Whether or Not This Season is Dead, the Flyers Won't be Killing Time
Dave Hakstol of North Dakota University didn’t just fall off the soybean truck. He twice rallied buried Flyer teams at mid season into the playoffs, last year producing the league’s fifth-best record from December 4 on.
Hakstol helped revive the career of Claude Giroux with a move to the wing, which lifted Sean Couturier to a level most of us had begun to doubt he ever would reach. The coach showed a good feel a year ago for just the right time to increase Nolan Patrick’s responsibilities. For three years, Hakstol produced structured teams that mitigated the damage from a below-average defense core and then a more talented, but inexperienced, one.
But game after almost game, the Flyers first periods were incomprehensibly sluggish, the penalty killing a perennial red flag, the power play issues a puzzle considering the talent at the coach’s disposal. All of these failures became easy counts of indictments by an impatient fan base that three years ago swore to support Ron Hextall’s long-term plan, but then, of course, grew impatient with it, tired of the Flyers’ failure to advance in the playoffs since 2012.
So in the end, Hakstol had to go. He was not the reason James van Riemsdyk, a big-ticket free agent, is skating in cement and a second overall pick like Patrick is playing with a frightening passivity. But Hakstol, increasingly scrambling over his final week, certainly showed no signs of having any more solutions.
Whatever curiously has made Ivan Provorov, a seeming mental bedrock, suffer a sophomore slump one year late; or has caused regression, both offensively and defensively, in Shayne Gostisbehere, there was no longer any sign Hakstol could get them turned around. After that two-goal lead got away in the final two minutes in Calgary last week, even Giroux and Couturier started to play like they were overburdened and needed a change, too.
As GM Chuck Fletcher Monday explained in making the coaching change, no longer were the Flyers trusting this coach’s system. On top of having little faith in their goalies, this was the most unwinnable of combinations. Fred Shero wouldn’t have this team in a playoff spot with all these netminders–some decent under better circumstances, some not–breaking down. Nothing saps players’ energy and confidence than the expectation that their next mistake will wind up in the net.
The leg bone is connected to the thighbone, and ultimately to Brian Elliot’s core issues. In the end, too many good players were playing too poorly for Fletcher not to give someone else a chance to fix them.
“We’re playing hard, competing, but the chances we continue to take, our puck management, the turnovers, we found ways to shoot ourselves in the foot,” said the GM Monday. “We need a new voice. . . that’s why the decision was made today.”
It was made after one last night for Fletcher to sleep on it, not because Hakstol forced the issue in the morning by asking for some reassurance the GM wouldn’t give. If the firing seemed unnecessarily delayed by a day, the discovery of whether or not Joel Quenneville was going to be quickly agreeable factored into the delay and so did the certain availability of Scott Gordon, no matter whose practice he ran on Monday.
With other experienced NHL coaches out there who could have been on the bench by Tuesday night, it is already fairly clear which one the Flyers will want at the end of the season. As when Ken Hitchcock replaced Bill Barber in 2002, the atmosphere inside the room and in the stands begs for somebody who has won.
This is not to say that Gordon, with NHL head coaching experience with the Islanders and a track record for developing prospects, won't be greeted with open ears by some very responsible Flyers searching for their games. If you have heard one set of players in any sport say after a firing that they felt responsible a good man lost his job, you’ve heard ‘em all, but there’s never really much else for them to say. The ax fallen, and the air cleared, the Flyers should start to play better.
That said, an interim tag is no compelling mandate for a new sheriff, especially since the promotion of a Scott Who isn’t going to excite the fan base any more than did Hakstol did three-plus years ago. As long as Quenneville is available, or perceived to be available, the anvil remains over another coach’s head, barring a determined run for a playoff spot.
Still our expectation is that the Flyers will have one. It’s become the MO of this core group, even going back to Craig Berube’s first season, when he took over from Peter Laviolette after only three games and rallied the troops from 3-9 to a seven game first-round series against a superior Ranger team. There still is time– and a lot of mediocre clubs ahead of the Flyers–to make another surge possible.
But of course, one can’t start without a few stops. Careful what the fans have wished for here, enter Carter Hart either for one game in a semi-emergency Tuesday night or for the beginning of an era that’s been anticipated since even long before this most heralded goalie pick the Flyers have had since Pelle Lindbergh was born.
Fletcher conceded Hart’s promotion is coming at a less-than-ideal time, but ideal went out the window when Holmgren and Dave Scott felt the organization couldn’t tolerate Hextall anymore, the plan to serve no wine before its time suddenly thrust into the hands of Fletcher.
The new guy is believable when he says he was in no hurry to shake things up. The team’s slide mitigated against a longer evaluation of Hakstol, just like injuries and Michal Neuvirth’s paternity leave are forcing Hart into becoming this port in a storm. The team is reeling from just four wins it its last 15 games, no spot even for a World Junior Tournament hero, but then let’s not all over think this either. If Hart flops in a couple games, he’s hardly ruined.
The Flyers won’t keep him up to struggle and, anyway, it’s only this season that pivots over the next few weeks, not any future of Flyer contention. This core likely will have some alterations going into next season. A new urgency to contend sooner rather than later, is clear. But a number of clubs–Tampa Bay in 2016-17 being the latest-have got right back into contention after one bad, injury-riddled, season.
Nothing that has happened in the last three weeks changes the truth that the Flyers have players, prospects and money to make them still an attractive spot for the right coach. Trials and errors push them closer to success, too.