The jump from junior hockey leagues straight to the NHL is a very difficult one to make for players, often fraught with adversity and growing pains.
The same, too, can be said for coaches, as we are are seeing right now with the Philadelphia Flyers and new head coach Dave Hakstol.
Hakstol was hired by the Flyers this past spring after 15 highly successful season behind the bench of the men’s hockey team at the University of North Dakota, leading them to seven appearances in the NCAA Frozen Four. The move raised quite a few eyebrows at the time, as NHL teams very rarely hire head coaches from Canadian major junior leagues or the NCAA straight to the NHL without jobs in the AHL or as NHL assistant coaches in between. Hakstol became the first head coach to go directly from the NCAA to the NHL since Bob Johnson did it in 1982.
Regardless, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall was undaunted, assuring everyone that he had found the right man for the job.
“I wasn’t going to choose the coach that was the people’s choice, the popular choice,” he said on the day of the hiring. “I was going to pick the coach that I felt like for this franchise from today, next year and moving forward was the right coach. And Dave is the right coach for this franchise at this point.”
Fast forward a few months and it’s safe to wonder if Hextall is still feeling so assured in his decision.
The Flyers have struggled heavily to start the 2015-16 season, currently sporting a 6-8-3 record that’s only good enough for 6th place in the Metropolitan Division, and with a record of 2-6-2 in their last 10 games the team seems to be trending more downwards than upwards. Their -17 goal differential is currently tied for the second worst in the entire league, ahead of only the Calgary Flames.
The struggles are spread out across the entire roster. Philadelphia’s top forward, Claude Giroux, only has 11 points in 17 games thus far, well below the point-per-game scoring pace that he has averaged over the last five seasons. Jakub Voracek, who tied for 4th in NHL scoring last season with a phenomenal 81 points, only has seven in 17 games. Other core players such as Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto are also struggling. The Flyers’ record would likely be a lot worse than it currently is were it not for some herculean efforts from goaltender Michal Neuvirth, the team’s lone individual bright spot, who has three shutouts and a sparking save percentage of .939.
As a team, the Flyers are currently 29th in terms of goals-per-game and 25th in goals against, down from their respective and equal 21st-place finishes last year. The only thing close to a saving grace right now is the group’s general possession numbers, ranking 17th among all teams at CorsiFor percentage according to War-On-Ice, but even then they’re still at a negative 49.3%.
While Philadelphia’s problems are most likely a lot more deep and complicated than simply blaming the coach, Hakstol certainly seems like a good place to start. The Flyers roster this year is nearly identical to the one that they had last year, but with the surprisingly crucial addition of Neuvirth. Sure, the Flyers weren’t particularly good last year (finishing in the Metro where they are right now, in 6th), but most of the team’s core players are either in their prime playing years or just entering them, meaning that the team should be getting better, not worse.
Hakstol’s comments about the problems plaguing his team don’t inspire much confidence, either. When asked recently about what’s been going wrong, he placed a lot of emphasis in the controversial attribute of “compete level.”
“I don’t think we were happy with our compete level,” he said. “We’re going to compete, so we came out and worked at it today in practice.”
“We didn’t play hard enough (Tuesday) night. That was a hole in our game, so we’re going to come out and work on it regardless of when we play.”
While compete level is a real thing to an extent, given the diverse and complicated psychological differences among all human beings, harping on that topic as a primary source of a team’s woes is often badly shortsighted and a worrying sign. Hard work can only get you so far if you don’t have adequate systems and strategies in place, especially as the constant arms race among NHL coaches to gain more tactical advantages against each other wages onward.
More than anything else, Philadelphia’s struggles thus far are probably a result of Hakstol being out-coached by peers that have a lot more high-level experience than he does. Full stop.
In his defense, though, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Few rookie coaches can come into the NHL and coast to success. Even some of the brightest minds in the AHL can often hit speed bumps along the way, as evidenced by the up-and-down early NHL coaching careers of Willie Desjardins and Jeff Blashill, two recent winners of the Louis A. R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s most outstanding coach. Hakstol, most likely, will get better and better as he steadily gains more experience on the job.
Still, it appears that both he and the Flyers have a long road ahead of them from here. The team needs to make some serious headway if they want rejoin the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. Whether Hakstol can be the right man to lead them there still remains to be seen.