ron hextall

Now the pressure really picks up for Dave Hakstol, Flyers

Now the pressure really picks up for Dave Hakstol, Flyers

Dave Hakstol lifted his arm effortlessly with his hand steadily inclining toward the ceiling, almost portraying the takeoff of an airplane.

He was discussing the timeline for young hockey players, which his Flyers have a lot of and will gain only more as the blocks are stacked one by one.

And as the head coach digested a topsy-turvy, season-ending loss, his demonstration depicted what he knew wasn't the case.

"You always want development to be this smooth path and this smooth climb; it doesn't work that way," Hakstol said. "It's kind of a jagged climb, and as long as you're seeing a steady push to improve, then you stick with it and keep pushing in that direction."

The Flyers have been allowed to hit those jagged edges on their climb, like Sunday's 8-5 Game 6 defeat to the Penguins (see story). It was the final swing (and miss) in a best-of-seven first-round playoff matchup with the two-time defending champs, another cut along the grand hike for the Flyers.

But with it came a signal.

This is no longer the bottom of the mountain. The trek has been underway for three seasons and the long view should, expectedly, be coming into focus. In 2018-19, Hakstol will enter the fourth year of a five-year contract, according to CapFriendly.com. The Flyers' core, looking at its peak, will be a year older, as will the foundation pieces, already here and being counted on to drive things forward. 

The Flyers played four rookies in the playoffs, while five of their top eight regular-season goal scorers were 25 years old or younger. 

"For the most part, I liked the growth of our young guys," Hakstol said. "I think they had an opportunity to really see some tough points during the year and figure out how to be a part of battling out of them. They had the opportunity to play through and be part of a playoff push that other teams weren't going away, and we knew that with eight to 10 games to go, we knew that we would have to win our way in. So they had the opportunity to be a part of that and gain that experience of understanding and knowing how hard that is. And they were successful in that."

It resulted in 42 wins and 98 points during the regular season, both highs under Hakstol, surpassing the 41 and 96 set in Year 1. It also led to another first-round exit, the second under Hakstol against a topflight opponent. In those series, the Flyers went 1-5 at home, where they were outscored 26-9.

Harsh yet clear reminders the Flyers aren't where they want to be.

The Penguins, no duh, are. 

"We're working to build toward something like that," Wayne Simmonds said. "I thought we took a step in the right direction this year."

Claude Giroux, the 102-point, 30-year-old captain, sees it, too.

"I know for a fact that we got better as the season went on," Giroux said. "Look at our team last year and look at our team this year. We improved a lot."

While patience is always of the essence with general manager Ron Hextall, Year 4 will demand much more, unlike seasons past. This is Hakstol's team — the blocks are in place, both old and now not so new.

"There's going to be a lot of good and a lot of things that we'll say, 'Hey, these are good steps for our team,'" Hakstol said of this season. "End of the day, we didn't come into this playoff series to make steps, though."

That undoubtedly won't be the objective in 2018-19. It can't be, and the Flyers should know it.

What are Flyers made of? We're about to find out

What are Flyers made of? We're about to find out

VOORHEES, N.J. — The Penguins have the Flyers on the canvas in a headlock.

The faces of the guys who wear orange and black are turning purple, and unless they put up a courageous fight as they did in Game 2, they will tap out of this best-of-seven series after just five games (see story).

General manager Ron Hextall spoke to the media for the first time since the series started and believes the Flyers have displayed a lack of mental fortitude through the first four games.

“A lot of it is mentality,” Hextall said. “We need to be stronger if a bump goes the other way. We need to be stronger and bounce back and create energy going back our way. The playoffs are a series of momentum [swings] — within a period and within a game. We need to do a better job of bringing the momentum back our way."

So where exactly does that start? The return of Sean Couturier would help considerably.

After sitting out Game 4’s 5-0 loss, the Selke Trophy finalist hasn’t ruled out playing in Game 5 after skating Wednesday and Thursday on his own. Hextall said Couturier would travel to Pittsburgh and nothing more than that.

“I’m feeling better every day, and we’ll see how I feel tomorrow,” Couturier said. “It’s really on me to see how I feel every day and hopefully, it keeps getting better. It’s really up to my body to see how it keeps progressing.”

Dave Hakstol switched up his lines once again Thursday, most notably installing Valtteri Filppula onto the top line with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek and breaking up the top defense pairing of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere.

Robert Hagg is also expected to make his series debut, playing alongside Andrew MacDonald as fellow rookie Travis Sanheim will serve as the healthy scratch.

“About time,” Hagg said. “I’m looking forward to it tomorrow. Hopefully, I can bring something to the team, some energy. I think it’s perfect and I can’t wait to go in and show what I can bring to the team.”

“He brings a different element than a couple of guys in the lineup if we’re so inclined to make that change,” Hakstol said. “We haven’t generated very much over the last five periods, but at the same time, we’ve given up quite a bit in some of the harder areas.”

Toward the end of Thursday’s 45-minute practice, Giroux gathered his teammates around and delivered a speech he hopes can galvanize the Flyers for Game 5 and bring the series back to Philadelphia for Game 6.

“I think it’s believing in ourselves," Giroux said. "All year we’ve done that, and we’ve talked about it before. You lose 10 in a row and find a way to make the playoffs. Tomorrow’s a big game for us, and if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down swinging.”

Quick hits
• Speaking on the collision with Radko Gudas, Couturier said, "We've done this drill all year. It was bad timing and a fluke accident. There's no one to really blame, and I should have maybe had my head up there."

• Hextall believes Couturier should be the Selke Trophy front-runner based on his outstanding 2017-18 season.

"I think he should win it," Hextall said. "I know those other players fairly well, and yes, I watch Coots on a daily basis, but the two-way game that he brings to our team is in my mind, the best in the league this year."

• Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist will miss his second straight game.

Why has Dave Hakstol gone away from Robert Hagg?

ap-usa-dave-hakstol-robert-hagg.jpg
AP Images/USA Today Images

Why has Dave Hakstol gone away from Robert Hagg?

VOORHEES, N.J. — If you wanted to hang a banner that represented the thoughts of Flyers fans, perhaps the most prominent message at the Wells Fargo Center would read “Play the Kids.”

And if you look up and down the Flyers' roster, it would appear Dave Hakstol shares that same sentiment.

On a nightly basis, you’ll find 19-year-old Nolan Patrick, 21-year-olds Oskar Lindblom, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny, and more recently 22-year-old Travis Sanheim. All of this youth is why the Flyers are one of the youngest teams in the Eastern Conference.

But sometimes it’s not enough, and more recently, the most perplexing decision has been to sit the most seasoned rookie, 23-year-old Robert Hagg, who was on track to play all 82 games until an injury sidelined him for the first time on March 10. 

“First of all, if you told me a young player would play 70-something games, I would be pretty good with that,” general manager Ron Hextall said. “It’s not like you’re expecting him to play every single game. Hagg has done a good job for us and I know when he comes back in, he’ll do a good job for us.”

From a solid job to now no job, Hagg appears to be the first Flyers player this season to lose his role after sustaining an injury. 

“I don’t know, maybe,” Hagg said. “I played two games since I came back. Hexy wanted to get me back, as well, to get the timing right and all that stuff. It is what it is and you have to deal with it. The team is doing pretty well right now, so getting into the playoffs is all that matters.”

Despite spending most of the season on the right side of Andrew MacDonald, Hagg was paired with Radko Gudas in his two-game return and it proved to be a choppy combination. Then again, so has Sanheim and Gudas and at times, Brandon Manning with Gudas. 

Sunday against the Bruins, Gudas was clearly the worst of the Flyers' six defensemen, especially in the Flyers' end of the ice, while committing the types of mistakes you’d expect to see from a rookie like Hagg, who had played rather consistently for much of the season. 

“He wasn’t clean enough with the puck,” Hakstol said Sunday about Gudas. “Games come down to small plays and how efficient you are with the puck, especially when you’re playing against good players, it's important. There was a couple of those tonight. In most cases, he had second effort that helped them clean it up, but there was a couple of plays that he needs to be cleaner on.” 

When Sanheim returned to the Flyers following an 18-game stint with the Phantoms, Hakstol was cautious to not pair him with Gudas again, and consequently, Sanheim has played considerably better with MacDonald. 

Like Gudas, Hagg hits hard while separating the player from the puck, he’s capable of killing penalties, blocking shots and positionally it appears the rookie is just as reliable.

Or maybe not. 

“[The coaches] see about 50 times more video than what we see,” Hextall said. “Yeah, you tend to err on experience, but if a young guy does it and can do it, coaches will give him a chance.”

And with Hagg, you can’t help but wonder when that chance will come again.