Paul Holmgren sat down with Dave Hakstol for a strange and uncomfortable meeting Monday, to deliver the news that the Flyers had fired Ron Hextall as their general manager. It had to be a shock to Hakstol's system to learn that the man who had hired him to his first NHL job, who had championed him as the coach to shepherd the Flyers through a lengthy and oft-difficult rebuilding process, had lost his job for doing what he had said he would do: sticking to that process. Yes, it had to be some kind of jolt to Hakstol, but it should have been clarifying, too.
"All I could offer to Dave was my support," said Holmgren, the Flyers president. "I said, 'If there's anything I can do to help you do your job better, please feel free to come to me and talk about it.' We talked a little bit about his staff moving forward. He knows. The players know. The coaches know. We all know. It's about winning, and we haven't been winning enough games lately."
Sometimes, the punch you never see coming knocks you out. Sometimes, it wakes you up. Welcome, then, to what should be the most liberating moment in Dave Hakstol's hockey life. If losing his most enthusiastic and powerful advocate within the organization would seem at first to create an untenable situation for him, it should instead give him a purity of purpose. Under Hextall, and for Hakstol's first 3½ seasons as their head coach, the Flyers were rebuilding, but not completely. A full-fledged tank would have cost Comcast Spectacor too much of that precious playoff-gate revenue, and Hextall's abrupt firing, two days after an embarrassing 6-0 loss in Toronto to the Maple Leafs, made it plain: There was only so much patience and bottoming-out that Holmgren and Dave Scott, Comcast Spectacor's chairman and CEO, were willing to tolerate.
Hextall's mission wasn't muddled, but the franchise's was. So, in turn, was Hakstol's. During a July interview at his family's home in Grand Forks, N.D., he put the challenge he faced in its starkest terms by contrasting two of his coaching decisions: moving Claude Giroux from center to left wing before last season and benching Shayne Gostisbhere in November 2016.
>> READ MORE: Hits and misses in Ron Hextall's era as GM
"What is best for our team? That's No. 1," he said. "Now, those two examples, one of them is, what's right for our team now? The other one is, what's right for our team developmentally? You're talking about Ghost as a young player. Those aren't easy decisions at all. Yet I believe it's the right thing for him and the team in the long run. We're not trying to be pretty good today. We're trying to be great when we get there."
For however long he remains the Flyers' head coach – "I hate to say Dave Hakstol's fate is in the next GM's hands," Holmgren said, "but it is" – Hakstol shouldn't again pause to weigh the present against the distant future. In firing Hextall, the Flyers did what they've done so many times throughout their history, throughout a tradition that has led to 43 years without a Stanley Cup. They opted for the short term. They decided that excelling now was more important than excelling later – even, perhaps, for a longer period of time. Hextall stood in the way. They removed him.
Often, they have perceived their head coach to be that obstacle. But Holmgren and Scott, based on what they said Tuesday, believe that Hakstol merely needs a better team to succeed: a stable goaltending situation, more overall tenacity on the roster, some alchemic formula that would allow this particular group of players to reach its potential.
There had been some speculation that Holmgren and Scott must have ordered Hextall to fire Hakstol, and that Hextall's refusal to do so led to his dismissal. But that conjecture never made sense – why, then, wasn't Hakstol fired, too? – and Holmgren denied it Tuesday. He and Scott never did get down into the details of the "philosophical differences" that led to Hextall's outster, but this much, we know: They did not view Hakstol as the team's primary problem. If anything, they believed he'd been dealt a bad hand.
"I like Hak," Holmgren said. "I think he's a good coach. I hope the new GM gives him a fair shot because I think he deserves that. He's done a decent job with the circumstances he's coached under."
No more growth or development to worry about, then. No more fear that Hakstol might impede the maturation of Nolan Patrick or Ivan Provorov or that he might isolate Giroux or Jake Voracek by asking more from a pair of stars who haven't accomplished all that much. The Flyers' new GM is all but certain to hire his own coach, but that doesn't mean Hakstol has everything to lose here. He coached the Flyers to two playoff berths during a half-hearted tear-down job, and his performance was impressive enough to inspire two other NHL teams, the New York Rangers with David Quinn and the Dallas Stars with Jim Montgomery, to make the unorthodox choice that Hextall made, to pluck a head coach out of the college ranks. Hakstol knows the score, and he has more leverage and respect around the league than you might think.
>> READ MORE: Coaching staff remains for now