The news was surprising, but now the work begins as Seattle has its first-ever head coach. Dave Hakstol is the Kraken's bench boss, beating out a slew of other candidates interviewed by GM Ron Francis and his staff.
Francis spent time with Hakstol back in 2019 when both were with Canada's World Championship team in Austria and Slovakia. The two met up again last summer for the first interview in the Kraken hiring process and eventually, eight candidates in total had meetings with Francis. After several more rounds of interviews, Hakstol was the guy.
"We wanted somebody who had experience and had been a head coach in the NHL before," Francis said. "You're learning the players, learning the teams, learning the systems and quite frankly, the pace of the NHL is unlike anything else. So we wanted somebody who has been through that. We wanted somebody who had good hockey acumen, that understood systems and how to play in all three zones. We wanted somebody who could communicate that message very clearly and very concisely to our players. And the last thing is we wanted to find an individual we genuinely felt cared about the players and wanted them to reach their potential. The guy we hired checked all those boxes continually."
As a head coach, Hakstol has not had much success in the NHL after making his name as a college bench boss at powerhouse North Dakota. Hakstol spent three-and-a-half seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, with the team failing to win a single playoff round during his tenure. But it is worth noting that a lot of NHL coaches who fail in their first gig do rebound when given a second chance behind the bench in this league. Most recently, he was an assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs in charge of the defense. Toronto's goals-against this season was top-10 in the NHL after finishing near the bottom in Hakstol's first year on the job. A lot of factors could have contributed to that jump, but it is worth noting, nonetheless.
"Maybe it was a big jump from college the first time," Francis said. "But now he's been in the league for six years, worked under some different coaches and gained a lot more experience, so we're comfortable in that regard."
In Philadelphia, Hakstol feels he was able to cement some of his coaching philosophies, while also learning and developing himself as a bench boss.
The big question for Kraken fans is what should be expected of a Hakstol-coached team. Long known as a coach who puts in the work, Hakstol expects the same from his players.
"When I look at good teams, you always start with character," Hakstol said. "There's an aspect of ability and there's different levels to ability. There's the obvious on-ice portion and I'm a guy that believes work ethic is part of that ability piece. Work ethic is a skill."
Resiliency will also be a big part of Hakstol's message, as well as humility.
"Humility allows you to respect this game," he said. "And the game deserves your respect. That allows you to really clear your plate and go out and compete."
While being the first coach of an expansion team is a very unique job, Hakstol can at least draw from his college experience, where rosters generally feature a dramatic amount of turnover each season (especially a program like North Dakota, which features a lot of NHL draft picks who tend to leave after one or two seasons). In that sense, he at least had a head start in considering the job ahead of him in Seattle and he already has thoughts on the keys to building a foundation.
"Detail and communication is going to be very important," Hakstol said. "It's planning for training camp, it's preparation for the details – not just day-to-day, but minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour details needed for training camp to bring a group of guys together that haven't played together before. So it's a very exciting challenge, a very exciting opportunity."
In Philadelphia, Hakstol was part of a transitional phase with the franchise that saw younger players being pushed to the forefront and he learned a lot from that process. Since Seattle hasn't gone through the expansion draft yet, it's hard to say how young Francis' initial roster will be, but it's clear the GM likes what he has heard from Hakstol in terms of team-building.
But if Hakstol doesn't have immediate success in the wins column, it might not be the worst thing in the world for the Kraken's long-term outlook. While the success of the Vegas Golden Knights is indeed impressive, most expansion teams take much longer to become viable playoff threats. And the 30 teams Seattle will be choosing players from (Vegas is exempt) will likely be a bit more savvy this time out.
Having said that, the Kraken hold the No. 2 pick overall in the 2021 entry draft and rival GMs are looking at Swedish defenseman Simon Edvinsson or University of Michigan center Matty Beniers as potential picks for the Kraken in that slot. If Seattle finishes near the bottom of the standings next season, the big prize for 2022 is OHL Kingston center Shane Wright. In 2023, a three-headed monster of phenoms in Connor Bedard, Matvei Michkov and Adam Fantilli await. So being bad for the first two years of existence could land Seattle a trio of excellent young players to build around.
Hakstol may have been a surprising choice for a lot of people, but if Vegas was any indicator, we should at least keep an open mind when it comes to how modern expansion teams build their foundations.