially in the past two seasons, has been his player usage. In 2016-17, Hakstol was greatly criticized for benching Shayne Gostisbehere on multiple occasions, despite posting good but not great numbers. Rookie Travis Konecny also spent a few games in the press box, most noticeably a game after he recorded two assists vs. St. Louis. This past season, we saw Travis Sanheim feel the wrath as previously mentioned. The recurring theme with these players is their aggressive nature, the willingness to take chances over being the “safe player”. Look at what we all just witnessed in Vegas this past season. Rookies were given the opportunity to make mistakes and not fear the quick hook to the press box the next night, a definite confidence booster. That style is not going to work with every player of course, but it would be nice to see implemented more often with the Flyers.

Line combinations and defense pairings have also been a hot topic for Hakstol. The essential “rookie initiation” of a rookie defenseman seeing time with MacDonald has been evident. Provorov, Gostisbehere, Hagg, and Sanheim all have spent time with A-Mac in their rookie campaigns. To give Hakstol credit, he made some great decisions this past season. Putting Couturier on the top line with Giroux ended up paying major dividends, and the decision to move Konecny up to that line (although he’d later come off) was perfect for TK. The call to put Provorov and Gostisbehere together ended up being huge for the defense, giving them one of the better pairings in the league. Sure, there were still some lingering issues, but when he made the right call he really made the right call.

The biggest test for him will be this season. The Flyers have a legitimately really good top six this season, which in theory should greatly improve the depth. Barring long-term injuries, there should be no way for Hakstol to screw up this lineup. He’s going to have the best team he’s had in his tenure here, and I think it is only fair to expect the Flyers to at the very least win a playoff series this year.

Conclusion

The theme of Dave Hakstol’s first three seasons as bench boss of the Flyers has been...inconsistency. We’ve seen the team make the playoffs two out of three years, but have poor showings coming mid-April, resulting in early exits. We’ve also seen a sub-optimal team for basically all three years, with generally average goaltending. However, the system Hakstol has implemented is questionable and his player usage is puzzling at times. To call his tenure to date a success would be inaccurate, but to call it a failure would be as well. This upcoming season will be extremely telling for Hakstol’s true talent as head coach of a NHL team. This is without a doubt the most talented roster he’s been given by General Manager Ron Hextall. The Flyers have not won a playoff series since 2012, and have not past the second round since the trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010. The time to win is now, and the Flyers head coach must up his game for the team to accomplish that.

Stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Corsica.hockey, HockeyDB, NHL.com

Graphics courtesy of hockeyviz