When it comes to “the process,” the vision that Ron Hextall had for the Flyers franchise when he was named general manager two years ago and the corresponding path upon which he sent the franchise at that time, the past 11 months might be the most important in his quest to build a team that consistently and sustainably challenges for the Stanley Cup year-after-year in the salary cap era.
It started late last May when Hextall went off the board – well, everyone else’s board, anyway – to hire Dave Hakstol from the University of North Dakota. To look back on it, there probably wasn’t anyone else on Hextall’s board. He knew what Hakstol was about and that he would be a good fit in Philadelphia.
“It's the Flyers culture,” Hextall said. “It's the culture that Mr. Snider established and passed on to Bob Clarke, Dave Poulin, and anyone that came through here. It's what we're all about as an organization. Dave was chosen as a coach partly because he understands that culture, he believes in that culture, which is what he created in North Dakota.”
But even though Hextall got his man who fit the culture, it still started off a transition period that would take time. Aside from perhaps Chris VandeVelde, who played for Hakstol in Grand Forks, nobody on the Flyers roster knew much about what their new coach was about. And it wasn’t something that a simple meeting with a player, whether it was in Voorhees or in Prague, could accomplish.
As it turned out, we saw “the process” move forward before our very eyes during the 2015-16 season. Players came out during training camp and almost blew the doors off the rink, and then the Flyers embarked on the new season in impressive fashion. The honeymoon wore off though as other teams got video of Hakstol’s systems and the Flyers’ tendencies. A lean six weeks resulted through late October and most of November, including an early December trip through western Canada that Pierre-Edouard Bellemare called “horrific.”
“In the beginning, it takes getting used to the way he wants you to work,” Bellemare said. “It took a couple months. It took that trip to Canada where we were not that good to realize what exactly he wanted.”
It wasn’t long after the trip that an interesting thing began to happen.
Hakstol’s responses in his daily media sessions, which largely reflected his philosophy on the game, started being echoed by his players. It seemed to first come from Claude Giroux a week before Christmas, and it slowly began trickling through the rest of the roster. It was a verbal confirmation of what was happening on the ice and behind closed doors – the Flyers were finally picking up what their coach was putting down, and were starting to fully buy into the way Hakstol wanted to play the game. The result was a bit of a resurgence that began in early January, roughly when the Flyers returned from their second West Coast trip.
“That was just the point we began to play with the consistency necessary,” Hakstol said. “From that point on, I feel like we got to the point where we were an everyday team. That was a good step for us. We were a bunch of every-dayers. We showed up, we worked and concentrated real well every day at practice and every game day, so that’s probably if I’m going to sum up the progress we made this year, that’s one of the areas where we made progress. We were an everyday team.”
As a result, the Flyers started to generate momentum, and history will show they eventually went on a run that propelled them back into a playoff spot. They did not advance, but they went through a six-game series against perhaps the best team in the NHL this season that provided valuable experience to the team’s young core and a refresher to those who were on the roster last time the Flyers were in the playoffs two years ago.
It’s easy to see the growth now that the season has gone by; perhaps less so while the view was going forward. Giroux recounted a group that bought in from the very beginning, and said things just took time.
“We understood that it was going to be a process and it might take a while to start playing the way we wanted to play,” Giroux said. “I think it only got better. Every week we were learning, we were excited to play those games. I think guys did a good job of staying motivated.”
Said Wayne Simmonds: “[Hakstol] had a huge impact on us by the way he handles himself and his calmness, the way he is behind the bench – that just went right down the line. He brought a sense of calm to the guys and I think we fed off that, and it helped us out a lot.”
The hope moving forward is that the lack of a need for a transition period this fall will eliminate the slow start; that the Flyers will be able to jump out of the gate and avoid the grueling comeback charges that were necessary to make the playoffs this year and in 2014. Hakstol plans to review the entire season, make some adjustments and hit the ground running. But as for the foundation that was established this season, he views this as just the beginning.
“We’re 11 months in,” he said. “I think trust, work levels, production, I think those are all things that you prove over the long haul. A couple of meetings in the summer all the way through the first 10 or 11 months, that’s not the long haul in my opinion. That’s a good starting point. If I’m going to sum up our season, I think we pushed ourselves in the right direction, but we have an awful lot of work to do and a long ways to go from here, and that’s going to take the long haul.”
Hextall, for his part, said he wouldn't "throw rose petals" just because the Flyers made the playoffs - he wants the team to be better next year. But as the architect of this team, he likes the spot where the Flyers are on that path he’s set in place.
“This is the Flyers culture and I think we all have an enormous responsibility to uphold the identity, the culture, the tradition of the Philadelphia Flyers, as Mr. Snider did for 49 years,” Hextall said. “It's a huge responsibility. Dave's a huge part of that, every player is a part of that, our staff is all a part of that. We're moving in the right direction. There’s a lot of really good signs this year on the ice and also off the ice.”