Let the record show that the Philadelphia Flyers put Dave Hakstol out of his misery and fired him on Dec. 17, 2018. But in reality, the clock started ticking on Hakstol on May, 18, 2015, the day then-GM Ron Hextall plucked him out of the security and obscurity of U.S. college hockey and hired a guy who had neither coached nor played in the NHL to run a big-league bench.
At the time, Hextall said Hakstol checked off all of his boxes, with the exception on NHL experience. And that was the “least important one” for Hextall. Ask any GM what the most important decision he makes is and there’s a good chance most of them will say choosing the right coach. And, unfortunately, Hakstol was never the right coach for the Flyers. There was never, ever any comfort level between him and the organization and for the entire Hakstol tenure, it had the feel of a square peg being furiously hammered into a round hole.
Perhaps it was the fact that his team held a players’ only meeting just two games into his tenure, a 7-1 loss to the Florida Panthers. Perhaps it was that the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head for the better part of the past two years. But three-and-a-half years into his employment and a 134-101-42 record with two playoff defeats on his record, nobody is surprised Hakstol is gone from an NHL bench, likely to be never seen behind one again.
At times, it didn’t even seem like Hakstol wanted to be there. If he had aspired to be an NHL coach, there’s a good chance Hextall would not have had to make three pitches to him, the first of two Hakstol turned down flat, before taking the job in Philadelphia. There was something about this hiring that didn’t feel right from the start, most of it having to do with the fact that Hakstol was stepping behind a bench guiding the best and richest players in the world without ever having coached a single game of pro hockey.
There are a lot of people who wonder, when coaching vacancies come open, why NHL teams so often give in to the temptation of going to the coaching recycling bin when it comes to hiring bench bosses. “Think outside the box,” people say. “Be creative,” they moan. You know why a lot of teams don’t do that kind of thing? The Flyers’ experience with Dave Hakstol is a perfect example why. When Hakstol was hired by the Flyers in 2015, he became just the third coach in NHL history to go directly from a college bench to his first NHL coaching job. The other two were Bob Johnson and Ned Harkness, so there were decidedly mixed results. (Another, Herb Brooks, went to the NHL after going from college to coaching the U.S. Olympic team in 1980. Lou Lamoriello was named president of the New Jersey Devils in 1987, then named himself GM after leaving Providence College as athletic director and commissioner of Hockey East. And there were people who were asking at the time, “Who the hell is this Lou Lamoriello guy?”)
Dave Hakstol did not fail as an NHL coach because he coached college hockey. He failed as an NHL coach for much of the same reason promising players fail, because they’re placed into situations too quickly that they’re not prepared to handle. There was almost certainly no way Dave Hakstol was going to leave the money and security he had at North Dakota to ride the buses and coach in the American League at Lehigh Valley. So Hextall, who was impressed with Hakstol after watching him coach his son at North Dakota, had no choice but to immediately offer him a gig as a head coach. The right path for Hakstol to go if he wanted to become a head coach would be to either take his own bench in the AHL or come into the NHL as an assistant. Hakstol cannot be faulted for failing to see that because he was the one who was courted. Hextall, who has had a ton of experience at the NHL level, including being an assistant GM prior to ascending to running a hockey operations department, should have known better.
We’ve been told to never say never, but I’d be willing to bet we’ve seen the last of Dave Hakstol in the NHL. A coaching job in college hockey will undoubtedly surface this summer and Hakstol will take it. He’ll likely do what he did at North Dakota, groom future NHL players and have a ton of success and he’ll never have to worry about job security again. After all, there’s a reason why Red Berenson and Jack Parker never left their jobs to coach in the NHL.