Philadelphia Flyers: After improving team, pressure now on coaching staff

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

Now that the Philadelphia Flyers have improved the roster via free agency, head coach Dave Hakstol needs to prove he can guide the team to success.

Philadelphia is a city that can be hard on its head coaches. Just ask the likes of Andy Reid, Doug Collins, Charlie Manuel, and Peter Laviolette about coaching in the City of Brotherly Love. Taking on the job of head coach of a major sport in any city brings with it a certain level of pressure and expectation, but in a championship-starved city like Philadelphia, that level of expectation is amplified.

The Philadelphia Flyers are a team starved for a championship.

They currently are the team that has gone the longest without winning a title, with the last Stanely Cup coming at the end of the 1974-75 season. The 76ers, Phillies, and most recently the Eagles, have all won championships since that time.

This is not the say that the Flyers have not had their chances. In fact, they’ve made quite a few finals appearances since 1975. The Flyers made the finals in 1976, 1980, 1985, 1987, 1997, and 2010. But the Flyers’ list of opponents in those finals is almost comical considering when you look at it on paper. Every single Stanley Cup the Flyers lost after 1975 was lost to a team that would fall under the category of a dynasty.

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In 1976 the Flyers lost to the Montreal Canadiens, who then proceeded to rattle off four straight titles. 1980? That was the New York Islanders led by legendary coach Al Arbour, who also won four straight. In ’85 and ’87 the Edmonton Oilers had a guy on the team named Wayne Gretzky. Spoiler: he was pretty good at hockey. In their last two finals, the Flyers faced off against the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks respectively, two teams that would go on to win multiple titles over the next few years.

Suffice to say, the path to a championship has not been an easy one for the Flyers. The hiring of Ron Hextall as general manager in 2014 was supposed to signal a drastic change for the organization, one that would hopefully put the team on a path toward sustained success over the next decade and beyond.

For the most part, Hextall has lived up to his billing and the team has accumulated a deep and talented prospect pool. The future looks bright for the Flyers organization as a whole. But one area that still deeply concerns the fanbase is that of the coaching staff.

When Hextall hired Dave Hakstol to replace the departing Craig Berube, it certainly raised some eyebrows. While Hakstol possessed one of the better coaching pedigrees in college hockey as the head coach at the University of North Dakota, he had never coached professional hockey. Hextall chose Hakstol to be the next Flyers head coach based on his affinity for working with young players. The Flyers were about to get a lot younger in terms of the roster, so there was at least some reason to believe that the move made sense.

Hakstol also came to Philadelphia as one of the more successful college coaches of the last decade, having guided his North Dakota teams to seven different Frozen Four appearances during his tenure. He certainly wasn’t wholly unqualified, but anytime you hire a rookie coach, as a fan, you almost have to expect a period of growth and development.

Fast forward to the 2018 offseason, and Flyers fans are still waiting for the Hakstol’s development to show some promise. Now, let me first say this: The Flyers have made the playoffs two times in Hakstol’s first three seasons as head coach. He put Claude Giroux on the wing this year and Giroux had a phenomenal season playing next to the new number one center Sean Couturier. So, if you want to examine the coaching situation from 30,000 feet, things don’t look so bad.

But heading into year four of Hakstol’s five-year deal, with the Flyers roster looking the best on paper that it has since Hakstol took the reigns, the expectations are higher than ever. The bottom line is that with the roster finally improved via both additions and subtractions, the window of opportunity is beginning to open for this Flyers team. There are only a few things that could continue to hold them back, and coaching is one of them.

Now again, on the surface, it appears that Hakstol has done at the very least, a capable job coaching the team. But if you look deeper, there are some serious concerns regarding his roster management, in-game decision making, disciplinary tactics, and handling of his goaltenders.

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Take, for example, Hakstol’s roster management decisions. This past season was a perfect microcosm of Hakstol’s troubling personnel choices. Brandon Manning is a bona fide seventh defenseman in the National Hockey League, on the majority of teams. Yet, Manning was played for almost the entirety of the season, and beyond that, he was given prime minutes in critical situations. Defensively, Manning was a liability on the ice and could hardly ever be counted on.

This wouldn’t have seemed like such a bad move had the Flyers not possessed a better option in rookie Travis Sanheim, who either sat in the press box or was sent to Lehigh Valley so as to not waste away in the box. Why Hakstol trusted Manning so much will forever remain a mystery, but it calls to light one of Hakstol’s biggest criticisms which is his supposed trust in players with so-called “veteran presence”.

Hakstol’s stubborn reliance on these so-called veterans like Manning, Andrew MacDonald, Valtteri Filppula, and Jori Lehtera has frustrated fans to no end. There were even times during the season where Hakstol would throw out some of his least effective players in the most critical situations during games.

I’m no hockey coach, but even I know that Lehtera and Manning probably shouldn’t be on the ice in the last minute of a tie game, or for a three-on-three overtime with 30 seconds left. That’s just asking for trouble.

Thankfully, this coming season, Hakstol will have less of these players to rely on. But the Flyers head coach will still need to prove that he can ice the most optimal lineup possible, something that he has not yet done on a consistent basis.

Hakstol’s handling of his goaltenders also caused a problem last season when he worked Brian Elliot into the ground, leading to an injury that all but cost Elliot his season. Elliot played thirteen games in the month of December. The Flyers entered the season with two capable goalies in Elliot and Michal Neuvirth. Most coaches understandably want to ride the hot hand for as long as they can, and at that point, Elliot was the Flyers’ best goalie.

But giving a 33-year-old goaltender that kind of workload and expecting him to come out unscathed was foolish, and it’s quite possible it hurt the Flyers in the long run. Shortly after he was thrust into the role of starter, Neuvirth followed up with an injury, and from there the Flyers were forced to ride the goalie carousel.

If Elliot doesn’t get hurt, the Flyers may have finished higher in the standings and avoided the Pittsburgh Penguins, who treated the Flyers like their unwanted little stepbrother in a first round beating in the playoffs.

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Lastly, the penalty kill remains a huge problem for this Flyers team. While not directly Hakstol’s responsibility, he is responsible for the rest of the coaching staff and for delegating different team duties. Flyers assistant coach Ian Laperriere is the man responsible for team’s penalty-killing unit. Laperriere once dove in front of a slapshot (Via Dave Caldwell, NY Times) during his final year in a Flyers uniform, earning him both a nice scar on his face and the apparent undying trust of the Flyers organization and coaching staff.

Lappy is a good guy. He was a good hockey player in his time, and Flyers fans certainly remember his contributions as a gritty fourth-line energy guy and a pretty darn good penalty killer. But at this point, it’s time to call a spade a spade and recognize that Lappy is overmatched as the PK coach.

Last season, the Flyers PK finished 29th in the league at 75 percent. That is not a good number at all. The Flyers were absolutely torched in the playoffs by the Penguins’ power play. It got to a point where you almost expected Pittsburgh to score when the Flyers went down a man.

This is not new for the PK, as the unit hasn’t been in the top 20 since Lappy took it over. Hakstol has failed to recognize that a change is needed here, and the Flyers will continue to suffer until he is removed as it’s coach.

Overall, this coming season will be very important for the career of Dave Hakstol. The Flyers need him to take the next step in his development as a head coach, which means icing the most optimal lineup possible and putting his players in the best positions in order to help the team win games. If the PK continues to struggle as it has in the past, Hakstol must step up and remove Laperriere. Bottom line, coaching cannot continue to be a hindrance to this team’s success any longer.

Next: Reactions to the Flyers' free agency moves and non-moves

Hakstol must recognize the need to change and either adapt or face the possibility of needing new employment. If Hakstol continues to make the same mistakes, Hextall will need to take a long hard look at his head coach and how he fits into the team’s plans for the future.