The challenges ahead for Flyers coach Dave Hakstol

It’s a bit unfair to new Philadelphia Flyers coach Dave Hakstol, but you couldn't help but make comparisons to college coaches in other sports when his hiring was announced: highly successful guys who have tried to make the jump to the professional game from college and ultimately failed.
Nick Saban is one of the best college football coaches of all time and he didn’t find success in the NFL.
Bobby Petrino once tried his luck in the NFL after dominant seasons at Louisville and didn't make it through an entire season in Atlanta. Steve Spurrier is a college legend and the best he could manage with the Redskins was a pair of third-place finishes.
Rick Pitino seesawed back and forth between the NBA and college before settling in at Louisville. John Calipari was fired by the Nets after a 3-17 start in 1998 and has been much more successful at Kentucky.
Remember Jerry Tarkanian’s time with the San Antonio Spurs? No? That’s OK -- it was only a 20-game stretch in which he won just nine games.
Sure, there are success stories sprinkled in there, but more often than not, the high-profile coaches tend to end up back in college where they enjoyed the most success.
Which brings us back to Hakstol. Not only did Ron Hextall choose a non-traditional path in hiring a college coach -- he hired one who is known for his intensity. This is a direct, no-nonsense guy who sounds like he’s got a little Mike Babcock in him.
It raises another red flag: Will an intense coaching style that works for 19-year-old college kids also work for professional hockey players earning millions of dollars?
The only way to find out was to ask guys who have been on both sides of that equation.
St. Louis Blues forward Chris Porter played four seasons at the University of North Dakota. He’s also played in 173 games with the Blues.
When he woke up and saw the news of Hakstol’s hiring, he sent a congratulatory text to his old coach.
“I told my wife, ‘This is so awesome for him,’” Porter said. “I’m really excited for him.”
Porter agreed that Hakstol is a coach who keeps his players accountable and has high expectations of his players. But he also sees a guy who gives and earns the respect of his players -- something he expects will happen in Philadelphia.
“He’s not afraid to pat you on the back for the little things – taking a hit to make a play, blocking a shot,” Porter said. “I agree he is tough but in the same sense, I think his players love playing for him. You know what you’re going to get every day when you go to the rink. ... Players know that as long as they play hard and put their best foot forward, mistakes are going to happen. He understands that. That’s a great quality in a coach.”
The reason Porter sees Hakstol succeeding at the NHL level is the same reason he succeeded in college. He makes players better. No matter how much a player is earning or how big the ego, if they see improvement in their own game, they’re willing to listen.
Hakstol consistently got the most out of his players at North Dakota and it’s that success in developing hockey players that Porter sees translating well to the NHL.
“Going to the next level, there are guys with big contracts and things like that, but he’s a guy who can push you and push what you have that makes you a better player based on your responsibilities to the team,” Porter said. “That’s why guys go the extra mile for him. I know sometimes, you get a coach you don’t like – for whom you wouldn’t do things throughout the game or series that you would do for a guy you respect behind the bench. Guys do that for him.”
Carolina Hurricanes forward Brad Malone agreed.
“He’s very serious, he’s very on point and focused on what he’s doing,” Malone said. “He approaches everything with the utmost professionalism.”
He’s a coach who listens to his players and he does it with the same intensity in which he coaches, Malone added. When you’re talking with him, he’s never distracted or interrupting.
He listens. He takes in the feedback.
Yes, he’s demanding, but there’s an open door that players know can be utilized. They also appreciate the way he treats their families and the way he’s close with his family.
“You see him with his wife and kids away from the rink, and he’s a great man as well,” Malone said. “He did a good job of having that balance and showing that.”
Calgary assistant general manager Brad Pascall played with Hakstol at North Dakota. He lived with him in college. They were in each other’s wedding.
His view is admittedly biased, but one thing that stood out to him was the way Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews spoke about Hakstol. Leaders can spot other leaders. They can also see through those who aren’t sincere.
Toews raved about his time with Hakstol when he’d chat with Pascall.
“Back in my days at Hockey Canada, Jonathan Toews -- who came through North Dakota -- I would sit and talk to him and he couldn’t say enough about Dave and what he meant to him and helping him along,” Pascall said. “I’m confident in Dave’s ability to coach. Looking at [Jake] Voracek, [Claude] Giroux, [Wayne] Simmonds, [Steve] Mason – guys who are stars in the league, to me communicating with those guys is not an issue.”
Getting vouched by Toews will go a long way with those guys. So if that’s not the challenge, what is?
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett’s time at UND didn’t overlap with Hakstol’s, but they both have summer places near Detroit Lakes in Minnesota. They participated in enough alumni events through the years that they’ve gotten to know each other quite well.
“He’s a methodical guy. He’ll spend a lot of time doing his homework, talking to people, making sure he’s well-prepared going in,” Tippett said. “He’s very thoughtful in what he does and how he wants his team to play.”
It’s not relating to players or anything systematically that Tippett sees as the biggest challenge in Hakstol’s transition from the college game to the NHL. It’s managing the schedule.
Hakstol’s UND team played in 42 games last season. In the NHL, that’ll get you to about the All-Star break.
“In the NHL, it’s three or four games in a week. In college, you have a whole week to plan what you’re going to do,” Tippett said. “It’s just like in a game, there’s momentum swings. In your schedule, there’s momentum swings. There’s going to be times when you have a lull in the schedule and you can get in a good practice block. And there are times in the NHL schedule where you can’t find a way to win and the next night you’re starting back-to-backs against the top teams in the division. It’s an all-encompassing thing.”
“It’s just the pure travel and schedule, that’s the biggest challenge he’s going to face,” Pascall added. “I don’t see him having any issues behind the bench in situations or preparation. To me, it’s going from a 46-game schedule to an 82-game schedule and planning things out. But I would have the fullest confidence in his ability to adapt.”
There will be a learning curve. Flyers general manager Ron Hextall knew that coming in. He passed on experienced coaches to make this hire, something that will be quickly noted if it doesn’t pan out.
That’s the risk and it’s a big one. There were coaches available who already know how to manage an NHL schedule. There were coaches available who know what it takes to balance the grind of an 82-game season and then win in the playoffs.
Hextall and those who know Hakstol well believe it was a risk worth taking, simply because of his ability to get the most out of everyone on the roster.
“He made me work for everything I got,” Malone said. “He molded me into the player I am. Without him, I wouldn’t be playing where I’m playing or have done what I’m able to do. He stuck behind me, pushed me and believed in me.”
Now, Hextall is doing the same with him.

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