(Kate Frese/Sports Talk Philly)
For the Philadelphia Flyers, another disappointing campaign has reached its conclusion. For the third time in five seasons, the Orange and Black have failed to make the playoffs.
Any time a team misses out on the postseason it's to be expected that will look for someone to blame.
Usually, it's the head coach that is the first in line to receive the ire of the fanbase and this campaign has been no exception. All season long, many have questioned Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol's roster decisions and methods. That questioning turned into finger-pointing and now has turned into wanting him relieved of his position.
Yet, this knee-jerk reaction is unfair. Frustrated fans don't have the coolest heads. They want to restart a coaching carousel, thus creating an unstable coaching environment and set of expectations.
While general manager Ron Hextall will not cave to public outcry and doubled down on that by naming Hakstol an assistant coach for Canada's men's World Championship team, the fans who want the head coach gone won't relent in their calling for his job.
Regardless of what the fans say, the Flyers will and should keep Dave Hakstol.
For starters, the defensive structure was drastically improved last season. While it’s easy for many to forget what a disaster it was for the Flyers to get out of their own zone under Craig Berube, the team improved upon those issues in Hakstol’s first season.
The Flyers went from 20th and 24th in the league in goals allowed under Craig Berube to 15th in Hakstol's first campaign. That was the highest they finished in goals allowed since 2010-11, when Philadelphia allowed the 11th fewest goals.
They finished this past season 18th in the league. So even in a disappointing season, the team defense was still better than when Berube was at the helm and for half of Laviolette's tenure.
Also, while some arguments against the head coach are valid -- like mismanaging his goaltenders and gearing the offense around point shots too often -- there are many complaints against Hakstol that are subjective at best.
One of the larger grievances is how Hakstol has used players like Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde and Andrew MacDonald.
Some fans have called this a “glorification” of these players and have labeled them “zero-dimensional players.” These groups have used Corsi to determine that the likes of Bellemare, VandeVelde and MacDonald are simply not good.
While it is true that those three have pretty wretched Corsi statistics, it’s important to note that each player begins their shifts in the defensive zone about 53 percent of the time. So, unless you’re Sean Couturier or Radko Gudas, that’s going to have a negative impact on shots for and shots against.
Secondly, Bellemare, VandeVelde and MacDonald are some of the team’s top players in goals allowed per 60 minutes. MacDonald leads all defensemen who have played more than 30 games this season with 2.1 goals per 60. Meanwhile, VandeVelde is third on the team and Bellemare leads the Flyers with the fewest goals allowed.
So, when Hakstol throws these players on the ice, it’s for a reason. When they play, they give up fewer goals than anyone on the team outside of Matt Read and Roman Lyubimov at even strength. Those three may not score goals with any sort of regularity, as they’re at the bottom of the list in goals for per 60. Therefore, these numbers indicate they are defensive specialists. That's a far cry from being zero-dimensional players.
On the subject of MacDonald, Hakstol drew a lot of ire when he defended his player during a Q & A session at a Flyers Season Ticket Holder town hall.
"Mac has played extremely well this year. He’s played like a legitimate top three-four role all year, he’s earned that from Day One of camp, he is an efficient player," Hakstol said during the town hall.
Listen, it’s unrealistic for any fan to expect a coach to completely trash his own players. That’s a quick way to lose a locker room, but his "top three-four role" line has been blown out of portion.
For the Philadelphia Flyers, in their current state, that is a factual statement. MacDonald has been a top-four defenseman. There is no arguing that. He's played the second-most minutes, he leads all defenders -- except Nick Schultz, who only played in 28 games -- in goals allowed per 60, finished second on the team in blocked shots (151) and trailed only Gudas and Ivan Provorov in defensive point shares.
Instead, fans like to interpret Hakstol’s words into a league-wide blanket statement. His “three-four role” for the Flyers suddenly became a “three-four” role in the NHL. There is a huge difference between being a third or fourth defenseman for the Philadelphia Flyers and, say, the Chicago Blackhawks or Washington Capitals.
In Philadelphia, he was competing with Schultz, Brandon Manning and an injured Michael Del Zotto. Due to Del Zotto's injury, MacDonald was able to return to the Flyers last season and help them get into the playoffs. This season, MacDonald proved to be less of a trainwreck than those three defensemen.
In Chicago or Washington, he'd have stiffer competition to deal with and would be fortunate to even get into the lineup.
In this regard, fans are upset with Hakstol because he didn't tell them that he knows MacDonald is terrible but plays him anyway. Yet, by playing him, Hakstol has increased his trade value. Is he likely to be dealt? No, probably not, especially with his contract. But last season, MacDonald had no value, more like negative value actually. Hextall couldn't trade him for a slice of cheese and a Ritz cracker.
Now, if Hextall could deal the veteran defenseman to a team looking to hit the cap floor, it would be due to Hakstol's usage of him in that so-called "three-four role." If he catered to the fans, who would have banished him to Lehigh Valley again, MacDonald would remain impossible to move.
Another popular argument against Hakstol is how he handled the young players, specifically Travis Konecny and Shayne Gostisbehere. Whether they were benched in-game or scratched, it was considered inexcusable for the coach to sit those two players.
Instead, these fans would have those young players coddled. Hakstol is demanding more from Konecny and Gostisbehere. That’s what coaches do. They’re not content with leaving the young players in a one-dimensional shell.
“Then why doesn’t he do that with Bellemare, VandeVelde and MacDonald? They’re one dimensional!” Because the development of those players is over. He, or any coach for that matter, isn't going to develop a veteran defensive specialist into a goal scorer.
The same goes for Brayden Schenn. Hakstol hasn't tried to turn those players into a well-rounded, two-way guys because their niches are already established. Schenn is who he is, as are the role players. But that doesn’t mean he has to expect that from Konecny and Gostisbehere.
After all, this is the same coach who in his two years as the bench boss has given the keys to the defense to rookies. Last year, Gostisbehere was the Flyers top guy. Mark Streit and Del Zotto averaged more ice time, but those two players were beset with injuries which often left "Ghost" as the presumptive number one or two blueliner.
This year, Hakstol turned things over to the 19-year-old Provorov. It would have been easy for Hakstol to bench the kid after his game in Chicago early in the season. Instead, the Flyers coach stuck by the blue-chip prospect and gave him the most ice time on the team.
Think sticking by the blue chip rookie isn't all that difficult? Ask Peter Laviolette that.
Yes, he and his coaching staff might get into the ear of Gostisbehere for making a risky play, as the second-year defender alluded to in his exit interview. But as a whole, the argument that Hakstol doesn’t like the young players isn't a solid one.
Perhaps he just rewards the young players when he feels are doing their jobs like Provorov and Gostisbehere in his rookie season. However, he'll try to push a young player to round out their game and become a complete player for season two, three and beyond.
That's what coaches do. Who’s to say that how his rookie season transpired sparks Konecny to train harder, study more film and come back next season a much stronger and better player? The same goes for Gostisbehere.
Hakstol isn't here to be buddies with Konecny, Gostisbehere or any of his players. He's here to push them and if he's pushing the young guys harder than the veterans that means he's more concerned with their development than, say, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare's advanced stats.
Hakstol was a hire meant to grow with this team. He cannot afford to do anything less than to squeeze every ounce of skill out of each prospect. He's been on the team long enough to see its inconsistencies that have existed long before he arrived. With that, he knows he needs to get everything he can out of Provorov, Gostisbehere and Konecny because the likes of Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek and Wayne Simmonds have reached their limits.
If you look at the last few seasons, the Flyers have peaked at marginally below average in Hockey Reference's Simple Rating System. In the down years, they have rated out poorly. So if the team is average at best, Hakstol is handcuffed until some of the prospects come up and steal the show.
Firing Hakstol now it would betray the vision Hextall has for the long-term. The fact Hakstol was able to go from college coach to turning the Flyers into a playoff team in one season denotes his abilities as an NHL coach. The fact he struggled this season should not surprise anyone.
Like the young players he demands more from, Hakstol needs to learn and grow as a coach. He needs to take Steve Mason's advice and get a better handle on his goalies. He needs to lessen the emphasis on starting pretty much all of the offense with point shots.
He needs to get better, just as everyone else around him has to.