Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Hakstol will need more than 'confidence' to navigate first NHL job

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

Dave Hakstol appeared in front of the cameras and the gauntlet of media personalities for the first time as a National Hockey League head coach yesterday.

His fixed gaze, made with unflinching Nordic eyes and an angular face -- pointed out to be not unlike assistant coach Gord Murphy's -- carved out through more than a decade of guiding multiple rosters of potential NHL talent through harsh North Dakota winters, strongly suggested a man ready for the challenge.

Of course, that's the kind of visage you want for a man tasked to take over a major-market professional hockey franchise, and he passed that initial "eye test" audition. He had to do it up front, as Flyers GM Ron Hextall has now embarked on his biggest gamble yet in a position of power. R.J. Umberger, you're finally off the hook.

Once the gasps subsided and jaws were fully slack, Hextall came up with a gem to explain his selection of an untested 46-year-old Alberta native: "Every head coach in the NHL at some point is a rookie, right? Some come through the AHL, some come through juniors."

Believe it or not, Hakstol joins a long line of Flyers head coaches who had no prior NHL experience: Keith Allen. Vic Stasiuk. Fred Shero. Bob McCammon, Pat Quinn. Mike Keenan. Paul Holmgren. Bill Dineen (though he coached the Howes in the WHA). Craig Ransay. Bill Barber. John Stevens. Craig Berube. Some were given the appropriate time and tempered expectations to acclimatize, which is Hakstol's lot and that works in his favor.

Only four have come through American Division I college to the top level of competition in North America without further stops in the pros. Two -- Herb Brooks and Bob Johnson -- have etched their place in hockey history, while the third, Ned Harkness, is far less known. 

The key word most often spoken between Hextall and his new hire was "confidence."Hextall explained that the move felt right in his gut, while Hakstol spoke of his previous track record. Between the two of them and a resultant question, it was uttered a half-dozen times in itself and certain variants. Talk about a selling point.

Hakstol begins his journey on the best note possible -- that of being known, pursued, and finally locked up, believing he was no consolation prize. From Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald:  "Dave Hakstol twice turned down the Flyers job because he was unsure about leaving UND, but Hextall kept after the man he wanted."

After that? That's the great unknown. It's unfair and misleading to speculate so soon on how smoothly the transition will progress. The last head coach who jumped directly from American Division I to the NHL with any level of success was Johnson. As the name would suggest, "Badger Bob" guided the University of Wisconsin from 1966 through 1982, winning three NCAA championships, before his hiring by Calgary.

The Flames were a team in transition from Atlanta to Alberta and then from the tiny Calgary Corral into the expansive Saddledome, and Johnson was allowed to grow along with them. The end result was five straight second-place finishes in the Smythe Division, behind Edmonton each time, and one Stanley Cup Finals appearance -- a loss to the Canadiens in 1986. In the process, Johnson advocated for college talents like Mike Eaves, Colin Patterson, Neil Sheehy, Steve Bozek, Carey Wilson and Gary Suter then also gave European players such as Hakan Loob, Kari Eloranta chances to shine.

"One of the strongest points he has, is his ability to push his players, to get the most out of his players," Hextall continued.

In his transition from college to the pros, Hakstol must avoid the personality issues encountered by current Flames, but then-Avalanche head coach Bob Hartley, when he took over in 1998. Hartley, an abrasive Franco-Ontarian with runs of success in the QMJHL and AHL before taking the reins in Colorado at age 37, took multiple opportunities to make comments towards, and belittle veterans and rookies alike when he first started. He was essentially forced to lighten up, to let the players do their thing, and in 2001 it paid off with the franchise's second and last Cup.

If Berube served as the barometer for motivational technique, then it wasn't just Hakstol who could best accomplish that goal as the next Flyers head coach. Now that the former chief of the Fighting Sioux has been given the reins, what seems likely to carry over is that dedication to pushing players expected to win and expected to make a dent in the professional ranks year after year. You don't reach 11 straight national postseasons and make seven national semifinals with roster turnover every 2-3 years without knowing which buttons to push at the right time.

As Hextall stated: "I think they'll find out who's in charge pretty quickly."

But the quote which stood out most among Hakstol's comments on Monday more than any others should be one which concerns all who are looking for something new and exciting: "I believe in the things that I do and I'm not going to change that as I come to this level."

If we're talking about those abstract nouns like work ethic and attitude, we should expect nothing less on Day One. However, by its very nature, and due the paucity of the men who have been successful in transition, Hakstol is going to have to alter what he does, how he thinks and reconfigure his strategies to fit the make-up of this team and this league.

What will aid those changes best, is Hextall's wisdom in selecting assistants who have been around the NHL and will work on Hakstol to head off potential problems which may arise in personality or strategy. Speculation abounded that current Phantoms head coach Terry Murray could be elevated back into an assistantship, and Murray himself strongly hinted he wished to return to the NHL in a coaching capacity very soon. 

Barber, never a master tactician or eloquent in explanation, notoriously failed to change until the day before his final playoff game here; Berube never altered his fundamental approach despite repeated scrambling of the lines; Stevens' plan near the end was to substitute a single word from his offensive game plan.

Confidence in his abilities is an excellent foundation, avoiding the mistakes of his predecessors and adopting their successes is an attractive course. Recognition that working in the NHL is a different kind of learning process should be the metric in judging Hakstol's immediate success of failure as well as marking his own progress.

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