People thought it, assumed it, tweeted it: No way embattled Flyers coach Dave Hakstol survives the week.
Not after Wednesday's announcement by team president Paul Holmgren that two more heads had rolled in the wake of the Ron Hextall firing, including a coach Hakstol later called "a great mentor for me in that coaches' room."
But as we have once again learned about that organization, things are not always as they seem. And the reality, as counterintuitive as it seemed at first, is that Wednesday's firings of director of player personnel and assistant general manager Chris Pryor and assistant coach Gord Murphy were, in the weirdest of ways, a vote of confidence for the head coach Hextall plucked from college four summers ago.
Pryor might have been Holmgren's call, which, given the expedited search for a general manager, might have been more tactical than judgmental. If you're trying to sell autonomy to the new guy, you don't force him to either inherit or ax the No. 2 guy in the old regime. You let him bring his own guy in.
And then there is Murphy, whose tenure coaching the Flyers defense extended back to the Craig Berube days, and whom Hakstol inherited when he took the job. Murphy's sudden termination wasn't foreboding for Hakstol – it was a vote of confidence. Hence this phrase in the Flyers press release: "In close consultation with Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol, Gord Murphy has been relieved of his duties as assistant coach."
Anyone who listened to either Holmgren or Comcast Spectacor CEO Dave Scott on Tuesday reached the same conclusion: Hakstol was safe, at least until a new GM sets eyes on him.
"We're supporting Hak," said Scott, while adding that Holmgren had "full autonomy" to change that support.
"I like Hak," said Holmgren. "I think he's a good coach. I hope the new GM gives him every opportunity to evaluate everything. From how he prepares, how he coaches, how he does his matchups, stuff like that. And gives him a fair shot because I think he deserves that."
My guess is that in meeting with Hakstol on Monday to lay out the plan going forward, Holmgren asked what Hakstol needed going forward. When they met again Wednesday, he had an answer.
Wednesday's practice began without Murphy on the ice. The players were told, then huddled among themselves to absorb it while the remaining coaches assembled in the corner.
"Obviously, there's hard decisions being made right now," Hakstol told reporters after practice Wednesday. Asked if the decline in performance by Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere were factors in the dismissal of Murphy, Hakstol said, "I don't want to get into any specific issues … I don't want to get into those things right now."
He later said that he and Holmgren would work together to find a replacement quickly, which might mean they already have one in mind they both like.
That, at least in the short term, empowers this head coach rather than undercuts him.
That hire might determine Hakstol's future more than the one that brings in a new GM. Hextall gave Berube a full season. Hakstol might very well be judged after this one by anyone coming in, provided this team shows signs of life in the weeks to come. It was about this time last season that Brian Elliott got healthy enough to be Brian Elliott, triggering the surge in confidence and the surge in victories that propelled those Flyers from the cellar to, at one point, the top of the Metropolitan Division.
On Wednesday, both Michal Neuvirth and Elliott were on the ice with the team. Elliott doesn't seem close to returning, but Wednesday's waiver of Cal Pickard – whose acquisition was Hextall's last significant move as the team's GM – suggests Neuvirth is, maybe as soon as Saturday's game in Pittsburgh.
Hakstol could get lucky here, especially if Neuvy can not be Neuvy, at least until Elliott returns to full health. At the very least, Wednesday's doings and undoings, which at first seemed to once again signal an impending departure, have instead given him a little life.
Now if he can only transfer that to his team …