The Blame Game: Hakstol

My last post was November 2nd. Since then the world has been… different.

Sure, on the geopolitical stage, we may or may not be hurtling towards the End Days but why does that have to be true for the Flyers as well? Regardless of your political views, I think we can all agree that we need to Make The Flyers Great Again!

But how did we get here? How have the Flyers fallen so far and so fast from a team was able to put together a 10 game win streak seemingly announcing that the rebuild was over? Well first off, what if this 10 game win streak that everyone is so fixated on was not as convincing as winning 10 games in a row would suggest?

On January 3rd, right as the Flyers were coming off their win streak, Dimitri Filipovic wrote a great article highlighting how puck-luck is influencing the standings. The most reveling stat in this article was that the Flyers, despite just coming off the win streak, had the lead in 23.97% of game time. Which means that despite the illusion of being firmly ensconced in a playoff spot at the time, the Flyers were tied or trailing for 75% of game play, but were able to find a way to win around the 10-12 minute mark in third periods. In summation, the Flyers were never really good this season and could have just as easily lost 10 games in a row.

To understand our frustration with why this team has been declining is to realize that not only is this team not as good as we thought they were in December, they were punching above their weight class making the playoffs last season. Luck or no luck, it’s still frustrating because it appeared that our “trust in the process” was paying off sooner than expected. The harsh reality is that we are in the beginning of year 3 of GM Ron Hextall’s 5 year plan. Which means that we are far along enough where we have to very honestly evaluate the key components of the plan.

In part one, we consider the skipper of the ship, Coach Dave Hakstol.

Any conversation about Hakstol must start with rosters and player usage. Or, to put more bluntly, why the fudge does he keep scratching Gostisbehere and Konecny?

Before we start digging into Hak, let’s be real about the current performances of Gostisbehere and Konecny. First off, to say that Gostisbehere is not having as good a season as last year is a surprise to no one. Everyone understands what sophomore slumps are but the fact of the matter is that his defensive growing pains/turnovers/loss of corner battles are much more palatable when he’s dropping Ghost Bombs like Robert Duval in Apocalypse Now.

As far as Travis Konecny goes, I have no friggin clue what Hakstol has against this kid. Is he presently a NHL 2nd line left winger? Of course not, but he is presently a rookie who is 19 years old and is doing a good (not great) job a in role that he isn’t ready for. To be unhappy with Konency for not producing at a Phil Kessel rate is obtuse and I really hope that isn’t the case.

In both cases, Hakstol is under the impression that sitting his promising second year defensemen and first year left winger will be a more effective way for them to develop??? Furthermore, why can’t Hakstol find consistent offensive output with this team?

I have often fawned over Dave Hakstol’s hockey intellect and I maintain that a big problem with this team’s lack of offensive output is that the defense is not good enough to execute his very complicated breakout. I also thought that Hakstol’s experience in the college game would be an asset to developing the embarrassment of outstanding Flyers prospects. But then I got to thinking about what the coaches job is (get 20 guys to execute a game plan) and how does a coach do this? Then I started thinking about the major differences between coaching in the NHL and the NCAA.

There are 2 differences that I believe are salient when comparing NHL and NCAA coaches:

1) Job security. It is extremely difficult to get a NCAA coach fired, and damn near impossible if you are a demigod at program like Hakstol was at North Dakota. Regardless of how intelligent you think Hakstol is, we can all agree that he is asking his players to think and play in a way that they have not been asked before. Unfortunately, hockey players are not the smartest people on Earth and certainly not the most receptive to change either. So, if for whatever reason a squad doesn’t buy into a coach’s system in the NCAA, that’s an easy fix, simply don’t play any defecting players and just find a Chris VandeVelde who is good enough to execute exactly what he is asked to do. In the NCAA, it is really easy to bench a Shayne Gostisbehere because he’s not conforming to the system. It is much harder to change a system to accommodate a non-conforming player that has special talent who’s ability to play the game exceed the “yes, coach!” mentality.

2) The other salient difference between the NCAA and NHL coaching is that NHL players make as much, if not way more money than the coach. Again, in college, players are essentially indentured servants to the program and are compensated with ice time. Professional sports in general present a very unique work place because one third to half of your work force makes more money than the boss does. Compounding the matter is that unless you’re Bill Belichik, there are 1-3 players on every professional roster that has more influence/security with the team owner. Think about this for a second. If you knew that you made more money than your boss and that your boss’s boss thinks you’re more valuable, why would you do anything that is not 100% in-line with the way that you think things should be?

I still believe that Hakstol has the ability to be a great coach, however, I think that the root of decisions like pairing Provorov with MacDonald, scratching Gostisbehere and Konecny, and acknowledging Dale Weise’s existence are a product of coaching in the NCAA for 10+ years. There are only two ways to get people/players to do what you want: you can either get them to want an outcome or give them reason to avoid an outcome. Hakstol was a master at understanding how to influence the motivations of his players at the NCAA level. Only time will tell if he will be able to adapt and understand how to get the most out of his NHL players.

…or he’ll Nick Saben us all and go back to being a demigod.

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