(Note: This is the second part in a two-part series. Last week’s edition looked at the 2017-18 season for general manager Ron Hextall. It can be found here.)
Although the Philadelphia Flyers fan base would like coach Dave Hakstol to not return for next season, he’ll be here. This week’s review of Hakstol’s 2017-18 goes over why the fans want him gone, but also why Hextall’s decided to stick with the coach.
Moving Giroux to Left Wing, Couturier First Line Center
If there was a decision that Hakstol made during the year, that was undeniably good — and even great — from start to finish it was moving Claude Giroux to the left wing and correspondingly promoting Sean Couturier to center the first line.
The duo started out the year with Jake Voracek, but during a cold streak in November, the Czech Republic native was replaced by Travis Konecny. It didn’t matter for Couturier and Giroux. The pair kept playing the best hockey of their careers.
For Couturier, the shift actually gave him skilled linemates for the first time in his career and allowed him to focus more on the offensive side of the game. Naturally, that resulted in his first and overdue, Selke nomination for best defensive forward in the league.
Couturier’s year was impressive enough, but it’s Giroux’s season that surprised the most. After years of decline, the 30 year old exploded for 102 points, the first time he hit triple-digits in his career. The move to the wing played a big part.
Playing on the peripheries of center ice, instead of directly in the middle of it and assuming most of the defensive responsibility, Giroux was able to ease his workload at even strength. That doesn’t mean he coasted in any way, but the captain didn’t have to go up against the opposition’s top center on a nightly basis.
Later in the year, the switch lost some of its glamor on Twitter when lineup predictions from last summer were recalled that included Giroux on the wing. However, making a lineup in a 240-character tweet is a lot different than trying to get a star player and captain to buy into a position switch. Hakstol deserves plenty of credit for that.
Handling of Travis Sanheim
Unsurprisingly, most of Hakstol’s topics revolve around the way he treated young players over the past season. We first start with Sanheim, who had the strangest and hardest 2017-18.
The rookie started out the year as one of the team’s top six blueliners, but quickly found himself as a healthy scratch by the fourth game of the season. Not coincidentally, that game marked the return of Brandon Manning, who was injured in the first game of the season. It was a trend that continued throughout the year.
Sanheim worked himself back into the lineup by Oct. 19 and remained a fixture in the lineup until the end of December. The now-22 year old was having a typical rookie season. There were some highs, but plenty of lows and the biggest issues for the offensive defenseman were defensive coverage and positioning issues.
In the midst of everything, Sanheim’s ice time fluctuated hard. There were a few nights where he played over 20 and plenty in the 17-19 minute range, but also a sprinkling of 9 and 10 minutes and a 14 minute night for every one above 17.
On Dec. 27, the Flyers lost to the Florida Panthers in one of their most lackluster games of the season. In response to that, Sanheim was a healthy scratch the next night — and for 15 straight days from there.
Sanheim didn’t enter the lineup again until Jan. 13 and only played 6 minutes. Nine days later, the blueliner was back with the Phantoms.
Hextall waited to demote Sanheim, hoping that an injury would force the rookie back into the lineup. It could be inferred from some of Hextall’s comments at the time and earlier in the season when he said the kids would play that he didn’t agree with Hakstol’s decision.
Neither did much of the fan base. Although Sanheim struggled at times, there was no doubt that he brought a bigger impact and played a bigger part of the future than Manning.
After the demotion, Sanheim admitted that he lost a lot of confidence during his time in the press box.
But luckily for the team, the rearguard was able to get past any lost ego and work on his defensive deficiencies with the Phantoms. When Hagg was injured in early March, Sanheim was recalled and forced himself into a roster spot.
Unfortunately that meant Hagg sat for the most part and in the playoffs, Hakstol refused to play the two rookies in the same game. Hagg sat out the first four and Sanheim the last two.
The Flyers can safely say that Sanheim still has a ton of potential and should assume a bigger role next year. However, it would be hard to give any credit to Hakstol for Sanheim’s development.
Because of the coach’s dependence on veterans, Sanheim’s playing time and confidence lagged. Any development progressions this season are probably more of Phantoms coach Scott Gordon’s doing than Hakstol’s.
Nolan Patrick’s Ascension
Unlike Sanheim, I do believe Hakstol deserves a lot of credit for Patrick’s rookie season in the NHL.
When Patrick struggled to start the year, Hakstol didn’t scratch him or give him too few minutes. He worked with him slowly and gave him easier competition than Valtteri Filppula was getting.
Then in the second half of the season, when Patrick either fully recovered from offseason core surgery, adjusted to the NHL game or maybe a blend of both, Hakstol promoted him at the right time. Instead of third line duties and weaker linemates, Patrick was in the top six with Jake Voracek and Wayne Simmonds.
A popular GIF that floated around during the season was one of Patrick holding a discussion with Hakstol on-ice after a period. Jokes abounded of Patrick pleading for more ice. But on a more serious note, when a 19 year old rookie is comfortable spitballing ideas with the coach, it shows trust and respect between the two.
Every player’s different. Hakstol felt last season that Travis Konecny and Shayne Gostisbehere could use a game in the press box or two (which is a different argument for sure), but probably realized the situation was different for Patrick.
Hakstol’s development of Patrick is a full opposite of Sanheim’s and Hakstol does deserve some credit here for the center’s progression throughout the season.
When it came to the blue line last year, the biggest complaint was the fact a rookie Ivan Provorov was anchored to a much-less-skilled veteran in Andrew MacDonald. This year, MacDonald improved a bit and played with Hagg for the most part, while Provorov eventually found himself with Gostisbehere.
But it wasn’t all roses for Hakstol and the defense corps.
In the second half of the season, with Sanheim sitting, Hakstol combined Radko Gudas, an adequate number four defenseman, with Brandon Manning, a seventh. This wasn’t the first time Hakstol had created the pairing. An experiment with the two in 2016-17 proved to end distraously.
The results were similar this year, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by Hakstol’s usage and consistency with the pairing. They typically played second-pairing minutes despite defensive breakdowns and more mistakes than any other pairing.
Manning sat for two games at the end of March when Hagg returned from injury, but that was all Hakstol was willing to try with a Gudas-Hagg match. Manning was back in the lineup by the third game and never was removed.
It’s easy to place a lot of the pairing’s struggles on Manning. He’s the least skilled of the two and more prone for errors. But Gudas easily had his worst season in Philadelphia.
And the worst part: Hakstol continued to rely on the pairing in the postseason and instead rotated around his other pairs. The season ended with Gudas playing one of his worst games in a Flyers uniform in Game 6 and Hextall announcing Manning (and many of the other UFAs) would not return next season.
There’s an argument that Manning is a better offensive defenseman than Hagg, but to stick with a seventh defenseman in the playoffs instead of implementing young, more skilled blueliners is a typical move by Hakstol. Which brings us to a big issue…
Hakstol’s reliance on veterans isn’t something new. We saw it last season with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde. It’s also something pretty traditional among all coaches in the NHL.
But none of that excuses some of Hakstol’s tendencies.
I just went over the Gudas-Manning pairing, Jori Lehtera frequently played over Jordan Weal and Valtteri Filppula was counted on for way too much in a season that fully showed his 34 years of age.
But it goes even deeper than lineup choices. A young player that makes a mistake or takes a bad penalty is likely to sit for a stretch during the game. The same rules don’t usually apply for the veterans.
There’s a case that young players can still learn and develop. Manning isn’t going to get any better whether he plays every game or only 30 and the mistakes he makes are just who he is at this point. Hakstol is likely trying to use the benchings as learning moments for his young players.
But it’s hard to imagine the positives outweighing the negatives.
It’s creating a culture among the fan base that veterans can get away scot-free while rookies will face punishment often. I’m not going to comment on if that affects the locker room — or if there is more repercussion for those veterans — because the simple fact is that no one outside of it knows.
However, I think it’s fair to ask when that stops for players like Travis Konecny, Shayne Gostisbehere and Travis Sanheim, who all had their minutes shortened in the postseason, but are part of the core for the future. The answer may not come while Hakstol is behind the bench.