End to End: Impressions on the Flyers' hiring of Kris Knoblauch

End to End: Impressions on the Flyers' hiring of Kris Knoblauch

Throughout the offseason, we'll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

Going End to End today are CSNPhilly.com producers/reporters Tom Dougherty and Jordan Hall.

The topic: Thoughts on the Flyers hiring Kris Knoblauch to run the power play.

Dougherty
There doesn't appear to be much to dislike about the Knoblauch hire. If we're nitpicking, it would be he has no professional coaching experience, but that's the smallest of nitpicks. Especially when the Flyers' head coach, Dave Hakstol, came directly from the University of North Dakota to the pros without any prior experience. I don't think that's a concern at all.

Knoblauch was considered a high riser in the junior coaching ranks, and we know he was itching to make it to the professional ranks. We just didn't know it would come this quick. In late May, he told the Edmonton Journal that he's "ready to make the step [to pro]." One week after Erie lost to Windsor in the Memorial Cup, Knoblauch has made that leap.

I'm intrigued by the hire for a few reasons. Erie's power play under Knoblauch has been a top-two unit in the OHL for the past four seasons, so he comes with a pedigree. Some may look at the talent he's had to work with — Connor McDavid (2012-15), Andre Burakovsky (2013-14), Dylan Strome (2013-17), Alex DeBrincat (2014-17) — and say it would be hard not to boast a potent power play. But I don't believe it's fair to discount Erie's style of play here.

As eloquently broken down by The First Pass' Rachel Doerrie (h/t Broad Street Hockey), the Otters under Knoblauch played a puck-possession heavy speed game, similar to the Russian brand. "From your icing line to the offensive blue line, the puck goes North/South," Doerrie writes. "From the offensive blue line, move the puck East/West." It'll be interesting to see what changes Knoblauch brings to the Flyers' PP.

But I'm also curious to see if he'll work with Hakstol to implement some of this into the Flyers' play at 5-on-5. I don't see this necessarily as a sign Hakstol is on the hot seat as he enters Year 3 as the Flyers' coach. I do see it, however, as GM Ron Hextall jumping on a hot commodity who he believes can help the Flyers' man advantage and also help develop kids.

Another interesting note: It's Hextall's second coaching hire and both have come outside the organization. That's a welcomed change of pace.

Hall
Most importantly, I think the Flyers needed a fresh face.

Albeit not easy, change is oftentimes necessary. As difficult as it was to part ways with longtime assistant Joey Mullen, Hextall knew it was needed for the Flyers, which is a positive of the GM.

Here's what Hextall said on April 13 when he announced the firing of Mullen:

"It's just one of those things where I feel like we needed a change. He's one of the nicest human beings. Monday was one of the worst days of my life because of it. That was a hard thing to do. Mully's a great guy. I have an awful lot of respect for him. Please do not think that in any way I'm laying anything on him.

"He's a terrific human being, one of my favorite guys in the whole world, but my gut feeling was to make a change there."

From Jan. 15 to the end of the season, the Flyers' power play ranked 28th in the NHL with a 14.6 percentage. And after finishing with the league's third-most successful man advantage in 2014-15, the Flyers slipped to 11th in 2015-16 and 14th in 2016-17. The power play limped to the finish line this season, often looking stale and overly reliant on perimeter passing and shooting.

As Hextall pointed out, this was not all on Mullen. But new personnel and adjusted strategy should be welcomed.

With Knoblauch, the Flyers get a young (38 years old), up-and-coming coach who has been extolled for his ability to strategize, communicate and adapt.

"Connor McDavid was going to go play in the NHL no matter if Kris coached him or not, but he made Connor a better player," hockey agent Jeff Jackson said to The Associated Press. "He teaches a culture of winning and speed and puck movement, but he empowers all the kids."

This was a telling hire by Hextall and it's hard to dislike right now. 

But this is the honeymoon stage of hiring a new coach. Positives are typically flowing the moment the name surfaces, but we'll have to wait and see for the actual results.

'Forward thinker' Kris Knoblauch great fit for Dave Hakstol, Flyers, Erie GM says

'Forward thinker' Kris Knoblauch great fit for Dave Hakstol, Flyers, Erie GM says

When Kris Knoblauch informed Erie Otters' general manager Dave Brown this week he was taking a job with the Flyers, Brown started laughing.

"What's so funny?" Knoblauch asked.  
 
"You just want to go to a team where you look like the head coach," Brown recalled Thursday to CSNPhilly.com.
 
Indeed.

If you place photos of Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol and Knoblauch side-by-side, they could pass as brothers.
 
"They look like twins," Brown said.

The Flyers hired the 38-year-old Knoblauch on Wednesday as Hakstol's assistant coach, replacing Joey Mullen (see story). Knoblauch also met with the Sabres and Kings before accepting his role with the Flyers, according to CSNPhilly.com contributor Dhiren Mahiban.

Knoblauch's focus will be the Flyers' erratic power play, which saw much success during the 10 years Mullen was here but faltered badly in the second half of last season. The Flyers failed to make the playoffs.

Brown has no doubts Knoblauch will fix the Flyers' PP because his unit with the Otters ranked either first or second in the OHL over the last four seasons. Erie became one of the best clubs in junior hockey during this time.

Knoblauch's Otters are the only club in CHL history to have four consecutive 50-win seasons.

"Kris is a forward thinker," Brown said. "He is someone open to a new idea and always looking for new ways to generate offense. He understands his players' wants and needs.
 
"A lot goes into Kris in how he gets them to open up and listen to what he wants them to get done. He talks to them to find out what they think will work … he's not a guy who jams things down your throat. When you make suggestions, he is more likely to listen."
 
Craig Button, a TSN analyst who is familiar with CHL coaches as well as top draft prospects, said Knoblauch represents another move by Flyers general manager Ron Hextall toward progressive thinking.
 
What does Button like best about Knoblauch?

"How about everything," Button said. "Where to start? One, he is smart. He's intuitive. He's a very clear communicator. He understands and knows that things don't always go as planned. He takes responsibility. He doesn't blame.
  
"He's creative and always looking for solutions. He's in control, but collaborative. Knows that others may have a better solution or improvement. He cedes the spotlight. It's never about him.

"He's confident in his abilities and lets actions speak for themselves. He's highly competitive. Don't let his calm demeanor define him. Still, waters run deep."
 
Knoblauch's Western Canada upbringing is in play when dealing with his players.

"He is a teacher by trade and the perfect teacher-turned-coach would be Kris Knoblauch," Brown said. "At first, he comes across pretty quiet.

 "He's that Saskatchewan guy with great core values and always transferring those over to his players to learn, not just what is on the ice but what is off the ice."
 
Knoblauch will be the youngest assistant coach on Hakstol's staff. He's said to have the ability to build strong relationships with young players.

Hextall saw those same attributes in Hakstol when he hired him two years ago.

Yet Hakstol struggled last season in handling some of his younger Flyers. In particular, the multiple benchings of Shayne Gostisbehere and Travis Konecny. Even some of the slightly older veterans didn't like some of Hakstol's moves, as well.

Knoblauch's presence — even as an even younger coach than Hakstol, 48 — allows for another younger voice on the staff to handle players during difficult times.
 
"Kris relates to this generation of player," Button said. "He is absolutely loved by his players, but they also know he will hold them accountable."

Brown added Knoblauch had a knack for figuring out how to handle situations that would arise on some of his teams that included star players such as Connor McDavid, now with the Edmonton Oilers.
 
"Kris has no problem diffusing a situation by having a sit-down meeting with guys and saying, this is what I need from you and spelling out expectations," Brown said.

Erie forward Alex DeBrincat, the Blackhawks' 2016 second-round pick, on Thursday told Mahiban that Knoblauch is his "favorite coach" he's ever had. DeBrincat scored 65 goals and 127 points in 63 games this season for the Otters.

"It's cool to see him get that job. He definitely deserves it," DeBrincat told Mahiban. "He talks to his players a lot. He likes to get to know 'em. I think that really helps him out and helps him kind of feel out whether he should yell at this guy or not."

With that said, DeBrincat, who had 332 points in 191 games in three seasons playing for Knoblauch, says the Flyers' new assistant is a calming presence behind the bench and only yells when needed.

"He's a really calm guy and I think that definitely calms down the bench when something's not going right," DeBrincat said. "You look at him, and if he's frustrated, the guys will get frustrated. He's always calm behind there and just a good guy to have on your bench because he's so calm and it goes throughout the bench."

Knoblauch created detailed player profiles to get inside of a player's makeup to figure out how they could maximize their potential without setting unrealistic expectations.
 
"Kris sets very attainable goals," Brown said. "What he was so good at here was setting realistic expectations, which built confidence. That is where he excels."
 
One area in which he will be tested immediately is gaining acceptance by the Flyers' older veterans. As with Hakstol, Knoblauch never played in NHL nor held an NHL job of any kind.
 
"That may be a hurdle at first," Brown said. "Building trust with your players first and foremost is critical and he is very big at doing that. Once that happens, a lot of hurdles he would face will be eliminated for Kris."

End to End: Evaluating Dave Hakstol's 2nd season as Flyers' head coach

End to End: Evaluating Dave Hakstol's 2nd season as Flyers' head coach

Throughout the offseason, we'll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

Going End to End today are CSNPhilly.com producers/reporters Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.

The topic: Evaluating Dave Hakstol's second season as the Flyers' head coach.

Dougherty
I wrote in this space before last season began that Hakstol proved he was the right pick as the Flyers' coach after his first campaign behind the bench … and I still believe that. But the leash is shorter than I expected it to be. I don't believe it's fair to cast judgments on Hakstol based strictly on the Flyers' performance in 2016-17. That would be a rash decision that is uncharacteristic of general manager Ron Hextall's managing style.

With that said, the Flyers did take a step back in 2016-17. It would be naive of anyone not to admit that. It is fair to factor Hakstol's second season as coach and look at it from a broader view, however. In Year 1, there were a lot of positive signs. He guided a team lacking playoff talent to a postseason appearance by implementing a system that largely is effective at the NHL level.

In Year 2, however, there were several decisions that should signal alarm. I did not like the way Hakstol handled the goaltenders, and I believe that had he realized Steve Mason was the No. 1 earlier than he did, the Flyers would have made the playoffs. After his exit interview, Mason said Hakstol agreed with the goalie that once he figured out who the clear-cut No. 1 was, things started going better for the Flyers. Mason was right.

Then there were the bewildering lineup decisions. I don't have as much of an issue with the benchings of Shayne Gostisbehere and Travis Konecny. I thought some of those were warranted, and both players appeared to learn from them. I think that is more of a testament to Gostisbehere and Konecny than anything else.

What bothered me about Hakstol's lineup decisions was his unwillingness to scratch Chris VandeVelde, the misuse of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and not dressing the best group of players on a nightly basis. Hakstol refused to sit VandeVelde. He played 81 games and was scratched only in the final game to give Mike Vecchione another game. The good news is VandeVelde is an unrestricted free agent, and there is little reason to believe Hextall will re-sign him this summer.

VandeVelde is a fringe NHL player. He doesn't score. He spends most of his ice time in his own end — and not because he's an excellent defensive forward. VandeVelde and Bellemare had the worst Corsi numbers on the team out of players who were here all season — 46.6 percent for Bellemare and 46.3 for VandeVelde. I doubt VandeVelde would crack a lineup on any other team. The decision to dress him on a nightly basis raises some concern about Hakstol. Because of Hakstol's unwillingness to sit VandeVelde — and Bellemare, too, though I do believe he brings more to the table than VandeVelde — the Flyers often didn't dress their best possible lineup on a nightly basis. Nick Cousins and Dale Weise were healthy scratches throughout the campaign. Both bring more to the table than VandeVelde and Bellemare.

Looking at Hakstol from a broader view, however, I think he deserves another season as the Flyers' coach — and he will get it. (He's not going anywhere anytime soon.) I think next season, when more young blood and talent are injected into the roster, is the one we can truly look at and say whether he's the right choice for the job. I think there was enough good in Year 1 to buy him a Year 3.

Hall
Hakstol's second NHL season was certainly no cakewalk.

As the Flyers took a step back and missed the playoffs, he faced the pressure and skepticism — and the coach typically does in the NHL.

Some questioned his system, whether it restricted creativity as the Flyers turned defensive.

Some questioned his lineup decisions as he benched a handful of players, most notably Gostisbehere and Konecny for multiple games.

Some questioned why he didn't sit others.

And some questioned his handling of the goalies — Mason being one of them at his end-of-the-season press conference.

The questions were valid, too.

But inevitably, Hakstol was going to face some growing pains. The transition from college to the NHL wasn't going to be all smooth sailing. Just like young players, Hakstol is still growing himself.

But can he better communicate and explain decisions?

Can he be more transparent with his players?

Should he put greater focus on accentuating their strengths?

I think Hakstol — who really knows the game — needs to improve in those areas.

Either way, Year 3 should be a telling season. With that said, this is Hextall's guy and the GM will be patient with him no matter how impatient outsiders become.

Paone
Much like his team did, Hakstol had his ups and downs during his second season as the Flyers' head coach.

Much like he did at the end of 2015-16, he pushed almost all the right buttons for the Flyers, especially during the 10-game win streak. But as teams started to adjust to the Flyers, the Flyers had issues adjusting themselves. And that goes back to Hakstol and his staff.

Let's take the power play, for example. The Flyers' power play was downright lethal at the start of the year, consistently at or near the top of the rankings. But teams adjusted to it, and the Flyers did not as they kept Claude Giroux along the half-wall and Gostisbehere at the point (when he was in the lineup) and let it run through them. Teams began to key in on it, things got stale and the power play plummeted. Likely hence the reason for Joey Mullen's dismissal at the end of the year. While Mullen ran the power play, it's still up to Hakstol to call for changes. The adjustments weren't made.

And there's where the main criticism of Hakstol lies — adjustments, or maybe calling for the wrong ones. Yes, I'm talking about pulling Gostisbehere and Konecny out of the lineup for prolonged periods of time.

Konecny, a 19-year-old rookie when the season began last year, is obviously young. But remember, despite all the accolades Gostisbehere rightfully earned as a rookie, he was still just 23 last season. And was recovering from offseason hip surgery. And was now a main target for opposing teams.

When the Flyers went downhill, Hakstol wanted both to be more responsible defensively. And I get that. It's obviously a huge part of the game.

But when you have such dynamic offensive talents the likes of Gostisbehere and Konecny, you have to let them play the way that lets them be at their best. If that means some risky freewheeling, then so be it. You've got to take the good with the bad, especially with the goal-scoring struggles the Flyers endured last season. When you have these kinds of guys, especially Gostisbehere on the blue line who can be a firecracker, you've got to let them play the way that lets them fully use their talents (see: Karlsson, Erik — I know that's a lofty comparison, but he didn't get to be a two-time Norris Trophy winner and one of the best players in the world by having his coaches try to mold him into a stay-at-home defender during his early years in the NHL).

Plus, with young players, you have to know there are going to be mistakes. Especially in Konecny's case. I'm a big believer that a young player needs to learn from his mistakes right back out on the ice, and not up in the press box consistently. A game here and there is fine to set a guy's head straight, but not for prolonged periods of time.

So what would I like to see more of in Year 3 from Hakstol? More awareness for adjustments, both with players individually and as a team. It's obviously much easier said than done.