I’ve been thinking a lot about Dave Hakstol the past few days. This sounds crazy, but bear with me (yes, it’s still probably a little crazy).
Many of the moments that defined Hakstol were his lineup decisions. Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Konecny, and Oskar Lindblom became press box regulars while the team continued to underperform. As fans grew frustrated watching much-hyped young players sit, their response was often, “if you want to send a message, a vet would be a more effective scapegoat.”
Now, I think fans really wanted to be spared from watching Chris VandeVelde or some other forgettable fourth liner trapped in his own zone for 14 minutes the next night. But whether it’s winning draft lotteries or landing big-ticket offseason acquisitions, any wish cast for this franchise is answered by a monkey’s paw.
We watched a coach send a message by sitting a veteran, but it’s not some down-the-lineup schlub. John Tortorella decided to sit Kevin Hayes, the team’s leading scorer and highest-paid player Saturday night against the Rangers.
Hayes had a rough night last Thursday in New Jersey. A turnover and an aggressive play to challenge Jack Hughes at the offensive blue line led to a pair of odd-man rushes over a span of a couple minutes in the second period. Tortorella sat Hayes in the third and the team held on for a 2-1 win.
If you’re reading this, you probably know this situation has been simmering for some time. Hayes and Konecny did not play the third period against San Jose October 23. In November, Hayes was moved from center to the wing, which comes with fewer defensive responsibilities.
Through this, Hayes has scored at the best pace of his career. He has nine goals and 20 assists in 32 games.
While that’s all fine and good, Tortorella’s concerns are supported.
Have the Hayes minutes been rough defensively for PHI? Yes. But... pic.twitter.com/li8o7HVwtZ— Jack Han (@JhanHky) December 17, 2022
...the non-Hayes minutes have been completely pointless. pic.twitter.com/IggsIMLSJa— Jack Han (@JhanHky) December 17, 2022
The Flyers are a below-average offensive team and a putrid defensive team with Hayes. They are a pathetic offensive team and just below average defensively without him.
This is somewhat simplified, but the numbers are extreme and the eye test supports Hayes’s current reputation as a one-way offensive player.
To what end?
This was not a long-term benching. Hayes returned to the lineup Tuesday against Columbus and had a quiet 14 minutes, 25 seconds in a win. Regardless, Tortorella likely hopes Saturday has a lasting impact on the franchise.
Tortorella is providing the alternative to Hakstol’s decisions in the 2010s. While both will partly define their legacies in Philadelphia with their lineup decisions, Hakstol tried to teach his young players by sitting them while Tortorella is providing an example to his young players in the form of one of the team’s biggest names.
“I’ve got to look at the big picture of what this team is going to be,” he told reporters Saturday. “What the standard is, of how we play, that far outweighs losing some offense in a particular game.”
Hayes didn’t see it the same way. Even if he did, he might be wondering what a guy with one conference final appearance in the 16 seasons since the 2004-05 lockout knows about team building. It seems unlikely Noah Cates watched Hayes and thought to himself, “Maybe I don’t have to cross the red line, either.”
But Tortorella’s decision and reasoning made it clear that a win today is less important than a win in two years. We will never be able to know if this will have tangible effect on this team’s future results, but we are likely to see his fingerprints on the roster as he attempts to shove it into contention.
By the time the Flyers are ready to contend, Hayes may not be here anymore. But Tortorella hopes Hayes and the experience this week will have an effect on the team for years to come.