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Don’t fire Hakstol — yet

Posted by Eric Fisher On November 30

The diehards who stuck around for the end of the Flyers’ lackluster 3-1 loss to the Sharks had every right to express their displeasure.

And general manager Ron Hextall was on the mark in his comments after the game.

I wish that Hextall had not said the Flyers aren’t playing poorly on a night on which they clearly played poorly, but that’s my only quarrel with his postgame comments.

The loss to the Sharks was ugly. Claude Giroux scored 48 seconds into the game. The Flyers didn’t score again. The Sharks can make a lot of teams look bad – they’ve allowed the fewest even-strength goals in the NHL – but there’s no excuse for only getting one shot on goal during the first 17 minutes of the third period when you’re trailing by two goals.

No wonder the fans were frustrated. The awful performance against the Sharks was the Flyers’ ninth straight loss, their longest losing streak since 2008.

The fans took out their frustration on head coach Dave Hakstol during the third period. Chants of “Fire Hakstol!” echoed throughout the emptying Wells Fargo Center.

A few more performances like Tuesday’s listless outing and those fans may get their wish.

Yes, I know that Hextall said, “Dave Hakstol’s our coach. He’s going to remain our coach.” But Hextall didn’t say how long he’ll remain the coach.

In defending Hakstol, Hextall emphasized that the Flyers aren’t playing as poorly as their record indicates. He is correct. Five of the nine straight losses came in overtime (four) or a shootout (one). Although it’s distressing that the Flyers keep losing games in overtime, often due to crucial mistakes at critical times, they played well for most of those games. There were, at most, three stinkers during this losing streak.

Hextall was also correct in noting the youth of the Flyers’ defense. With Andrew MacDonald sidelined until this week by a “lower body” injury and Radko Gudas being suspended for 10 games after the third game of the losing streak, Brandon Manning has been the only veteran defenseman on the roster for the entire losing streak.

Shayne Gostisbehere is in his third season. Ivan Provorov is in his second season. Robert Hagg, Travis Sanheim and Samuel Morin, who was returned to the Phantoms when MacDonald returned, are rookies.

“(The young defensemen are) probably playing more minutes than they should play, a little higher in the lineup than should play,” Hextall said in an interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Michael Barkann, “and they’ve done a good job.

“… Have they stumbled a little bit? Of course they have. They’re young people. They’re young players, but they’re getting better every day.”

Hextall’s comments indicate that he bears some responsibility for Hakstol’s predicament. Although he couldn’t predict MacDonald’s injury or Gudas’ suspension, he’s the one who chose to start this season with so many young players – don’t forget center Nolan Patrick and forward Travis Konecny – on the roster. But would you rather take some lumps while Sanheim and Hagg gain NHL experience or win a few more games by re-signing Michael Del Zotto?

The “getting better every day” is the key part of the quote. As long as the young players are getting better, the Flyers are willing to suffer a little bit in the standings. This isn’t analogous to the 76ers, where the franchise was going young so they would lose. The Flyers are trying to win, but it’s difficult to win with so many young players in the lineup, especially on defense.

But youth doesn’t give the head coach a free pass. As I wrote in my most recent Flyers Notebook, the special teams have been bad during this nine-game losing streak. The responsibility for special teams fall partially on the coaching staff.

The other two major reasons I cited for the slump were the lack of scoring depth and growing pains, particularly for the young defensemen.

Hextall’s message was that there isn’t any reason to panic. If the Flyers continue to play at their current level of play, notwithstanding Tuesday’s awful effort, they will win close to half of their games. If the young players continue to progress, this team could win more than half of its games.

Last week Hextall tried to shake things up by bringing up Morin, who replaced Mark Alt, and Danick Martel. Both are back with the Phantoms. With Morin added to the already young defense, the Flyers are too inexperienced on the blue line. Martel added energy and excitement, but the bottom line is that his plus/minus rating was minus-1 for four games, and his playing time diminished.

Sometimes there isn’t a quick fix. Sometimes you have to stay the course.

If the Flyers trust that they’re moving in the right direction, then firing Hakstol would be a mistake. The same is true of a trade designed to shake up the team, which is what the Flyers likely would have done in the past.

But one thing the organization won’t tolerate is a lifeless team. Current Kings head coach John Stevens’ final game as Flyers head coach was a lifeless affair. It was the kind of game that gets a struggling coach fired. It was the kind of game the Flyers played Tuesday.

Hextall said that Hakstol is going to remain the Flyers’ head coach, but a few more lifeless performance like Tuesday’s loss to the Sharks will result in the disgruntled fans being granted their wish.

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