Call it a Ron Hextall experiment that didn’t work the way he had planned.
Buried in last place in the 16-team Eastern Conference, the fading Flyers (12-15-4) cut ties Monday with fourth-year coach Dave Hakstol, the man Hextall daringly hired out of the University of North Dakota in May 2015.
Phantoms coach Scott Gordon was appointed the interim coach.
Chuck Fletcher, named to replace Hextall as the Flyers' general manager on Dec. 3, met with Hakstol on Monday morning and gave him the news after what he called “thoughtful consideration.”
“To my eyes, there was a disconnect to what he was preaching and how the players were playing,” Fletcher said. “As the leader of the team, that responsibility falls on him.”
Fletcher praised Hakstol for his work ethic and the way he prepared, and said he handled the firing with “dignity and class."
"He’s a straight-up guy and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
Fletcher was present for the last four games of the Flyers' recent road trip -- they lost all four -- and came home knowing he was going to make a change.
“I felt at this point, we needed a new voice,” Fletcher said, adding that the players weren’t blameless. They had to “buy into what the coach is saying as well," he said. "I addressed that with the players today before practice.”
The Flyers, who host Detroit on Tuesday, were eight points out of a playoff spot entering Monday’s action.
“We’re at rock-bottom,” winger Jake Voracek said.
Defenseman Ivan Provorov said he appreciated how Hakstol helped him in his three seasons, “but we’re not playing like we can, and hopefully we can change something and get better.”
Asked if a new voice was needed, Provorov said, “It may help us, yes.”
“You never want to hear about a coach getting fired,” defenseman Travis Sanheim said. “I think we have to take responsibility for that. On that road trip, there were a lot of areas we need to be better and should be better.”
The Flyers went 1-3-1 on the recently completed trip and allowed a total of 22 goals (5.5 per game) over the last four games, all losses. One of those defeats was a 6-5 overtime loss in Calgary, one in which the Flyers had several defensive breakdowns and blew a late 5-3 lead.
“Frankly, the Calgary game to me represented everything I have come to know about this team and what we need to do to improve upon it,” Fletcher said. “... I don’t question the heart of this team at all, but we just found a way to shoot ourselves in the foot and made it really hard on ourselves. We’ve got to close that game out, and that’s the mind-set, that’s the attitude [needed]."
“We have to figure this out and get back on track here,” Sanheim said.
By firing the stoic Hakstol, club president Paul Holmgren and Dave Scott, CEO of the Flyers’ parent company Comcast Spectacor, continued to sever ties with Hextall’s associates. Hextall was fired as the Flyers' general manager on Nov. 26. Two days later, assistant GM Chris Pryor and assistant coach Gord Murphy were dismissed.
Hakstol, 50, had a 134-101-42 record and a .560 points percentage in three-plus seasons as head coach. Two of his teams made the playoffs, but both were eliminated in the first round.
This year’s team has just a .452 points percentage and one of the NHL’s worst home records (5-7-2).
“For one guy to pay the price for what’s going on, it’s not fair, but it’s the business side of it,” captain Claude Giroux said. “It’s a tough day.”
The Flyers signed free-agent winger James van Riemsdyk in the summer and, with their younger players expected to show improvement, looked to build on last season’s 98-point campaign (42-26-14 record) and third-place finish in the Metropolitan Division.
But van Riemsdyk missed 16 games because of a knee injury -- he returned Nov. 15 -- and the teams’ top two goalies, Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, have played in only a combined 16 games because of injuries.
The injuries, the regression of young defensemen Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere, and awful play by their special teams have contributed to the Flyers' sitting at the bottom of the Metro standings. Ditto a shoddy defense (3.74 goals-against per game, 29th in the NHL) and a sporadic offense that has been shut out or scored one goal in 10 of 31 games.
Poor starts to games – a trademark under Hakstol – also doomed the coach. The Flyers have allowed the first goal in 21 of 31 games. In those 21 games in which they have surrendered the opening goal, they have just six wins.
Playing with a noticeable lack of confidence, the Flyers have lost five of their last six games, including those last four.
When Hakstol was hired after a successful career as a college coach, club chairman Ed Snider called it a “gutsy” move. Hakstol became the third person to go directly from the college ranks to the NHL as a head coach.
“We needed a fresh approach,” the late Snider said at the time, adding he was “hoping we have another Mike Babcock,” the highly successful coach who is now with Toronto.
Hakstol compiled a 289-143-43 record at North Dakota, and seven of his 11 teams reached the NCAA Frozen Four but never won the national championship. Hextall’s son, Brett, a winger, played three seasons for Hakstol at North Dakota.
“I grew an appreciation for Dave, the way he coached,” the elder Hextall said when he hired Hakstol in 2015.
Hakstol had a little over 1½ years left on a five-year deal that reportedly paid him $2 million per season.
The Flyers face an uphill battle, again, just to get into the playoffs.
“We have to keep chipping away,” winger Wayne Simmonds said. “Obviously, we have to perform better on the ice.. ... It’s gut-check time."
Fletcher, who said he had “no intention right now” to replace the assistant coaches, said that he would continue to explore the trade market, but that he thought the team was talented and tight-knit.
“We just have to be smarter. We have to have better details in our game defensively,” he said. “And we have to find a way not to make the game so hard some nights.”