VOORHEES, N.J. — Movie director M. Night Shyamalan may have created the sixth sense, and some of the more successful coaches in the NHL actually possess it.
No, not the ability to see dead people, but rather, the recognition of assessing in-game situations and taking an immediate and proactive course of action before the team and the game itself begins to unravel.
Predators coach and former Flyers bench boss Peter Laviolette had an uncanny ability to utilize his only timeout at a moment when the team needed desperately to refocus during a stretch of poor hockey. Laviolette may have signaled for one during a lackluster first period or at the first sign of trouble in the third period.
He’d rip the gum out of his mouth and begin the process of chewing out his guys. His face would turn red and his temperature would rise as if it was measured by the red liquid in a thermometer. More often than not, Laviolette’s teams responded swiftly and appropriately to his message. He had an ability to seize the moment when others may not have seen it coming.
It’s a club Hakstol simply doesn’t have in his bag.
Hakstol prefers to hold onto his timeout predictably when the Flyers are down a goal late in the third period to draw up a play on the dry-erase board or to give his players a breather following an icing call. Rarely, if ever, is that timeout taken in an effort to overcome the opposition’s surge of momentum.
Same can be said for Hakstol’s decision to make a goaltending change.
In the Flyers' two most recent lopsided losses, both 5-1 setbacks to the Penguins and Rangers, Hakstol chose to pull Elliott after two periods with the outcomes pretty much decided heading into the third period.
Regarding the Flyers' loss to New York Tuesday night: "We put [Elliott] in a pretty tough spot," Hakstol said postgame (see story). "Looking back on it, I could make the change after the fourth goal, but I felt like we put him in pretty tough spots tonight with the opportunities that we gave up in the first 30 minutes of the game."
While every coach seems to possess hindsight, not every coach has the appropriate sense of foresight. Goaltending changes can be the result of poor play in net and Elliott wasn’t great Tuesday night, but the decision can also take on a dual-purpose. Give the backup playing time while also attempting to ignite a spark up and down the bench.
Send a message that it’s not the goaltender’s responsibility alone for digging this hole, but since he can’t bench all 18 skaters, bench the goalie as a result of everyone else’s poor play.
In both losses to the Penguins and Rangers, once Hakstol decided to replace Elliott with Neuvirth, the Flyers were facing a 4-1 and 5-1 deficit, respectively, heading into the third period. The coach would have had better success creating a spark by rubbing two sticks together.
Over the course of an 82-game season, it’s important for a coach to remain consistent with his message. Over the duration of a 60-minute game, that message is tailored around the team’s performance. Moments and situations elicit when a coach should be bold with his words or more reserved.
Judging by his manner and behavior behind the bench, Hakstol’s barometer rarely tilts one way or the other, and the team has seemingly taken on the personality of its coach, especially at times when urgency is required.
“It’s got to be the same this time of year,” Hakstol said when asked about the team’s mindset following a 5-1 loss. “It’s never as bad you think and it’s never as good as you think. Address the issues, be direct about it, fix them and move forward.”
However, the Flyers are now 27th in the league when trailing after the first period and 25th when trailing after two periods. Against the Penguins and Rangers, the Flyers gave themselves no chance at forcing overtime when every single point matters right now, especially against the two teams they’re chasing in the wild-card standings.
Hakstol can attempt to correct X's and O’s, but at some point, his decision-making and ability to put his finger on the pulse of his team will become an X-factor.