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May 18, 2015

What the hiring of Dave Hakstol says about the Flyers

Whenever a team makes a hire as surprising as the Flyers did on Monday, there's a lot to take in.

Who is new coach Dave Hakstol? Why was he the choice? What does he bring to the table? Will his coaching style mesh with the current roster? The questions are endless, as are the amount of people — like me — offering an opinion on a guy we hadn't heard of before today. 

With that in mind, here's a look at three things people will likely be saying/writing about the new Flyers coach, general manager Ron Hextall's decision to go with the inexperienced college coach, and what the hiring says about the state of the team:

Hakstol’s greatest perceived weakness may also be his greatest strength

The fact that Hakstol has no coaching experience at the NHL level would normally worry fans, but because of the recent outcry for the team to shake things up and not hire another former Flyer — or at least someone who has strong ties to the organization — many seem to be embracing the move.

General manager Ron Hextall told reporters Monday that he didn’t want to placate fans when making the decision.

“I wasn’t going to choose the coach that was the people’s choice, the popular choice,” Hextall said. “I was going to pick the coach that I felt like for this franchise, from today, next year and moving forward was the right coach. And Dave was the right coach for this franchise.”

Despite his relatively short, albeit accomplished, résumé, the decision to hire Hakstol has been well received. Perhaps that should not come as a surprise in a town where all four major sports teams now have coaches whose first professional experience came after their arrival in Philadelphia.

According to Hextall, however, this was not a bold move, but rather a case of finding, and hiring, the best man for the job.

“Watching my son* over the years, I grew an appreciation for Dave and the way he coached,” the GM said. “You know, you follow his young career, and I’ve thought about him long before this as a head coach in the National Hockey League. I believe he was destined for it.

*Hextall’s son Brett, now with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, played under Hakstol at North Dakota from 2008-2011.

“He’s got a lot of pro qualities. He’s got a lot of experience as a head coach. … You know, I had a list of things I wanted from a head coach, and I went down this checklist in my mind. Every box was checked, except for the NHL experience. And quite frankly, for me, that’s the least important.”

That may seem counterintuitive, but Hextall makes a good point here.

It seems more and more that professional sports teams are unwilling — maybe afraid is a better word — to make an outside-the-box hire. All too often, a team’s new coach happens to be the old coach of another team in another market. And there's often a reason he was unemployed in the first place.

"I think everybody is an unknown quantity until they get here," Flyers chairman Ed Snider said. "Even recycled coaches are unknown quantities because they lost their job somewhere else. Bottom line is he’s a coach, he didn’t lose his job, it took a lot of talking for him to leave there. He had a very, very sweet thing there. You know when you’re a college coach you can be there maybe forever. We all know what it’s like at the pro level so it’s gutsy on his part too.

By picking Hakstol, however, the Flyers are not only hiring a winner, they are breaking away from their norm. Stepping outside their comfort zone.

"From Ron’s point of view it’s a gutsy move but he’s very confident and very thorough," Snider said of Hextall's decision to hire the 46-year-old Hakstol. "He is the most thorough guy I’ve seen in a long, long time. ...  I’m confident that he knows what he’s doing. I met Dave at the end of the process. I’m confident that he’s a very solid young man and I think it’s great for our organization. 

"We need a fresh approach."

Change is in the air. At long last.

[Enjoy it, because you’re about to have a big ol' bucket of ice cold water dumped on your head.]

Hakstol hiring a sneaky way for Flyers to save money, keep control and, ultimately, maintain status-quo

Take a (figurative) walk with me, down an alternate timeline, one in which the Flyers hired Mike Babcock instead of Dave Hakstol. 

You with me? Good.

Now think about the cost of hiring the NHL’s most sought-after coach. First, there’s the financial cost, with Babcock looking to become the richest coach in NHL history. The Flyers would like have to enter in to a bidding war with teams like St. Louis, San Jose and the Red Wings — they’ve already offered him a four-year deal worth over $3 million per season. That alone would put the odds of landing Babcock against the Flyers.

But there is a greater cost to consider, one that involves players, their contracts, and when they come and go.

By not hiring Babcock, that power remains with current GM Ron Hextall. Had they been able to pry him away from the Red Wings, Babcock would have demanded some of that power from him. That cost, it seems, was prohibitive for the Flyers, a team not necessarily known as a shining example of fiscal responsibility.

Instead, they hired the complete opposite of the seasoned, accomplished Babcock. In Hakstol, they have a rookie coach who will learn about the business of the NHL from Hextall and Paul Holmgren. He’s young, impressionable, and — no offense to the new Flyers coach — will likely do as his boss(es) tell(s) him.

The fact remains, however, that the Flyers' culture — the one that has been much maligned by the media, not the fans, according to chairman Ed Snider — began to change two years ago when the team brought in Hextall to replace Holmgren, now the team president, as general manager.

Despite his strong ties to the organization, the former Flyers goalie spent his formative front office years 3,000 miles away, working as assistant GM for the Los Angeles Kings from 2006-2013 and winning a Stanley Cup in 2012. He also help set the organization on a path towards its second Cup in two years, which they won the year after Hextall left to join the Flyers.

When asked about whether or not the team made a conscious effort to bring in someone with a noticeable lack of ties to the Flyers organization, Hextall reiterated that he wanted to hire "the best coach possible."

"The experience thing, where a guy's been — has he been around? — I mean, quite honestly, I was looking for the best coach," Hextall said. "And that's what we feel like we got with Dave."

Whether or not that's 100 percent honest remains to be seen. But viewed through the prism of recent events — failing to make the playoffs, firing Berube, etc. — it seems genuine. Hextall knows his future with the Flyers is now riding on a rookie coach that was hired based on a loosely* defined "gut feeling."

*Hextall went on to explain that the "gut feeling" came only after he did his due diligence, which isn't really the same thing.

But again, that doesn't seem to bother Hextall, who added the following:

Every head coach in the NHL, at some point, was a rookie. ... And, quite frankly, if you said to me, "You can bring in an NHL assistant coach or you can bring in a guy that's been in college for 11 years as a head coach," I'll take the head coaching experience. That's the valuable part. If they had never been a head coach, it's a different conversation. Being the guy in charge, making the tough decisions, putting your lines together, you know, the gut feels you have on putting players out at the right times; he's got all that experience. Yes, it's at a different level, but that's valuable too.

A surprising move, for sure. But perhaps Hextall and Snider, who said he had little to no input on the hire — felt more comfortable with the move because the Flyers have done this before.

Snider was quick to point to a pair of former Flyers coaches who came in with zero NHL coaching experience and went on to successful careers.

"Mike Keenan coached in college as well as in the minors, and was an outstanding coach for us," Snider said. "Fred Shero never played or coached in the NHL, and he was a great coach for us. We have a lot of history with people that come and coach for us that have never coached in the National Hockey League."

This is starting to feel less and less like the big #CultureChange we initially envisioned. 

"I think as we spent more and more time together, whether in person or on the telephone, I think we found a lot of similarities in mentalities, in philosophies on the game and on other things," Hakstol said of Hextall.

Perhaps they came to the realization that they didn't need to bring in another ex-Flyer. People had finally caught on to that. Maybe, just maybe, they decided to bring in a blank slate, one that had similar philosophies and was eager to please because not only is this is first shot at the NHL, but it could also be his last.

I tend to not look at things so cynically, but somebody else out there certainly will.

Hextall's decision to hire a relative unknown could ultimately cost him his job

Considering the fact that he just completed his first season as the Flyers GM, his job is safe for the time being. But by hiring Hakstol as the 19th coach in franchise history, Hextall has put himself out there. He's taken a chance, which is reason enough for Flyers fans to celebrate this move ... for now.

Should it backfire, there will be calls for both Hakstol and Hextall to lose their jobs. They are now married. Or at least their careers are. By entering into this symbiotic relationship, Hextall is proving something to us that is very important when it comes to the owner-GM-coach dynamic: he's not afraid to be wrong.

Some of that may stem from the fact that Snider thinks so highly of him as a general manager, going as far as to compare him to Keith Allen.

"He is one of the most thoughtful in depth kind of guys in anyone, not just GMs," Snider said of his GM. "This guy really, really is a deep thinker. He doesn’t make snap decisions. This has been going on since Craig [Berube] was fired. This isn’t new. He didn’t just start talking to this guy. He wasn’t interested in anybody else after a few of his sessions."

Still, Snider was quick to point out that this hire was all on Hextall, almost as if to recuse himself from any potential blame in the future.

"People think I call the shots. I don’t," said Snider. "Every GM I’ve ever had has total [control]. When I get to the point that I don’t think they’re doing a good job, that’s a different issue. If I have to make decisions for the GM then I don’t need a GM."

The Flyers' boss seems nowhere near ready to begin making decisions, at least as long as Hextall continues to get them right.

"Ron [Hextall] thinks outside the box, but he also is a very deep thinker," Snider concluded. "I have great confidence in this hire and the future under Ron’s guidance."

That doesn't mean Hextall won't be scrutinized based on his new coach's success.

"You know, coaches a lot of times are a product of the players that the GM gives them," added Snider.