Say this for Flyers general manager Ron Hextall: He sure knows how to throw the curve.
While everyone was expecting that a veteran skipper like Mike Babcock or Todd McLellan would be brought in to revive Philadelphia’s flagging organization, Hextall dropped jaws on Monday morning with his hiring of University of North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol.
Surprising? Absolutely. Hakstol defies every expectation that was associated with this search. He’s not another former Flyer brought in to perpetuate the old ways. Nor is he another retread looking to re-start his career in Philly after being kicked to the curb somewhere else.
It’s a bold hire, one that signals a surprising patience for the rebuilding process that runs contrary to almost everything we’ve seen during the Ed Snider era.
But is it the right move?
Well, Hakstol has plenty of skins on the wall. His teams went 289-143-43—a .654 winning percentage—during his 11 seasons as the head coach at UND. His teams qualified for the NCAA tournament every year and advanced to the Frozen Four seven times, the most by any school during that period.
He also showed a knack for recruiting and nurturing future stars. Forty-two players with North Dakota ties have been drafted into the NHL, including eight first-round selections. Among his best-known proteges: Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie, Brock Nelson, Travis Zajac and Drew Stafford. He was known for coaching a fast, physical style and for demanding accountability to the program and to teammates.
A track record of winning and player development seems like the ideal combo for an organization that’s hoping to graduate prospects like Robert Hagg, Shayne Gostisbehere, Samuel Morin and Scott Laughton while trying to work its way back into the playoff mix.
But there’s risk involved in the hire as well. Hakstol just became the first rookie coach to jump directly from the NCAA to an NHL head coaching gig since Bob Johnson left the University of Wisconsin to join the Calgary Flames back in 1982, and just the fourth in history. According to one NHL team executive, there’s a good reason for that.
“There’s not a bias against [college coaches]," he said. “[University of Michigan coach] Red Berenson could have made the jump if he wanted, but he’s happy where he is. I think that’s the way it is for a lot of those guys. They’ve got a good situation, job security, a place in the community. That’s a great life. That’s enough for a lot of guys.
“The ones that have NHL aspirations usually work their way up through the ranks like anybody else. Look at [Jeff Blashill] with Detroit. He spent time in the CCHA [with Western Michigan], was coach of the year, and then moved up to the AHL. It’s a big learning curve. They give up a lot of control, they have to figure out [how] coaching men isn’t the same as coaching boys. It’s a whole different room.”
Of course, the Flyers have had success with another coach who came straight from college. Mike Keenan was hired out of the University of Toronto in 1984 and he guided the team to a pair of Stanley Cup finals appearances in his first three seasons. That kind of lightning is unlikely to strike twice, but Hakstol could get this team quickly back on track with the help of an experienced support staff. Those hires will be watched, and judged, closely.
And so will Hakstol’s performance. It’s not just about shepherding a team in transition along the path to respectability. It’s about representation.
If he succeeds, Hakstol opens the door for other promising NCAA coaches to be considered as immediate options moving forward. If not, well, we could be waiting another 30 years for the next one to get his chance.
It’s a lot of pressure. But in a league that too rarely thinks outside the box, it’s exciting that Hakstol will have the chance to live up to it.