Throughout the offseason, we'll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.
Going End to End today are CSNPhilly.com producers/reporters Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.
The topic: Evaluating Dave Hakstol's second season as the Flyers' head coach.
I wrote in this space before last season began that Hakstol proved he was the right pick as the Flyers' coach after his first campaign behind the bench … and I still believe that. But the leash is shorter than I expected it to be. I don't believe it's fair to cast judgments on Hakstol based strictly on the Flyers' performance in 2016-17. That would be a rash decision that is uncharacteristic of general manager Ron Hextall's managing style.
With that said, the Flyers did take a step back in 2016-17. It would be naive of anyone not to admit that. It is fair to factor Hakstol's second season as coach and look at it from a broader view, however. In Year 1, there were a lot of positive signs. He guided a team lacking playoff talent to a postseason appearance by implementing a system that largely is effective at the NHL level.
In Year 2, however, there were several decisions that should signal alarm. I did not like the way Hakstol handled the goaltenders, and I believe that had he realized Steve Mason was the No. 1 earlier than he did, the Flyers would have made the playoffs. After his exit interview, Mason said Hakstol agreed with the goalie that once he figured out who the clear-cut No. 1 was, things started going better for the Flyers. Mason was right.
Then there were the bewildering lineup decisions. I don't have as much of an issue with the benchings of Shayne Gostisbehere and Travis Konecny. I thought some of those were warranted, and both players appeared to learn from them. I think that is more of a testament to Gostisbehere and Konecny than anything else.
What bothered me about Hakstol's lineup decisions was his unwillingness to scratch Chris VandeVelde, the misuse of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and not dressing the best group of players on a nightly basis. Hakstol refused to sit VandeVelde. He played 81 games and was scratched only in the final game to give Mike Vecchione another game. The good news is VandeVelde is an unrestricted free agent, and there is little reason to believe Hextall will re-sign him this summer.
VandeVelde is a fringe NHL player. He doesn't score. He spends most of his ice time in his own end — and not because he's an excellent defensive forward. VandeVelde and Bellemare had the worst Corsi numbers on the team out of players who were here all season — 46.6 percent for Bellemare and 46.3 for VandeVelde. I doubt VandeVelde would crack a lineup on any other team. The decision to dress him on a nightly basis raises some concern about Hakstol. Because of Hakstol's unwillingness to sit VandeVelde — and Bellemare, too, though I do believe he brings more to the table than VandeVelde — the Flyers often didn't dress their best possible lineup on a nightly basis. Nick Cousins and Dale Weise were healthy scratches throughout the campaign. Both bring more to the table than VandeVelde and Bellemare.
Looking at Hakstol from a broader view, however, I think he deserves another season as the Flyers' coach — and he will get it. (He's not going anywhere anytime soon.) I think next season, when more young blood and talent are injected into the roster, is the one we can truly look at and say whether he's the right choice for the job. I think there was enough good in Year 1 to buy him a Year 3.
Hakstol's second NHL season was certainly no cakewalk.
As the Flyers took a step back and missed the playoffs, he faced the pressure and skepticism — and the coach typically does in the NHL.
Some questioned his system, whether it restricted creativity as the Flyers turned defensive.
Some questioned his lineup decisions as he benched a handful of players, most notably Gostisbehere and Konecny for multiple games.
Some questioned why he didn't sit others.
And some questioned his handling of the goalies — Mason being one of them at his end-of-the-season press conference.
The questions were valid, too.
But inevitably, Hakstol was going to face some growing pains. The transition from college to the NHL wasn't going to be all smooth sailing. Just like young players, Hakstol is still growing himself.
But can he better communicate and explain decisions?
Can he be more transparent with his players?
Should he put greater focus on accentuating their strengths?
I think Hakstol — who really knows the game — needs to improve in those areas.
Either way, Year 3 should be a telling season. With that said, this is Hextall's guy and the GM will be patient with him no matter how impatient outsiders become.
Much like his team did, Hakstol had his ups and downs during his second season as the Flyers' head coach.
Much like he did at the end of 2015-16, he pushed almost all the right buttons for the Flyers, especially during the 10-game win streak. But as teams started to adjust to the Flyers, the Flyers had issues adjusting themselves. And that goes back to Hakstol and his staff.
Let's take the power play, for example. The Flyers' power play was downright lethal at the start of the year, consistently at or near the top of the rankings. But teams adjusted to it, and the Flyers did not as they kept Claude Giroux along the half-wall and Gostisbehere at the point (when he was in the lineup) and let it run through them. Teams began to key in on it, things got stale and the power play plummeted. Likely hence the reason for Joey Mullen's dismissal at the end of the year. While Mullen ran the power play, it's still up to Hakstol to call for changes. The adjustments weren't made.
And there's where the main criticism of Hakstol lies — adjustments, or maybe calling for the wrong ones. Yes, I'm talking about pulling Gostisbehere and Konecny out of the lineup for prolonged periods of time.
Konecny, a 19-year-old rookie when the season began last year, is obviously young. But remember, despite all the accolades Gostisbehere rightfully earned as a rookie, he was still just 23 last season. And was recovering from offseason hip surgery. And was now a main target for opposing teams.
When the Flyers went downhill, Hakstol wanted both to be more responsible defensively. And I get that. It's obviously a huge part of the game.
But when you have such dynamic offensive talents the likes of Gostisbehere and Konecny, you have to let them play the way that lets them be at their best. If that means some risky freewheeling, then so be it. You've got to take the good with the bad, especially with the goal-scoring struggles the Flyers endured last season. When you have these kinds of guys, especially Gostisbehere on the blue line who can be a firecracker, you've got to let them play the way that lets them fully use their talents (see: Karlsson, Erik — I know that's a lofty comparison, but he didn't get to be a two-time Norris Trophy winner and one of the best players in the world by having his coaches try to mold him into a stay-at-home defender during his early years in the NHL).
Plus, with young players, you have to know there are going to be mistakes. Especially in Konecny's case. I'm a big believer that a young player needs to learn from his mistakes right back out on the ice, and not up in the press box consistently. A game here and there is fine to set a guy's head straight, but not for prolonged periods of time.
So what would I like to see more of in Year 3 from Hakstol? More awareness for adjustments, both with players individually and as a team. It's obviously much easier said than done.