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Plenty to consider, for coach and team, as Dave Hakstol learns the ropes in Philly

VOORHEES, N.J. -- What's bigger than a regular leap of faith? A superleap of faith? An uberleap?

Let's put it another way: Was there a general manager who took a bigger gamble than the one Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall took on Dave Hakstol, banking on the longtime University of North Dakota head coach to guide the Flyers out of a malaise that has seen them miss the playoffs in two of the past three seasons, and get bounced in the first round in the other?

I would argue there was not.

General managers, even if they are beloved in their city the way Hextall is in Philadelphia, get to play the coaching card only so many times before they end up without a trump card.

Former coach Craig Berube was sent packing last season after the Flyers missed the playoffs, and rather than going back to the well for another former Flyers player or a coach with ties to the organization, Hextall went off the grid.

Bold? Oh, yes, that's a good word.

A player who endeared himself to the Flyers faithful by embodying the spirit of the Broad Street Bullies -- cue video of Hextall hunting down and pummeling Chris Chelios during the 1989 playoffs -- is boldly charting a new course for his team by entrusting its future to a coach with zero NHL experience on any level.

Trust doesn't really begin to explain what is at play in Philadelphia. That Hextall trusted his own gut feelings in hiring Hakstol is self-evident. Now, he has to trust Hakstol is the man and coach he thought.

And Hakstol, who enjoyed tremendous success for 15 years at North Dakota, the past 11 as head coach, has to let his instincts guide him in order to justify that belief in him.

If they're wrong on any level, either of these men, it's going to be a disaster. But, if they're as right as they believe they are, that'll be a fine story, won't it?

"Truth be told, I was looking for the best coach possible for this team, right now and moving forward," Hextall said. "And there were obviously some veterans out there, but I felt very comfortable after going through the process that Dave was the right guy for this organization.

"If you watch his teams play in college they played a pro style of game. They worked hard, they played gritty, they battled. I think their battle level in college was second to none, so a lot of the things that we were looking for in a coach, Dave's teams played like that at North Dakota.

"I think the other thing is, Dave at North Dakota treated his players like men," the GM continued. "He didn't treat them like boys. He treated them like pros. That was part of what gave me comfort too. You're not talking about a guy who was treating his players like essentially like kids like they are. He was treating them like pros and that's why I think his transition to this point has been pretty smooth."

The first month of the season saw a better-than-expected start, though the team did hold a closed-door, players-only meeting after a 7-1 loss to the Florida Panthers in its second game. There were signs of improvement after, but the Flyers have lost eight of their past nine games, including a 4-0 whipping by the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday that prompted another closed-door meeting. After Thursday's 5-2 loss to the Capitals, the Flyers are seventh in the Metropolitan Division with a 5-8-3 record.

You might imagine that Hextall is like an expectant father, pacing about watching every line combination and practice drill, looking for signs that his trust has been well-placed, and perhaps fearing there will be signs he's made a colossal mistake with his new coach.

Nope.

"Dave and I talk pretty much every day," Hextall said. "But the one thing I don't want to do is coach. And it's not fair if I watch too closely. Do you watch the coaches? Of course you do. You watch the coach. You watch the players. You watch everything in the organization, but one thing I won't do is micromanage Dave. He's done a real good job thus far. He's in control down there."

Imagine for a moment the enormity of what is facing the 47-year-old native of Drayton Valley, Alberta.

When does Hakstol schedule practices given the NHL's demanding travel schedule? How long should they be?

How does he integrate younger players into the lineup? How does he invigorate veterans who are underperforming? Does he bench them? For how long?

How does he match lines against more experienced coaches? Does he try to?

Heck, where is the visiting team locker room in the opposing team's rink?

"I just follow Joey Mullen," Hakstol said with a laugh, referencing his assistant coach, Hall of Fame player Joe Mullen. "Wherever Joey goes, I follow."

There's no doubt a coaching staff that includes Mullen, Gord Murphy and Ian Laperriere has been, and will continue to be, instrumental in helping Hakstol work through the finer points of adjusting to the NHL. There is no substitute for experience, though, and while the coaching staff has much of it, Hakstol does not. He understands that the learning curve confronting him is a difficult one.

"I was in one place for 15 years and you get to know all the players. Not only your own players, but all the players throughout the league, throughout the country, from recruiting and scouting and playing against teams for that long, and you have a feel for other coaches and what they do and how they do things, and a lot of other things," Hakstol said.

"You get a real sense and a feel for that. You have a bank of knowledge. That's all new for me here," he added. "And to me that's something I have to work very hard at and it's going to take time. That will take time to regain that baseline foundation and knowledge of all our opponents and everybody in the league."

Even the dynamics of Hakstol's everyday life represent a brand-new reality. At North Dakota he dealt with an athletic director, not a GM whose fate is inexorably tied to how well the coach does his job.

And trying to relate to NHL players as opposed to collegians is no small issue, either. It's not just that NHL players are paid millions of dollars and play at an exponentially higher level. It's that they are playing to ensure they can continue to have a career.

If you have not been part of that milieu, if you have not lived it at least on some level, those are critical lessons to learn and to learn quickly.

"Yeah, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a concern," Hakstol said. "It is a concern because there are so many pressures on our players at this level. Individually, you're trying to build your career, you're trying to take care of your family. How all those individual issues affect the team dynamic was something that, again, I've never dealt with it at the pro level."

So far, players seem to be embracing the change.

Captain Claude Giroux, off to a decent if not sparkling start with 10 points, talked about Hakstol's ability to communicate his vision of the game and the excitement Giroux as a leader felt at sharing that vision.

Jakub Voracek, off to a grisly start with five points in 16 games, said he didn't believe there was more pressure on the veteran players because of Hakstol's lack of experience.

"You know what? Before the season I thought it might be necessary a little bit, not just from me but from every other player that's been in the NHL," Voracek said recently. "But the way Hack was handling everything so far, I think you can tell that he's a great coach with a lot of experience around hockey. The way he talks, the way he prepares for the games, everything like that, you can tell that he's been around for a while and he's a great coach."

Mistakes? Hakstol is not nave enough to think he hasn't made some already, or that more aren't coming down the pike. But there is a kind of liberation in understanding that those things are going to happen, just as people expect rookie players, even the most talented ones, to make mistakes.

"I know I've got a lot to learn," Hakstol said. "I'm pretty sure I'm going to make some mistakes along the way. I think I already have. But that's OK. As long as you deal with those things honestly and you don't make the same mistake over and over again. Yeah, it's going to be a learning experience. I've got to grow. I've got to get better."

And these are things that must happen sooner than later, he admitted.

"I've got to develop, but in the meantime that doesn't take away the responsibility to do a good job right now. So it's got to be a parallel path there," he said.

If the current Flyers team bears little resemblance to those of the past -- with players from seven different countries populating its roster, and a fresh-faced college man as its head coach -- that is not necessarily by design. These pieces simply fit Hextall's vision of what the team must look like to be successful.

"You can't worry about the public, the media, the perception," Hextall said.

"You have to worry about doing what you believe in and you have to stick with it. Last year we had a tough year, we missed the playoffs. It would have been easy to kind of come off path, off the kind of plan that we've set out. But we are not -- we are not -- going off path, I don't care what happens. We have a plan in place and we're going to stick to it no matter, come hell or high water," he added.

Perhaps no one outside the locker room is better positioned to assess the state of the Flyers than longtime local and national analyst Keith Jones, who played briefly with Hextall before Jones retired.

"Ron is very organized," Jones said in a recent conversation. "He is very tough. And he is going to do it his way. And I think it's the right way. This year will be a great learning year. There's going to be a lot of valuable lessons come out of this."

There are obvious issues.

The defense needs to improve. Veteran players like Voracek have to find ways to contribute.

But Jones said he believes the team is trending in the right direction, even if it means having accept there will be a lot of nights on which the Flyers are the less talented of the two teams on the ice.

Still, if Philadelphia seems like a market that would be resistant to this type of experiment or retooling, Jones said he's been surprised at how the fan base has embraced (at least early on) the changes Hextall has made, including going outside the Flyers family in hiring Hakstol.

"The fans seemed to really love that," Jones said. "That would not have necessarily been the reaction I would have expected going back a few seasons ago."

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