A few years ago, the Flyers announced that their new head coach was Dave Hakstol. He was the first head coach to go from the NCAA ranks to the NHL since Bob Johnson did in 1982. Hakstol had taken the University of North Dakota to the NCAA Frozen Four seven times and was very successful as a college coach, racking up a 289–143–43 record.
However, after just three and half seasons, including two trips to the playoffs (both of which were first round bounces), Hakstol was fired. He would be replaced by Alain Vigneault.
But that wouldn’t be the last time we saw Hakstol. He would be named the new coach of the expansion Seattle Kraken. In the Kraken’s first year, they played like an expansion team should, going 27-49-6 and finishing in last place. This year, they are 32-20-6, in fourth place in the Pacific Division, and are currently clinging to the seventh spot in the West.
So, with watching Hakstol succeeding with a young group of players while the Flyers are still floundering, it makes you wonder. Why is he succeeding in Seattle when he couldn’t do it here in Philly? I think there are two main answers here:
Theory #1: The Flyers Players Didn’t Hear Hakstol’s Message
When Hakstol took over in 2015-16, this was a veteran team led by a close group of guys. Claude Giroux was in his prime as the team captain. Other players included Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, a young emerging star in Sean Couturier, and an exciting rooking named Shayne Gostisbehere. There were also fading players , like RJ Umberger and Matt Read, as well as a revolving door of goalies. In short, there were a mix of vets and young emerging players still trying to figure out who they were.
When John Tortorella became the new head coach, he said he had to change the culture of the team. The team had become complacent and lazy. They were happy with things the way they were. They were okay being okay. If they made the playoffs, great. If not, no big deal. A team that had once been one of the best in the NHL had stopped caring.
I think it traces itself back to a different era. Craig Berube had been let go as head coach and now it was Hakstol’s turn. And here is some college coach coming in and telling these “grown men” how to play. Nope…not gonna happen. I think, at some point, they just wrote him off. You see this in other sports too where a coach coming from the NCAA going into the NFL or NBA struggle where they had success before. Teaching kids is one thing; working with professionals is another.
At some point, the guys tuned him out and didn’t listen anymore. And at some point, the same thing happened with Coach Vigneault as well. The players got used to doing their own thing and just not listening to the coach. At that point, nobody is going to succeed. If you lose the locker room, you will lose your control of the team and it falls apart. As Philly sports fans, we have seen that in recent years with Doug Pederson and Joe Girardi and both teams are better for it. Right now, we are seeing Coach Tortorella doing his best to change that mindset; but it will take time to undo what’s been embedded over several seasons.
Theory # 2: Hakstol Has Learned From His Time in Philly
Because of what happened in Philly, Hakstol has changed. It’s not just players too that have to adapt, but coaches need to change too. Maybe he learned from what went wrong. Maybe he remembered the things that went right. He’s improved on what he has learned, tailored his message to this group of guys, and is making it work.
If you look at Seattle’s roster, it’s really not that impressive. Outside of rookie sensation Matty Beniers, there is nobody that really jumps out at you. Except that they are good depth wise. Like a less strong version of the Carolina Hurricanes, any line can score. They may not put up monster stats, but you only need to win by one goal. A 2-1 or 1-0 win is just as good as a 7-2 win.
This team has bought into the “team first” mentality. Perhaps the Flyers in 2015-2018 were more of a “player first” mentality. And maybe that is something that Hakstol has groomed this team for. And as the team continues to do well, they can continue to rally around each other and fight for each and every game.
Likewise, coming in from the college ranks, he has never coached any sort of professional hockey team before. He was thrown right into the fire instead of coming up in the minor league ranks or as an assistant on someone’s staff. Maybe he’s learned from these experiences and matured and grown a lot.
Either way, it is great to see Hakstol succeed. I don’t think he ever really had a fair chance to develop his team here. The Flyers have pretty much been in freefall ever since he left anyways. Tortorella is left to pick up the pieces and try to cobble a team together. If the team administration is patient, Torts can succeed and put together a winner; but it will be hard as the rest of the Metropolitan Division is really, really good.
Patience with this team is necessary. The culture is changing. Team first is emphasized. It’s not about stats or numbers or even wins. Playing with your heart and putting everything out there on the ice is what matters; the rest with follow. Maybe Hakstol could’ve succeeded with the Flyers had he had the chance. Either way, he seems to be the right man of the job in Seattle.