Over the next month, the Seattle Kraken will check off a lot of firsts. They already signed their first player and they will soon make their first draft selection (the second of the draft, to be specific). But few firsts will be as important as the one they made today: hiring their first head coach. Just ask the last expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, how important a team’s first head coach is. Vegas struck gold with ex-Panthers and Blue Jackets bench boss Gerrard Gallant, who pulled all the right strings to lead the Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in his inaugural year and returned to the playoffs the next year. Clearly, hiring the right head coach is a big deal.
Several established candidates, including Gerrard Gallant (hired by the Rangers last week), Bruce Boudreau, Claude Julien, and others, were on the open market and linked to Seattle in one way or another, but none of them were named Seattle’s first head coach. That honor instead falls upon Toronto Maple Leafs’ assistant coach Dave Hakstol, as the team announced Thursday morning.
Hakstol began his coaching career with the Sioux City Musketeers in 1997 but made a name for himself as head coach of the University of North Dakota from 2004-2015. Under Hakstol, UND reached the NCAA Tournament every year and reached the Frozen Four seven times, including a runner-up finish in 2005. His stellar college work earned a shot as head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2015-16 season.
Hakstol’s work leading the Flyers has received heavy criticism over the years (including from me, a Flyers fan), but he did a legitimately good job in his first year behind Philly’s bench. The year before he arrived, Philadelphia finished 24th in the NHL, ranking 21st in goals for and against, but in 2015-16, Hakstol’s first year, the Flyers improved to 13th thanks to a solid defense (12th in goals against). He let the reigns loose on dynamic rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who finished second in Calder voting. The Flyers made the playoffs with a challenged roster, to say the least, before falling in the first round to the President’s Trophy-winning Capitals.
But over the next two-plus years, Hakstol’s luster quickly wore off as problems emerged. He relied heavily on marginally skilled veterans like Andrew MacDonald, Brandon Manning, Valtteri Filppula, and Jori Lehtera while scratching youngsters like Gostisbehere, Travis Konecny, Travis Sanheim, and Oskar Lindblom. His phlegmatic personality and questionable decisions did not help him connect to the fanbase, and the team relied heavily on low-percentage point shots. Hakstol also mismanaged his goaltenders. He overworked Steve Mason down the stretch of 2016, leading to a poor playoff performance from Mason, and rushed Brian Elliot back from injury in the 2017-2018 season, despite the fact that Hakstol himself had potentially caused the injury by running the 32-year-old into the ground that November.
The Flyers regressed in 2016-17, becoming the first team to miss the playoffs in the same season where they won 10 straight games. The exact opposite transpired the next season; despite an 0-5-5 drought, Philadelphia finished with 98 points (the most under Hakstol) but suffered another first-round exit, this time to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The wheels absolutely fell off in the 2018-19 season. The Flyers, expected to take a step forward, stumbled out of the gates. The team was bleeding goals and incredibly inconsistent, and Hakstol appeared to be running short on time, especially after GM Ron Hextall was fired in November. After a disastrous Western Canadian road trip that saw the Flyers lose four straight by a 19-8 margin, Hakstol was finally handed his walking papers. Over the last two seasons, Hakstol has been in charge of the Maple Leafs’ defense and penalty kill, with the latter ranking 25th in the league during his tenure.
As you can probably tell, I was not enchanted by Hakstol during his time coaching the Flyers (if you would like to learn more about his time in Philly, I highly recommend checking out this article), but to suggest Hakstol has not learned from his failures in Philadelphia would be a major oversight. And while Toronto’s PK has not been great over the last two years, being a head coach is certainly different from being an assistant.
Hakstol’s main weakness in Philly seemed to be connecting with and managing young players, but that weakness should be minimized in Seattle as the roster will be mostly composed of veterans. Hakstol is not the coach I would have hired if I was in GM Ron Francis’ shoes, but the Kraken believe Hakstol has fixed his weaknesses and is ready for a second chance. Are they right? We shall find out this fall.