Philadelphia Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol has received kudos for the job he did in his first season out of the college hockey coaching ranks. He earned the commendations for getting a 96-point season, a return to the playoffs and a hard-fought first-round series out of a Philadelphia Flyers team that struggled mightily at times to score goals and which had 6-9-5 record after 17 games.
The praise has been merited. Hakstol in particular made changes to the team's neutral zone play which paid dividends as the club adapted to it and could reap bigger benefits as the roster evolves in future seasons.
It should be said, however, that former Flyers head coach Craig Berube also made significant contributions to getting the team back on the right track. As maligned as he was by some of the fan base, Berube came into a tough situation and did pretty well with it.
Berube, whom Hockeyweb.de reported on April 20
is a candidate for a head coaching job in Germany's DEL, deserves another shot as an NHL head coach but his name has not come up with any of the vacancies. Hopefully, that changes at some point. He's a good hockey man and an honorable, straightforward person.
When I look back at Berube's two-season tenure as Flyers head coach, most of my assessment is positive. To be completely honest, the team's performance under Hakstol in year one was not all THAT different than it was under Berube.
Actually, the 2013-14 season under Berube (after Peter Laviolette was fired three games into the season) was pretty similar to the just-finished season. The team got off to a terrible start and could not score to save their lives early in the season (22 goals as a team through the first 15 games). They built up resiliency, came on in the second half and made the playoffs with a 94-point season. Largely through stellar playoff goaltending (Steve Mason from games 4 to 7 in 2014, Michal Neuvirth from games 4 to 6 in 2016) put up a good fight in a first-round playoff lost to a favored opponent.
In 2014-15, the Flyers were a 53-point home team under Berube. In 2015-16, they were a 54-point home team under Hakstol. The difference was that the Flyers had a terrible road season last year and were able to pull their road record up just enough to get into the playoffs.
Even in 2014-15, the Flyers were in the process of clawing their way into the playoff race. Their late-game collapse in Boston on March 7 and 0-2-1 swoon over the three games that followed (the one point coming via a 65-minute 0-0 tie behind Mason in St. Louis before a shootout loss) was the team's playoff death knell. Had they hung on win in Boston, they would have only have been two points out of a playoff spot; instead they left with a five-point gap and never recovered.
A lot of the team-defense woes the club had at even strength in the latter part of the Peter Laviolette era were gotten under control during Berube's tenure. The penalty kill was generally strong in 2013-14, slipped precipitously in 2014-15 (especially on the road) and improved modestly this past season.
There were things Berube could have improved, for certain. That's true with anyone. Hakstol has some areas where he can improve as well, and has trended positively in most of them.
In terms of weaknesses, I did not think Berube had a great read on his goaltenders, but that's just my own opinion. Then again, it wasn't Berube who panicked with his goalie rotation in the playoffs in 2011. That was predecessor Laviolette's doing, and was the flash point for the Ilya Bryzgalov era that began and ended before Berube was promoted from assistant to head coach.
One of the most frequent complaints of Berube critics was his personnel use and assesments. Whether you liked or disliked personnel-related the decisions, it is hard to ignore the fact that Hakstol's reads on the same players turned out to be pretty close to Berube's far more often than not. Some examples:
* Nick Schultz: Berube identified the veteran defenseman as an every-game player in his lineup. So did Hakstol.
* Sean Couturier: Berube got pilloried for suggesting that Couturier's heavy defensive responsibilities and frequent defensive zone starts precluded his offensive game from developing. Hakstol continued to use Couturier in a shutdown role (actually, he statistically played the toughest minutes of any forward in the NHL this season). However, he simultaneously managed a stretch during the season in which he posted 15 points in 15 games prior to getting injured in the Flyers' Feb. 4th game against Nashville. It's a tall order to do heavy defensive lifting and also produce sustained offense at a regular clip but that stretch a season after Berube's dismissal was a hint of what the coach was talking about with Couturier. The player has the capability of doing both.
* Luke Schenn: Schenn was in and out of Berube's lineup in 2014-15. He was in and out of Hakstol's lineup this season in the early portion of 2015-16 prior to being traded to Los Angeles. Radko Gudas was slotted higher on Hakstol's depth chart coming out of training camp.
* Chris VandeVelde: The University of North Dakota product was a regular in both coaches' lineups. It was Berube who first put Pierre-Edouard Bellemare together on a line with VandeVelde and Ryan White in the latter part of the 2014-15 season. That line held over for Hakstol throughout the 2015-16 season and, in fact, was often used more as a third line than a traditional fourth line.
* Michael Del Zotto: Why was Del Zotto a frequent healthy scratch in the first half of the 2014-15 season? It was because Berube wanted the player to adjust his playing style to something much closer to the role he played under Hakstol this season. He wanted a two-way defenseman who could join the rush, not an offensive defenseman who tried to lead the rush.
Actually, Del Zotto's offensive contributions in 2014-15 were fairly robust even after he made the adjustments the coaches wanted and started to play a solid two-way game. By the second half of 2014-15, Del Zotto was a fixture in the lineup. It was some of the best hockey he played in his career.
This past year under Hakstol, Del Zotto picked up his play without the puck even further and remained a fine puck-mover up to the forwards. He had nice-looking puck possession stats although his traditional even strength plus-minus was minus-eight.
Del Zotto may have sacrificed a little too much offense in the process of adapating to his role on the current team prior to his season-ending wrist injury. Del Zotto went from 32 points in 64 games to 13 points in 52 games (0.25 points per game). He can do better than that as his role continues to evolve. There's no reason why Del Zotto cannot be a 30-point, two-way player.
* Vincent Lecavalier: It was painful for everyone to watch what happened with Vinny the last few years. However, that does not make it Berube or Hakstol's fault.
Berube got blamed by fans for his handling of Lecavalier, but it's not clear what he should have done differently. Peter Laviolette had an idea of how he wanted to deploy Lecavalier but, with the benefit of hindsight, it was doubtful that Lecavalier still had enough game left to thrive in Lavy's system either over multiple years.
Contrary to what's become the popular narrative, Berube didn't just pull the plug on Lecavalier. He tried a variety of options first before coming to the realization that the least disruptive spot was either the fourth line or as a healthy scratch.
In year one, Lecavalier started out well but hit a wall and then struggled after returning from a back injury. Berube tried the player on all four lines and used him both at center and wing before he was dispatched to a fourth-line wing role.
In year two, things did not improve and Lecavalier ended up a healthy scratch. When Hakstol came in, he had the same read on Lecavalier that Chief did: There was no role in the lineup for him.
Lecavalier's play for the LA Kings after the trade was a nice story. He was able to "retire with his skates on" (to steal a favorite phrase that Kimmo Timonen used repeatedly in his own final season) and score some goals to boot.
In LA, Lecavalier posted 10 goals and 17 points in 42 games because he can still shoot the puck -- just as he could in his 20-goal first season with the Flyers. The problem was that he was basically the hockey equivalent of a designated hitter in what he could truly contribute. He was not well-geared to today's puck-possession oriented style in the NHL and was below average defensively. That's just the sad reality for a player who had a borderline Hall of Fame career.
If Hakstol (or Berube) had wanted to play him too high in the lineup, as Darryl Sutter did at times with the Kings, Lecavalier could still have scored a few goals for the Flyers, too. Even with the Flyers in need of more size, more offense and more power play threats, however, they had been there and tried that with Lecavalier. Even if he'd rebounded to a 20-goal prorated pace as he did with LA, it's not enough to make up for the other deficiencies.
* Matt Read: Read had a down year in 2014-15, partially due to injuries. He was healthier this season in Hakstol's first season. However, he did not magically turn things around simply due to a change behind the bench. Hakstol made Read a healthy scratch a couple times (something that Berube did not do, while mincing no words that he was among the players from whom the Flyers needed more). A year after Berube's dismissal, the Flyers are still waiting for Read to recover the form he showed in his first and third NHL seasons.
Lastly, is also noteworthy that, after a vocal segment of Flyers fans griped frequently about Berube's assessment and usage of Jason Akeson early in the 2014-15 season before he was waived (and unclaimed, despite a modest salary), the player fared no better when he moved on as a free agent to the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators organizations this past season. Neither organization saw an NHL role for the player so he remained an American Hockey League player for Rochester and Binghamton.