A RARE smile stretched across the face of first-year Flyers coach Dave Hakstol after Sunday's optional skate. He had just gotten done giving a fair self-criticism of his first 20 games behind an NHL bench and was fresh off a 4-0 loss in Ottawa. Quite simply, he said, both he and his team had to be better.
But despite the poor stretch of results and the goalless drought his team was enduring, was the rookie coach enjoying it?
"Absolutely," Hakstol said with a smile. "I love it."
Hakstol, 47, brought 19 years of head-coaching experience with him when the Flyers hired him this past offseason. None of them, obviously, came at the professional level. Hakstol said his first year, though, hasn't brought any surprises, just new experiences.
"You have to experience things to really know and learn and understand," Hakstol said. "That's where the term rookie came from, right? Whether you're a player or a coach, it doesn't matter. You have to go through different experiences to gain knowledge from those experiences. And obviously I'm going through those. That'll be, as I go through the year, I'm going to experience those new situations and challenges. But they're new in a sense only, that it's at the NHL level. In another sense, they're not new."
Many lauded general manager Ron Hextall for making an out-of-the-box hire. Hakstol was brought here to help guide the Flyers through a transitional period. They didn't make many roster changes in the offseason to a group that finished 14 points out of the playoffs.
And despite most of the people around the organization believing the Flyers were a playoff team, there were always going to be growing pains. That's a two-way street, from players to the coaching staff. Those pains were realized after the Flyers started the year 4-2-1 in their first seven games.
They got into a rut, had a brutal road trip through Western Canada and had a 2-7-4 record in 13 games since their hot start before winning Monday night. The coach has shuffled lines, rode the hot hand in net and scratched players with plenty of NHL service time, all while instituting a new system that has been as inconsistent as the team's record.
It's been a fairly busy 21 games for Hakstol.
"I always say it," Hakstol said. "If you can't wake up on the hardest mornings and be really excited and really motivated to go and try and make a difference in the right direction, then you're in the wrong place."
Even in losses and stretches without scoring goals, the signs were there over the last week that things were going in the right direction. And the first two periods of Monday night's win over Carolina were proof of that.
Still, the Flyers, who have earned points in four of their last five games, are searching for their first back-to-back wins since beating the Rangers in a shootout on Oct. 24 to cap off that hot start. They'll get a chance at that Wednesday night in Brooklyn against the Islanders.
"We've been playing better hockey as of late," winger Brayden Schenn said Tuesday. "We haven't got rewarded for it. We've been playing some good teams. We've had some good games, but, at the same time, we still have to be more consistent. Going into Brooklyn now, we got to put this one behind us. We gotta get on a streak here to try and get back into this. Our division is strong. It's good, it's tough. We can't go the win one, lose one route. We're not going to gain any ground."
"You just have to keep building and building in order to get back into the playoff picture," goalie Steve Mason said. "You gotta start putting some streaks together and (Monday) night was a good win and we just have to keep building on it. You have to be a consistent team every single night."
With four games in seven days starting Wednesday night, there's no time like the present to find that consistency.
"I have a very clear belief that wins and losses-wise, we're not where we should be," Hakstol said.
The Flyers recalled winger Colin McDonald Tuesday from their AHL affiliate in Lehigh Valley. McDonald, 31, a former Islander, is the captain of the Phantoms and has missed time this season with an upper-body injury . . . Sam Gagner, who left Monday's first period with an upper-body injury, will be evaluated by team doctors Wednesday . . . Ryan White (upper-body), who is on injured reserve, skated but has not yet been cleared for contact. He said he's feeling better every day . . . The Islanders (10-8-3) are coming off back-to-back losses to the Montreal Canadiens . . . For most of the Flyers, this will be the first time at Barclays Center, which is in its first year as an NHL venue. About half of them played in a split-squad game during the preseason. Likely starter Steve Mason was not at that game, but has read about the arena. "It isn't a standard hockey rink," Mason said. "It's built for basketball, but at the morning skate, I'll try to get my bearings and figure out the sight lines because it's going to be a little bit of a different visual impact." . . . Forbes magazine rated the Flyers as the seventh-most valuable NHL franchise at $660 million. The Rangers were first at $1.2 billion.