Thursday, May 28, 2015

Hakstol's hiring reveals Hextall's dynamic

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You've had to fire a head coach less than two years into his tenure. A man whom you inherited from the last guy in charge, who was a transitional option behind the bench which was clearly not progressing.

Sure, he's a good hockey man, worked his way through the organization as a minor league assistant, minor league head coach and NHL assistant before getting his shot, and it didn't pan out.

It's one of the more odious tasks as general manager, firing a head coach who has done nothing but faithfully serve his bosses. It's even worse when the person in question was a former teammate.

But the Philadelphia Flyers are in the business of re-shuffling under the watchful eyes of GM Ron Hextall, and he had a virtual smorgasbord of options at the ready.

There was a guy who mutually parted ways with his team after almost a decade of disappointment on the West Coast (Todd MacLellan), a hard-bitten son of the Canadian prairie who was given free rein to test the waters (Mike Babcock), a veritable Bond villain by looks (Guy Boucher), the free-floating choice on everyone's lips who was out of a job last season (Dan Bylsma) and their faithful servant coaching the primary affiliate an hour away who made no bones about wanting to return to the NHL (Terry Murray).

In the end, Hextall took a detour and chose the rarest of the rare, a head coach with no prior professional experience, but who logged more than a decade at a successful American Division I college program. When they said last week Hextall "found his man" they weren't kidding. It wasn't a choice so much as it was a one-sided pursuit initiated from the top down.

And Dave Hakstol might have known something would come along, eventually, since his six-year deal, signed in 2012, included a $100,000 out clause if he left North Dakota for an NHL job before the midway point of its duration.

"Well, I had some familiarity with Dave.  My son (Brett from the Phantoms) obviously played for him at North Dakota.  So in watching my son over the years I grew an appreciation for Dave, the way he coached.  I thought about him long before this as a head coach in the National Hockey League. I believe he was destined for it," Hextall admitted.

"I had a list of things that I wanted from a head coach, and went down the checklist in my mind and every box was checked except for the NHL experience.  Quite frankly, for me, that was one that was least important.  I feel very comfortable with where we’re at.  I won’t say it was early in the process because like I said, I had to get to know him I guess intimately, and as we went through the process it just kept coming to me that this is our guy."

Confidence in his process and his choice's track record aside, Hakstol is clearly Hextall's "safest" choice, given the roster above chock full of NHL experience. That's exactly the way he wants it -- a team whose roster needs to develop over time while he digs out of Paul Holmgren's salary-cap detritus, led by a man who needs time to develop and acclimate to his new surroundings and new league. The end result, if successful, would be fascinating. A coach and his roster blossoming simultaneously.

It's not hard to pick up with a little thought. Every single name mentioned above carries the personality, philosophy, system and ego of having pulled the reins in large markets and enjoyed the spoils of success. And with that, if Hextall would have sprung for any of the above, likely comes an uptick in expectations which this organization can't weather in the face of Ed Snider's interjections that he believes each team, each year, is capable of being a contender.

Hakstol's first hints to his management style really doesn't differ from the way Craig Berube conducted his business as coach, but it's a dead-on advertisement for strengthening the existing links in the front office chain:

"I can tell you the way I approach my business on a daily basis is in a very direct manner.  I think expectations are quite simple of myself, of my staff and our players.  Maybe to sum up in one word, accountability to one another, to our organization. Number one, winning is a mindset.  Our job as a staff is to win with the group of players that we have."

Those basic sentiments may contradict the attitudes of those like Babcock, Bylsma and McLellan, who, with Stanley Cup victories under their belts -- in the case of the former two -- might be inclined to throw their weight around and suggest to management the type of player which may work best within their own philosophy and system.

Hakstol, as an acolyte, seems to know his place in taking the leap over the minors and going straight to a major-market NHL team. Coach the players given, don't lobby for the ones you want. All the better to make Hextall's job easier from a personnel standpoint.

However, the following passage indicates a contradiction in terms. It's as if Hextall is nominally autonomous, but still feels the specters of the team president and chairman are forces which have to be regarded and appeased. It's also an indication that those higher in the chain extend benevolence without meddling, a sign of implicit trust -- something which has caused the club to find its way down the rabbit hole with moves like the triple free-agent signings of Streit, Emery and Lecavalier two Summers ago.

"I’ve been [able to do] from Day 1 what I felt was right for the program. Paul’s a great resource; Mr. Snider is a great resource. Obviously he’s my boss and I’ve talked to Paul a lot but in the end these are my decisions to make. Mr. Snider and Paul both said this right from the start a year ago and it’s truly been that way. They were both impressed with Dave from the first time they met and we all knew that this was our guy."

Does a GM with publicly-stated autonomy really need to run his decisions past his bosses if they talk about a policy of non-interference? It would be easier to digest if any one of the usual suspects, like the hotly-rumored Babcock, were brought into the fold as known quantities. Perhaps this time, with a selection Robert Frost might nod towards in approval, there was a necessary meeting and selling point which needed to be made.

In placing trust with Hakstol, Hextall's banking on a low-risk proposition, one which won't hurt his reputation if it doesn't work out. At the point where progressive thinking meets a traditional mindset, it's best that there's nothing much to lose.

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