photo from (@ripits247)
The natives are now restless.
During an absolutely dreadful 3-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks last night, one in which a trailing Flyers team had all of one shot on goal in the third period before pulling starting goaltender Michal Neuvirth, the sound from a half-empty Wells Fargo Center swelled, starting in Section 218 and then spreading like wildfire throughout the rest of the building:
“Fire Hakstol. Fire Hakstol.”
It was almost sing-songy, like there should have been clapping in between. And it made me happy, because at least it was giving me something to write about after the performance on the ice was as brutal and depressing to watch as any game this season, and offering opinion on a ninth straight loss was susceptible to a writer’s own brand of mental fatigue.
And the chant got louder, and louder.
“Fire Hakstol. Fire Hakstol.”
Everyone heard it. Heck, the coach himself heard it. The players heard it. The general manager heard it.
There are certain expectations to be met in the city of Philadelphia, and when you aren’t coming close to meeting them, you are going to feel the fans’ ire.
And no, I don’t feel like the Pied Piper of Hamelin because I was the first to write publicly that change needs to happen within this organization. I don’t take pleasure in suggesting someone lose their job. It’s not like Dave Hakstol isn’t trying. The guy isn’t sitting in his office playing tiddlywinks between games. He’s certainly giving it his best effort.
The problem is, whatever he’s doing isn’t working.
“Fire Hakstol. Fire Hakstol.”
It was a new narrative for a team that, of late, was telling the same story every game.
Little did we know, a whole new chapter was being penned in the locker room and the offices in the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center as soon as the game ended.
First, there was a closed-door team meeting called by captain Claude Giroux. Why it took nine games for this to happen is beyond me, but hey, it finally did. The levee finally burst. And from the look on the faces of a number of young players, it wasn’t pretty.
Guys took forever to get out of their uniform.
Nolan Patrick sat in stunned silence in the corner of the room, just staring blankly forward. It took Travis Konecny to go over to him, put an arm around his shoulder and whisper some words of encouragement for Patrick to finally move, get out of his gear and exit the locker room.
This was after two other players had held their media scrums. Two. Giroux and Andrew MacDonald, the latter of which talked at length.
Whatever was said in that meeting really affected Patrick.
None of the players would say what was said, but there were a few comments about airing grievances. It’s good to get that stuff out in the open among teammates. It is a sign that they care and are desperate to figure it all out.
Then, the GM decided he needed to hold an impromptu State of the Flyers address, and well, this is where the unexpected story twist occurred.
Ron Hextall came into the locker room – and we all assumed he had a big announcement. We knew it wasn’t firing Hakstol, because the Flyers wouldn’t do it that way. They’d hold a big press conference for something of that magnitude. But a big trade? A significant roster move? That may have been on the agenda.
Instead, Hextall defended his team, said that he doesn’t have a problem with the way they’ve been playing, and that they deserve a better fate.
It was certainly unexpected. Many think it’s delusional. Some felt like he was saying stuff he truly didn’t believe and was giving lip service. And, a small faction of people felt he was spitting truth.
Well which is it?
That’s what today’s story ultimately is about. Deconstructing Hexy. So, let’s get to it and dive into what he really means here:
Here it is, in all it’s glory. I will comment after each response to a question and try to break down what Hextall meant or was trying to imply. In the end, I will give it a grade of Delusional, Lip Service or Truth, because, to be honest, this was an interview that had elements of all three.
Do you feel caught between a rock and a hard place with how things have gone recently? To do something big could be an overreaction. (Dave Isaac, Courier Post)
“Great Question. If you look at the way we’ve played from the start of the year, I’m pretty good with the way our team has played. Pretty good with the way our team has played the last nine games. I think tonight we ran out of energy. Obviously results lately are not very good. We deserve better, but we haven’t gotten better. Obviously we gotta find a way.”
The initial reaction here was one of astonishment. Did he really just say he was OK with the way the team has played in the last nine games? They’ve lost nine in a row!!! Yes, some have been heartbreakers, but still, a loss is a loss. They’ve now played 25 games and only won eight of them. That’s less than a third in the win column. They’re in last place. Only two teams in the entire league have fewer wins. What team is he watching?
But then, after letting his comments germinate for a little bit here, you can start to see where he’s coming from.
With only a few exceptions this season, the Flyers have been in every game. They could easily be among the league’s best teams right now if things bounced a little differently for them. They are certainly the cautionary tale about how fine a line there is between success and failure in hockey.
And because of that, they are not the worst team in the league. Far from it. So, you can see why he thinks they have deserved a better outcome.
Coming out and saying this, with the fragility of the locker room right now and with the fans calling for the coach’s head, he feels that even if he is sugar-coating things, that by sending a public message to his team that he still believes in them and supports them, that it’ll pay off with better play beginning as soon as the next game against Boston Saturday.
All that said, it’s disingenuous to say that you are “pretty good” with the way the team has played – especially in the last nine games. I respect Hexy as a hockey guy and know he’s no fool, so he can’t be completely delusional here to think what he said was accurate. So, I’m chalking this one up as Lip Service – not to the media or to the fans, but rather to his own team. He wants them to feel like they have the support of management even though times are pretty tough right now. It’s a gamble, but Hextall is hoping it pays off.
Ron you’ve been in this city a long time. Do you know how that sounds to fans when you’ve lost nine in a row and you’re saying you’ve played well?
“Have you seen our games?”
“How do you think we’ve played?”
Not well enough to win all of them. (Chuck Gormley, The Sports Xchange)
“Not all of them. If we were playing poorly I would be the first to say we were playing poorly. I would be, We are not playing poorly. To look objectively at our team right now, and say, ‘Are we playing poorly?’ No. Are we shooting ourselves in the foot at times? Yes we are. Critical mistakes at critical times? Yes. It’s kind of what happens when the snow ball starts to go the wrong way and you start doing things that are unpredictable. If you look at our effort and at times execution? If you took the score away from the last nine games I’ve seen and told me we’re 0-9, I’d be like ‘come on.’ The point is we have to find ways to win. Nobody is looking for excuses around here. We are gonna battle though this. We are going to get through it. If we thought we were a really poor team, that’s totally different. Losing nine games in a row is unacceptable. Let’s be real. It’s not acceptable for many franchises and certainly not ours. In saying that, as a manager I gotta be realistic with how our team’s playing. Let’s say the last nine games we were .500, 5-4, somewhere in there. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. It’s what we deserve. Now again, we shot ourselves in the foot. But as a whole we’ve certainly played better than our record.”
I’m going to use your own words against you here Ron… “Come on!” You’ve lost nine in a row. The team HAS played poorly. Not consistently poor – there have been stretches where they’ve looked O.K., but they are as inconsistent as any team I’ve ever watched. They play great for 10 minutes then zone out for 10. Then good for five, then poor for eight. And it’s all because of the same things. There have been repetitive mistakes. The same breakdowns are happening every game. There is a complete lack of discipline. The third periods in this stretch have been an abject disaster. You have two goals after the second period in the last nine games. TWO! If that’s not a definition of poor play, I don’t know what is. It’s one thing to double down on your first answer to show support and faith in your team for their benefit, but to do it in this way, there’s only one way to describe it: Delusional.
Does rectifying that fall on the players? Or is that something that you or the coaches have to get involved with to try and find a way? (Anthony SanFilippo – Crossing Broad)
“That falls on all of us. We’re all in this together. Nobody’s jumping off any ship here. We’re in it together. Right now it’s hard to find a lot of positive. I think one of the impressive things is this group hasn’t started pointing fingers at each other. That’s a sign of strong character. It’s a sign that we’re going to come out of this.”
That’s not how I hoped this question would go. I was hoping to use it as a lead into the coach and talking about the job the coach has done, but Ron answered it differently – and we never really got back to the coach’s job in the interview, which I’m mad at myself for. As for how Ron answered this question, he’s not wrong. This is a collective problem. It does fall on everyone. The roster construction is all Hextall. The lineup deployment and scheme is all Hakstol and his assistants. The mistakes and sloppy play are all the players. Everyone needs to channel their inner Andy Reid and do a better job. I don’t know if I completely buy the whole “not pointing fingers” bit. Players don’t have team meetings where they air grievances if everyone is on the same page. But other than that, I think this is Hextall being honest. Truth.
The mistakes, everybody in the world can see them, you can see them, the fans have seen them, but often is a least interpreted as loss of confidence and grinding on yourself because you’re not getting the results, are you worried about that part of at all? (Sam Donnellon – Philly.com)
“Well that’s what happens when you go all of the sudden start five, six, seven, eight games in a row without a win, you start to get frustrated. I think the frustration started showing there in the third period for us, but for the most part we’ve done a pretty good job of trying to move on from one game on to the next. It’s not easy, you’ve been in a locker room when you’ve lost seven, eight, nine games in a row, and it’s ugly, right? But this group I give them credit they’ve stuck together, they’ve battled through it, if we weren’t battling right now we’d have a problem.”
As is often the case in an interview, once you get a few questions in, all the prepared statements go by the boards and you start getting some real honest answers. This is Hextall being brutally honest. He’s a former player. He knows what it’s like in a locker room when the team is playing badly. He even says it – the locker room is ugly. THAT is the truth in this locker room right now. There is a lot of frustration. A loss of confidence. A n amount of uncertainty for the young guys who have never experienced this before. Hextall wants to give them credit for not completely falling apart as a team and for not quitting on the coach, on each other or on the organization. That’s fine… but really, this has got to be close to the tipping point. Will he still feel the same way if, say, they lose Saturday to Boston and maybe two of three on the always tough road trip to Western Canada next week? That’s a big question. These next four games might be the benchmark for the rest of the season for coaches and players. Truth.
Do head coaches react differently in times like this?
“In terms of what?”
In terms of the way they act during a losing streak, in terms of how they deal with their players, in terms of any kinds of moves they may or may not make. (Rob Parent, Delco Times)
“Of course, I mean every coach is different, every coach is his own man so of course they react differently.”
Rob tried to go back to the coach here. The fact that Hextall sort of blew off the question rather than expand on it might be telling. This was a chance for him to say he has a lot of confidence in Hakstol, but he chose not to. Hakstol’s record as a coach is telling. He’s now coached in 189 games in the NHL. In the first 114 games, his team was 60-37-17 for a .526 winning percentage. That was through the 10-game winning streak last season. In the 75 games since then, his team is 28-33-14, a .373 winning percentage. That’s a precipitous drop. Hakstol has to be on notice that it needs to be heading back in the direction of his first 114 games soon, or else he will run out of time. There’s four days off after the Western Canada trip. There’s also a four-day break at Christmas, but nobody ever loses their job at Christmas. The Flyers do have their “bye week” in early January. So, if this is going to happen in-season Hakstol either has the next four games to right the ship, or the next 17 games before the bye to turn the team around. Otherwise, one of the lip service comments Hextall would have been certain to make is his coach is doing a great job. He didn’t. That says more to me than anything from this interview last night. Truth.
The fans you hear it as much as I do, you need physicality or some perception, Sam Morin is down and came up very briefly and is down again. What don’t you see that could help this team at least in terms of physicality? (Sam Donnellon – Philly.com)
“Well when I looked the other night we had a 20, a 21, two 22, and a 24-year old defenseman, that’s five of our six, that might be the youngest defense I’ve ever seen. And to say right now we need to get younger on defense? I’m not sure that’s a solution. I think we missed AMac, he’s an older guy, he’s a glue guy, he’s a guy that makes the younger guys feel better. Radko Gudas is the same, the veteran presence I can’t explain it to you guys, but it makes a huge difference, so just to patch six kids in there and say ‘go get ‘em guys,’ you’re looking for a disaster, you’re not helping those kids.”
Whether you agree with Hextall’s rationale here or not, this is definitely something he believes. He is a patient GM who believes in a slow development and maturation process for his prospects. He’s not a guy who wants to throw them all to the wolves simultaneously. Some GMs do. Some GMs put all their kids out there at once and sink or swim. But Hextall is more methodical. He wants his young players to find success when they arrive to the NHL. It doesn’t always work out that way, but that is his M.O. Always has been, always will be. We can sit here and debate the merits of MacDonald and Gudas all we want (Notice he didn’t mention Brandon Manning – that’s the one that perplexes me a little more than MacDonald or Gudas), but the fact is, regardless of who the veteran defensemen are, that’s how Hextall wants to play it. He wants developing players to develop at their own speed, and not a minute sooner. So, while we can disagree with him here, this is definitely Truth.
Last season you thought the team was good enough to make the playoffs. Do you still feel that way or does this make you reassess what type of team you have?
“No, I still believe we’re a playoff team.”
What needs to be done to make that happen? (John Boruk – NBC Sports Philly)
“We need to be better at some critical moments, but part of it we need to continue to do what we’re doing. We’re doing a lot of good things. Again, tonight I don’t think was our best game. We’re feeling some fatigue. Probably a little bit of frustration. We gotta stick with it. We gotta stick together. We gotta win Saturday. That’s our focus right now. We gotta win Saturday.”
Gah! Hexy you were doing so good with your honesty. You were giving us your true feelings. Even if we disagreed with you, we respect the fact that you stand by your principled beliefs. But then you go and throw us this line? That this is still a playoff team? That this team is doing a lot of good things? Let me reiterate – you’ve lost nine games in a row. Nine. This is only the fourth time in team history they’ve had an L in the result column for that many games. (I’ll dive into this more later). You’re on the brink of the worst run of losses in franchise history. You’ve won consecutive games ONCE all year. No matter how well you think you’ve played, if you are going to be in the playoffs, you need to be better than that. This was probably said with the intent of being Lip Service to the team. But really, it’s just Delusional.
You’ve been in closed door meetings before. Is this just a chance to sort of air that frustration? Sort of control the finger pointing before it gets started.
“Was there a closed door meeting?”
Yeah. (Wayne Fish, FlyingFishHockey.com)
“I didn’t know. I’ve been in a lot. I don’t know what was said. I wouldn’t tell you if I did, but I don’t know what was said. Closed door meetings are closed door meetings. Those are a good thing. It’s a team being together, shut the door, let’s talk this out. Any grievances, air them. But I’m guessing it was probably a stick together meeting because these guys have done a good job sticking together.”
First of all… Hexy is feeding us a line that he didn’t know there was a closed door meeting. Everyone knew there was a closed door meeting. As for what he feel about it – I think he’s spot on. I’m surprised they don’t happen more regularly – even after wins. I’m surprised teams don’t have these pow-wows after games more often. But, when they do, they are indicative of the state of the team – and the state of this team is a lack of cohesion. Hextall takes stock in these meetings as a positive, and he’s likely right. But, again, let’s not sugarcoat it. They happen for a reason – the team is in a little bit of turmoil. Credit to Giroux and his fellow leaders for having one of these accountability discussions, but this isn’t something that shows they are together, but rather that they are fractured and trying to put the pieces back together. That’s an important difference. Lip Service.
Going back to the Calgary game, there’s been a lot of penalties. Shayne took it upon himself that particular game, but when you negate power plays like that with penalties, how do you clean that aspect up? (John Boruk, NBCSports Philly)
“We gotta play a little bit smarter there. I think in the last eight games we’ve given up seven more penalties then we’ve taken. It doesn’t sound like much, but two minutes a game is quite a bit. Especially the way our special teams haven’t exactly been right on the last eight games. That’s a big difference. Those are the types of things we gotta clean up.”
No doubt. Penalties have been a big problem. So has the penalty kill. But hey… we’re not playing poorly. Nothing to see here. At least he was honest with his answer. Truth.
You say nine is unacceptable. Regardless of how close they are, is there a point where you say we gotta do something? Even if they are some overtime losses. (Dave Isaac, Courier Post)
“I try to make this team better every day. There’s something that can be done. That doesn’t change throughout the year.”
I thought this was a telling response too. It was basically Hextall giving himself an out, saying I spent the last seven minutes saying what I said, but I still reserve the right to change my mind at any time. In other words, if this doesn’t get fixed soon, I might go ahead and make the changes all you guys are calling for. Truth