Ron Hextall

The Ron Hextall-Dave Hakstol era ended with an unexpected restart the Flyers needed

The Ron Hextall-Dave Hakstol era ended with an unexpected restart the Flyers needed

Back in April, Ron Hextall spoke about pressure.

At the time, the Flyers weren't facing any overwhelming feeling of now or never.

They had just come off 42 wins and 98 points, both highs under Dave Hakstol in Year 3 of his tenure, took the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins to six games in the first round of the playoffs, and many of their core pieces experienced career years to coincide with the team's growing youthfulness.

The expectation for a bigger step, though, was starting to build and became magnified when the Flyers signed James van Riemsdyk on Day 1 of free agency. 

"We all have pressure," Hextall, now the Flyers' former general manager, said after the 2017-18 season. "Pro sports is pressure. There's pressure on all of us. Now how you handle that pressure, you better handle it right."

The Flyers couldn't get past it through two and a half months of this season as the pressure morphed into an unstoppable force.

Seeing how freely and crisply the Flyers played Tuesday night during a 3-2 win over the Red Wings, it became increasingly clear that the stresses and drama brewing off the ice were weighing down the players who dictate the whole show on the ice.

Can you fault them for feeling it? In just two weeks, their GM, assistant GM and an assistant coach were fired, setting up for three replacements to take over all while their head coach was in this weird limbo but squarely on the chopping block.

Yes, they are professionals and making good money to play this sport at a high level.

But they are also human beings.

The Flyers may not be Stanley Cup contenders, but they possess too much talent to be wallowing in last place of the Metropolitan Division and ranking among the league's bottom three in goals allowed, power-play percentage and penalty-kill percentage.

The Wells Fargo Center had a different aura Tuesday night.

The Flyers were a different team.

The walls no longer felt like they were falling in, so the Flyers didn't try to do too much and instead just played the game the way they should.

Fans were engaged with a positive outlook. The goalie of the future was making his NHL debut and a new voice was behind the bench. The fans weren't looking to jump all over the first mistake or call for Hakstol's head the second the opposition scored. 

That's not to blame the fans. It's simply pressure in pro sports, like Hextall said.

As the Flyers tried to save their coach's job after already seeing a significant shake-up atop the totem pole, that pressure would creep in and then pounce.

On Tuesday, a reset was felt — not pressure. The Flyers took control of the game. Carter Hart, at 20 years old, was in net. Scott Gordon, on an interim basis, was head coach.

"It has been a while since we've heard some 'Let's Go Flyers' chants, so it's pretty nice," Shayne Gostisbehere said at second intermission. "The kid is giving us something right now. He's giving us some energy, a jolt, something this team desperately needed."

The Hextall-Hakstol era ended Monday when the head coach was fired three weeks after the general manager who brought him here suffered the same fate.

It happened sooner than anyone saw coming, shockingly 31 games into this season.

And you can't help but wonder how much pressure played in finishing it off.

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A timeline of the Flyers' massive shake-up with more to come

A timeline of the Flyers' massive shake-up with more to come

Did anyone envision this sort of drama 31 games into the Flyers' 2018-19 season?

It's Dec. 17 and the Flyers have already fired a general manager, assistant general manager, head coach and assistant coach, while naming a new GM, assistant GM, interim head coach and starting the search for a long-term bench boss. 

And that's not to mention this is a team with a blend of veterans and youth stuck in last place of the Metropolitan Division.

A lot has happened in the past three weeks, even 24 hours.

Let's break it all down:

Monday, Nov. 26 — Hextall's process cut short

This was the first shoe to drop as the Flyers stunned many by firing general manager Ron Hextall. 

The move was a massive shift in the organization's direction because it created a chain reaction of inevitable — and significant — changes to follow.

Flyers president Paul Holmgren and Comcast Spectacor chairman and CEO Dave Scott wanted more progress and action in Year 5 under Hextall — and maybe a little more openness to ideas, as well.

Wednesday, Nov. 28 — Two more get the door

Just two days later, the Flyers fired assistant general manager Chris Pryor and assistant coach Gord Murphy. 

Pryor's axing wasn't a surprise after Hextall was let go, but it was quite notable given Pryor had spent the last 20 years in the organization and was integral to the team's renewed scouting efforts.

He was considered Hextall's right-hand man, while Murphy was on staff prior to Dave Hakstol's arrival. Ironically, as Hakstol's job was put in serious jeopardy with Hextall's firing, the head coach actually gained some pull, being consulted by Holmgren on the decision to relieve Murphy of his duties.

Monday, Dec. 3 — New sheriff in town

A different era of Flyers hockey begun when the team named Chuck Fletcher its new executive vice president and general manager a week after firing Hextall.

Scott was eyeing a candidate with a "bias for action" and the Flyers found their guy in Fletcher. Scott commended Fletcher for his "deep experience" and "easy, open management style, leadership style."

Fletcher came from outside the organization, an emphasis made by Holmgren, and with a track record of making things happen, specifically in his last stop as general manager of the Wild from 2009 to 2018 (see story).

With Fletcher's introduction, Hakstol and the Flyers were essentially put on the clock.

"I want it to work, I want to be successful with this group," Fletcher said Dec. 5. "It's not threats or anything, but if we don't have the solutions in-house, we'll look outside. There's no timetable for any of that, other than we're just trying to get better."

A day after Fletcher was named GM, Rick Wilson was brought on board as the new assistant coach, a North Dakota product and Hakstol guy.

Wednesday, Dec. 12 — Fletcher's sidekick

Brent Flahr, who oversaw scouting and the NHL draft with the Wild from 2010 to 2018, was reunited with Fletcher last week when named Flyers vice president and assistant general manager.

“He has a good eye for talent and Brent is very familiar with many of the Flyers' [scouts],” Fletcher said. "They’ve already been communicating and I think it will be a seamless transition, where there’s a lot of mutual respect. I think it will work very well with the guys that are currently on our staff.”

Monday, Dec. 17 — Hakstol era ends

A chaotic and confusing 24 hours commenced following a 1-3-1 road trip in which the Flyers allowed 22 goals over four straight losses.

A report came out Sunday that Hakstol was being fired but two team sources confirmed to NBC Sports Philadelphia that no decision had been made.

Eighteen hours later, the Flyers announced Hakstol had been fired and was being replaced by Scott Gordon on an interim basis.

A crazy three weeks — and really, it's just the beginning.

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Flyers fire Dave Hakstol, name Scott Gordon head coach on interim basis

Flyers fire Dave Hakstol, name Scott Gordon head coach on interim basis

VOORHEES, N.J. — The confusion has settled and it's official.

General manager Chuck Fletcher fired Dave Hakstol Monday afternoon and named Scott Gordon the head coach on an interim basis. Gordon has been head coach of the Flyers' AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley Phantoms since the 2015-16 season. From 2008 through 2010, Gordon was head coach of the New York Islanders.

"After meeting this morning with Dave Hakstol and thoughtful consideration, I have decided to relieve him of his duties as head coach," Fletcher said in a statement released by the team. "As I continue to assess the team, I feel that this is the best course of action for our group moving forward. I'd like to thank Dave for his service to the team and the organization. Scott Gordon will serve as head coach on an interim basis."

The news, which was reported Sunday but not made official, comes three weeks after the Flyers relieved Ron Hextall of his duties and replaced him with Fletcher.

With Hakstol, the Flyers gave it the good old college try.

Hiring the first coach straight from the collegiate ranks since 1982 came with mixed reviews, but for a deeply entrenched fan base that had attached its fervor to Ed Snider’s “win now” philosophy, the Hakstol era will be viewed as a failure.

As well it should.

And it’s every bit of an indictment against Hextall as it is Hakstol.

No Flyers coach in the history of the franchise was given this amount of tenure to achieve sustained success more than Hakstol. His 277 games coached ranks third all-time, yet his .560 points percentage wouldn’t land him in the organization’s top 10. 

In three-plus seasons on the job, Hakstol accumulated 134 victories, a win total that would rank the Flyers no better than sixth in the Metropolitan Division behind the Capitals (180), Penguins (160), Blue Jackets (146), Rangers (142) and even the Islanders (136). Each of those teams has turned over their head coach at least once in the time Hakstol was hired, and twice in the case of the Islanders. 

Surprisingly, at the time of his firing, Hakstol had the fourth-longest tenure in the league behind Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper, Nashville’s Peter Laviolette and Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice — all of whom had guided their respective teams to a Conference Final, and in the case of Cooper and Laviolette, a Stanley Cup Final.

But qualifying for the playoffs alone should never be the measuring stick of success and Hextall, who hired Hakstol, admitted as much last season. 

“An achievement making the playoffs? I don’t know,” Hextall said this past April. “We kind of expect to make the playoffs. I don’t know if I’d look at that as an achievement, more as, the first step in the process.”

Hextall’s comments emphasized the underlying failures of the Hakstol era — an inability to make the jump from that first step to the next step. Hakstol never coached past Game 6 of the opening round, losing to the Capitals in 2016 and again to the Penguins in 2018.

Of the eight-longest tenured coaches in Flyers franchise history, only Hakstol failed to win a playoff series.

Hakstol also proved incapable of taking any momentum of a previous playoff appearance and carrying that into the following season. After sneaking in as a wild-card team in Year 1, the Flyers regressed to a sixth-place finish in Year 2. This season, Hakstol and the Flyers set lofty expectations coming off a 98-point season in 2017-18 coupled with the addition of James van Riemsdyk, Hextall’s most significant free-agent signing as general manager.

And yet one step forward was typically met with another step backward. Slow starts had become a Hakstol signature as the Flyers were repeatedly forced to overcome a two-month slump to begin each new season, and the Flyers found themselves in that unenviable position yet again with a 12-15-4 record in their first 31 games.

Still, regardless of the ire of a fan base growing impatient, it became clear over time that Hextall treated his first-ever coaching hire with the same methodical approach to that of his draft picks that required a gradational development, and the two seemingly went hand in hand. Hextall's firing was followed by the hiring of Fletcher as new general manager, which put Hakstol's future in serious jeopardy.

When Hakstol was hired, he was viewed as a coach who could mold the organization’s prospects and ultimately develop them into NHL regulars. Whether he did that successfully or not is debatable, but he couldn’t quite mesh individual production with organizational prosperity.

Even during Hakstol’s tenure at the University of North Dakota, advancing to the Frozen Four six times in his 11 years at the helm, the program finally won that elusive national championship in the year after he came to Philadelphia.

While Hakstol doesn’t leave the Flyers in that same stratosphere of challenging for a championship, there are still very reasonable expectations of returning to the postseason and winning a Stanley Cup playoff series, which the Flyers somehow haven’t been able to do since 2012. 

It can be said that Dave Hakstol coached the Flyers to his potential.

He just wasn’t capable of coaching this Flyers team to its potential.

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