Top Shelf: Hextall trusts 'gut' in choosing Hakstol

Philadelphia, PA ( - Convincing Philadelphia Flyers fans that team chairman Ed Snider isn't the guy calling the shots for their beloved club is no easy task.

By hiring Dave Hakstol from the collegiate ranks to become the franchise's new head coach, general manager Ron Hextall assured the public on Monday that he's the man in charge.

Snider, a Hockey Hall of Famer, is the larger-than-life figure who has been at the center of Philadelphia hockey since the Flyers came into existence in the late 1960s. His vision translated to tremendous success in the early years, but since winning consecutive Stanley Cups in 1974 and '75, the franchise hasn't won it all again. Snider's nostalgia for the old days and his penchant for filling out his front office and coaching ranks with ex-Flyers is something he's been criticized for in recent decades.

Hextall, of course, is a former star goaltender for the Flyers, but he is doing his best to ensure Philadelphians that he isn't Snider's puppet. The shocking hire of Hakstol is the clearest sign yet that the GM is his own man, one who learned more about how to be a NHL executive during his time as an assistant GM in Los Angeles than during his initial run as a scout for the Flyers.

Paul Holmgren, Hextall's predecessor as Flyers GM, hired Craig Berube to be the head coach after Philly fired Peter Laviolette early into the 2013-14 season. Whether it's true or not, Snider was perceived to be the driving force behind that coaching change, which installed Berube, a former Flyers enforcer and fan favorite, as a first-time NHL head coach.

While Berube was seen as a typical Flyers move, Hextall's decision to hire Hakstol is a clear break with the past.

Hakstol is well known in the world of NCAA hockey, where he's spent the last 11 seasons overseeing a powerhouse program at North Dakota. Despite leading UND to seven Frozen Four appearances, the 46-year-old wasn't a name popping up as a potential NHL head coach candidate.

In fact, Hakstol is the first coach to make the jump from the NCAA to the NHL without any previous NHL experience since Bob Johnson went from Wisconsin to the Calgary Flames in 1982.

The choice is even more surprising considering the other big names available on the coaching marker. Mike Babcock, Dan Bylsma and Todd McLellan are just a few of the guys who have had varying degrees of success behind an NHL bench and would be considered less-riskier options than Hakstol.

The Flyers GM has a personal connection to Hakstol, who coached Hextall's son, Brett, at UND. That situation allowed Hextall to get a closer look at how Hakstol goes about his business and he was obviously impressed enough to offer him the reins to a Flyers team which is in the middle of a rebuilding period after missing the playoffs in two of the last three seasons.

"This was a gut decision, and I feel extremely comfortable with it," Hextall said of the hiring.

Hextall is going with his gut in terms of trusting Hakstol as a person and a coach, but he also could be on the cutting edge by reaching into the NCAA to find a coach. NHL teams have plucked coaches from Canadian juniors in recent years, and considering the way the NCAA hockey has seen its reputation grow in stature when compared to the likes of the OHL, QMJHL and WHL, it was really only a matter of time before somebody hired a bench boss from the collegiate ranks.

At a press conference to introduce Hakstol on Monday, both the new coach and the GM acknowledged making the transition from college to the NHL could prove difficult.

"Does Dave have things to learn? Absolutely. He'll be the first to admit it," Hextall said.

During his time at UND, Hakstol played a role in developing some kids who turned out to be standout NHL players. Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is foremost on that list, which also includes T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues.

But just because he coached guys at 18 or 19 who would eventually become NHL stars doesn't mean he'll be able to relate to the grown men on the Flyers roster. It may help Hakstol that he is replacing a coach in Berube who clashed with some of his players, including veteran forward Vincent Lecavalier.

"Certainly, the fact that I do not have experience at this level, I'm not going to pretend that I do," Hakstol said. "But I do have an awful lot of confidence in terms of knowing the game well, knowing how to relate and communicate with players."

As a player, Hextall saw the game differently than other goaltenders of his generation. He is given credit by some for revolutionizing the game by being one of the first goalies to use his stickhandling skills to add another dimension to his team's offense. He also seemed to enjoy the physical aspects of the game more than his pad-wearing contemporaries.

As a GM, it appears Hextall is still keen on marching to his own tune. With the hiring of Hakstol, he may be setting a new trend for other GMs to follow, or the bold move could just as easily blow up in his face.

No matter how it turns out in the end, it should be comforting to Flyers fans that Hextall is being allowed to put his unique stamp on the franchise just like he did on the position he played during an NHL career.

Hextall was an iconoclast as a player and he is treading a similar path as a GM. He prided himself on being a different kind of NHL goaltender and wants to do the same things in the front office.

"I wasn't going to choose the coach that was the people's choice. The popular choice," Hextall remarked.