It finally happened, folks. The Toronto Maple Leafs have hired Dave Hakstol to be their new assistant coach, where he figures to be running the defense and penalty kill. And maybe your initial reaction was something like mine—a bit of surprise, a bit of hesitancy, and maybe even a physical recoil. We remember the Hakstol Era in Philadelphia well, and probably not all that fondly.
But, all that said, it’s possible that this might not be a bad addition for the Leafs. That’s right, I’ve talked myself into it. Let’s walk through how I got there.
Let’s talk defense first.
There may have been things about Hakstol’s system that we didn’t like, but the one thing we can’t say is that they weren’t playing defensively sound hockey under him. The viz above is just from the 2017-18 season—his last full season in Philadelphia—but these results were pretty consistent across his nearly three and a half seasons as head coach. The Flyers were a -1 threat in shots allowed at 5-on-5 in his first season, and then were a -7 in the two subsequent seasons. Additionally, during Hakstol’s tenure, at 5-on-5, the Flyers were ranked second fewest among all teams in shot attempts against (1347) and expected goals against (54.79), and third fewest in shots against (710). This gets a little muddied because they also gave up the 13th most goals at 5-on-5, but hey, the underlying process was sound, and one does wonder what the results would have looked like if they had more consistent and dependable goaltending. But anyway.
The penalty kill side, though, is where we might have some hesitation. Because under Hakstol, the penalty kill, in short, was not good.
In a way, it’s almost funny? We can say it’s funny now because we have a bit of distance. It’s funny because, the underlying numbers are just about average. The Flyers gave up the 11th fewest shot attempts on the penalty kill, the 14th fewest shots, and the 7th fewest scoring chances. Which all seems like it should be fine. But then they went and gave up the 5th most goals. So it’s all a wash and we start to feel sad again.
And of course, we remember the famous Ottawa Senators Uber video where they talk about how bad their penalty kill is, only to look it up and note that Philadelphia’s was worse. Ugly times.
And we can’t ignore these numbers. They are what they are. But, in the interest of being thorough, we also have to note that we don’t know how much of an influence Hakstol had over the penalty kill while he was here. Ian Laperriere, we know, was in charge of it, and it got better once Scott Gordon arrived. But we don’t know if the flaws were coming all the way down from Hakstol or if he was more hands off and just let Laperriere do his thing. This isn’t definitive, but it does, if nothing else, leaves a bit of room for the benefit of the doubt, should one want to invoke it.
This might be where you want to stop me. Where you might want to remind me of all of the bad feelings that we still have about Hakstol, all of the qualms that we have about the system he was running and the choices he made. That’s fair.
But we also have to remember the conversations we had about context. Two of the biggest pieces working against the team during Hakstol’s tenure was sub-par goaltending and an underperforming offense. And in Toronto? The Leafs will be getting, at the very, very least, average goaltending out of Frederik Andersen. And their offense, top to bottom, has more firepower, and either way, Hakstol won’t be touching that. So we need to limit our scope a little bit.
So what does all of this amount to? The Leafs had two areas, in the defense and the penalty kill, that both they and fans were not pleased with. They let the coach, DJ Smith, who was in charge of these areas go to Ottawa, and they pinpointed someone who, on paper, may well be able to improve them.
Is this a sure thing? Absolutely not. These things rarely are. But there’s some promise here.
All stats and graphics via HockeyViz and Natural Stat Trick.