Hakstol Emphasizes ‘long Haul' After Successful 1st Season

VOORHEES, N.J. -- When Dave Hakstol was asked to reflect on his first NHL season just hours after his team had been eliminated from the first round of the playoffs, he said he needed a few days to digest and reflect.

That he was saying so into a microphone in an area converted from a staff and media dining room to a press conference facility due to the amount of reporters and cameras that come with the playoffs was an answer in itself. Those who ranked the playoff chances of the rookie coach and his rebuilding team before the season started were wrong.

So it went without saying that his first year was a success.

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But Hakstol had his few days to ponder. The former North Dakota coach met with the media Wednesday, one day after his players had their exit interviews and on the same day his boss and boss's boss gave their season-ending remarks in public.

And one thing Hakstol made clear: It's still a bit too early to judge his success and the way he established trust within his locker room since the day he was hired, May 18 of last year.

"We're still pretty early into this thing," Hakstol said. "When you really add everything up, we're 11 months in. I think trust, work levels, production, I think those are all things that you prove over the long haul. A couple of meetings in the summer all the way through the first 10 or 11 months, that's not the long haul in my opinion. That's a good starting point. If I'm going to sum up our season, I think we pushed ourselves in the right direction, but we have an awful lot of work to do and a long ways to go from here, and that's going to take the long haul."

The long-haul focus is one being preached by his boss, general manager Ron Hextall. The Flyers aren't wavering from that process, despite the unexpected - at least externally - playoff berth.

But it's obvious Hakstol struck a chord within the locker room. His players had high praise for him Tuesday when they had their end-of-year meetings with their coach and general manager.

It took time, though.

The Flyers limped out of the gate and had a stretch of play in Western Canada in early November that Pierre-Edouard Bellemare called "horrific." His coach agreed with the phrase. It took until about Jan. 5, Hakstol said, when he finally saw his new system running at a high level on a consistent basis.

Then, Hakstol said, they were an "everyday team." And he said some of the early-season struggles could be attributed to the newness of the systems and his coaching style.

"It just took some time," said winger Ryan White, an unrestricted free agent who's hoping to remain in the organization. "You go from playing a system your whole life and it's pretty much all you know, it's like the back of your hand. You go out there and you don't even think anymore, you just go out there and you play. He changed a few things this year for the better and I think it just took a lot of us time just to comprehend everything. When someone tells you to do something and you don't necessarily see in your own mind why, I think you are kind of stuck between your old habits and trying to do what he wants you to do.

"And then once you realize, 'OK, this is going to work and we all do this together this is going to work,' I think that was a big step where we all started to commit to it and do whatever we needed to do to make sure we understood what the system was. I think as the season went on we just got better and better at it and it just became your second nature again, and I think it was something we can rely on and when things weren't going that well we could always go back to our system and almost start from square one and keep ourselves in the game."

After that Jan. 5 date, when the Flyers were just a game above .500, they finished the season 25-12-7, earning a spot in the playoffs in the last weekend of the season.

But Hextall said it doesn't change anything when he evaluates the first season under Hakstol and what it means as to where his club stands on his timeline of rebuilding. He's always talked about looking at the bigger picture and not segmenting things.

The culture, though, is in place.

"I'll be honest with you after talking with the guys yesterday, I think our guys are really on board [with Hakstol]," Hextall said. "I think our guys have a better understanding of the sacrifice and the hard work that it takes to get the most out of yourself and collectively as a team. There's talk about leadership, accountability from within the group that we haven't seen in the past. So I think we've seen a lot of growth. Like I said, I'm not going to throw rose petals out here because we made the playoffs and we got out in the first round. We're the Flyers and we have high expectations, and we expect to be better next year."

Whether they're better or not, the foundation for future success is in place with their head coach. No matter where along that long-haul process they are come October.

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