Grading Hak & Hex: Hakstol Not Going Anywhere

Updated: December 5, 2017 at 4:23 pm by Wes Herrmann

The losing streak is over, but it’s not all happiness for Philadelphia Flyers fans. In fact, they couldn’t have got much worse news before the team’s game against the Calgary Flames Monday night. Speaking to the media, general manager Ron Hextall made it very clear that coach Dave Hakstol didn’t have to worry about finding a home away from Philadelphia.

That unfortunate statement, Danick Martel’s demotion, Travis Konecny’s benching and breaking up the top line are topics in this week’s grading of Hextall and Hakstol.

Hakstol Will Not Be Fired

After Hextall decided to not fire Hakstol after the Flyers then-worst game during the losing streak Tuesday night, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised about the GM’s promise. It was the perfect opportunity with a three-day break and a lackluster game, but Hextall defended his coach and team saying it wasn’t as bad as the losing streak suggested.

He may be right there, but nine losses in a row (at the time of the comment) are inexcusable. No matter how many overtime points the team accumulated during that stretch.

But besides the losing streak, it seems like Hakstol has lost the room a bit, has issues grooming younger players the correct way and makes questionable lineup decisions on a nightly basis.

Of course, it could all be a small bluff by Hextall. GMs say things all the time and don’t follow through with it. For example, former general manager Paul Holmgren said Jeff Carter wouldn’t be traded. Days later, he was a Columbus Blue Jacket.

I don’t believe Hextall is Holmgren and I trust what he says — even if I don’t agree with it. I firmly believe Hakstol will be the coach for the rest of the season. If the team continues to struggle all year, though, maybe that changes in April or May.

And there is some merit to that plan. This season isn’t salvageable for the Flyers and any coach brought in now would be at the interim level. It would be nice to have a coach that can develop young players better, but in the summer, Hextall would have a larger crop of coaching candidates and more time to make a selection.

The comment does imply more, though. The losing streak is over, but if the team continues to struggle, Hextall will need to find a new way to change the culture in the locker room. The next best option after a coach firing, is a trade.

Hextall hasn’t had made anything close to a team-altering trade during his tenure. However, if the losing continues, he may grow the courage to do something with risk to him.

Danick Martel Sent Down, Weise & Lehtera Still In

This topic will be broken down into two parts, connecting to Martel’s demotion and the lineup choices made during and after it.

First, Martel was recalled by Hextall as an attempt to get the Flyers’ offense going. He probably felt like the winger was not an NHL forward, but Martel was lighting up the AHL and the Philadelphia offense couldn’t light a candle.

Martel’s recall was heavily contingent on him producing early. Despite plenty of chances and creating offense, he didn’t score a goal or an assist. It wasn’t a direct result, but the Flyers remained winless during Martel’s time with the team.

Hextall needed an outburst from the Quebec native, but didn’t get it. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but that was why the former Flyers goalie sent Martel back to the Phantoms Wednesday.

That decision opened up a spot in the lineup, and more importantly in the top six. Hakstol inserted Jordan Weal, who he had scratched for two games.

Weal has had issues scoring this year, let alone at the rate he surprised everyone at last season, but I can agree with replacing him for Martel in the top six. Weal is more likely to have a heavier contribution than the rookie.

Where I start to question the move is that Dale Weise and Jori Lehtera played Saturday while Taylor Leier sits in the pressbox and Martel was with the Phantoms. Again, I understand Hakstol and Hextall’s thinking that Weise and Lehtera are better defensive players in the bottom six than Martel.

But when the team is having trouble holding leads with those two veterans playing regularly, having a player, like Martel, that can pot in a goal may be more useful.

For Leier, he’s had some issues scoring but his speed causes fits for the opposition. Hakstol made a better choice Monday by playing the rookie over Jori Lehtera. However, he also had Weise in the top nine over Weal, so we’ll call it a wash.

Konecny Benched

If Flyers fans were told that Hakstol would be benching Travis Konecny in September, they wouldn’t second guess. Sure, they’d roll their eyes and sigh, but there wouldn’t be any surprise.

Hakstol started the year with some promise regarding Konecny. The 20 year old was consistently playing in the top nine with offensive players, after facing healthy scratches and playing with fourth liners like Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde last season.

Saturday’s game against the Boston Bruins changed all that. Hakstol allowed the forward to play just 36 seconds in the third period and 10:12 in total. The coach’s explanation for the limited ice time was awfully confusing:

Konecny had two give aways in the game against Boston, but wasn’t on the ice for any goals allowed. There’s been times when the winger has been lacking defensively that may have warranted a benching, but there wasn’t one Saturday and Shayne Gostisbehere was a better culprit to be benched.

Gostisbehere, a scratching-favorite last season, took a totally unneeded, retaliatory cross-checking penalty on Brad Marchand late in the second. The Bruins didn’t score on the power play, but the Flyers didn’t need to kill a penalty while down 3-0.

Benching Konecny when the team needed offense for mediocre reasons — and choosing to not bench a player that hurt the team — just shows how Hakstol has lost his touch on the team. To make matter worse, he carried that over to Monday’s game where Konecny played just 7:56, though, while the Flyers were trying to preserve a lead.

Hakstol Breaks Up Top Line

This is another frequent discussion on Flyers Twitter and not an easy decision to make. Philadelphia’s top line of Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek has been one of the hottest in the NHL, scoring a combined 84 points before Monday’s game.

Unfortunately for the Flyers, it was the only trio carrying the offense and the rest of the lineup has had issues all year supplying secondary scoring. That’s only been magnified during the losing streak.

On Monday, prior to the game against the Calgary Flames, Hakstol decided to break up his first line, splitting his top three offensive players between the top six. Giroux and Couturier were paired with Wayne Simmonds, while Voracek dropped down to the second line with Valterri Filppula and Travis Konecny.

It worked the first night. Voracek’s puck-handling abilities helped the second line keep possession and the Czech Republic native contributed two even-strength assists. It was Scott Laughton who helped the offense the most, though, scoring two goals.

This was not an easy decision for Hakstol. The top line was the Flyers most dangerous line since the Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Jaromir Jagr unit from the 2011-12 season. But the rest of the offense needed a boost and spreading the wealth is one of the best ways to do it.

I can respect Hakstol for making this choice because there’s no right or wrong answer until he tries. What will come down to more scrutiny is if the coach reforms his top line — hopefully after the offense gets the desperate help it needs.

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