Hextall made a ‘gut decision’ on Hakstol, and so far it’s paid off

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This is part of Philadelphia Flyers day on PHT…

There were plenty of questions after Philadelphia named Dave Hakstol head coach last May, but one question was more prevalent than the rest:

“Who?”

OK, maybe Hakstol didn’t come out of nowhere — he’d spent the previous 11 years at NCAA powerhouse North Dakota — but he certainly wasn’t a household name. Far from it.

What’s more, he got the job despite having no previous NHL coaching experience, with the names of regarded veterans like Mike Babcock, Dan Bylsma and Peter DeBoer being bandied about.

No matter, explained GM Ron Hextall.

“In the end,” said Hextall, “when you’re making decisions like this, you take all the information, you process it — and it was a process — and you weed through it, and you make a decision with your gut.

“This was a gut decision, and I feel extremely comfortable with it.”

After Hakstol’s first year on the job, that gut decision seems to have paid off.

One of the biggest perceived strengths, as you’d expect from someone with such experience at the collegiate level, is an ability to work with young players. At his introductory presser, Hakstol said he had “an awful lot of confidence in terms of knowing the game well,” adding that he knew “how to relate and communicate with players.”

On that note, consider:

Shayne Gostisbehere, 23, burst onto the scene, emerging as one of the league’s best young offensive d-men. In an NHL where high-risk plays — especially by blueliners — can be eschewed by coaches in favor of high-percentage ones, Hakstol embraced Gostisbehere’s “attack mentality,” saying he wanted him in “high-risk mode.”

— Since coming to the Flyers in 2011, Brayden Schenn played under Peter Laviolette and Craig Berube. Schenn’s production and role under both were decent, but the 24-year-old really came into his own this season, scoring a career-high 26 goals and 59 points.

In November, something interesting happened.

Hakstol parked Schenn as a healthy scratch for a game against the ‘Canes, but never spoke to Schenn prior to making the decision. The lack of explanation was strange, and so too was Schenn missing a game, given he’d played all 82 in each of the past two seasons.

If the move was intentional, it worked. Schenn admitted it “put a fire” in his belly, and responded with the best year of his career.

— Hakstol also oversaw the integration of two of Philly’s better young forward prospects. Scott Laughton, the 20th overall pick in 2012, posted career highs games played, goals and points. The 22-year-old also made his Stanley Cup playoff debut. Nick Cousins, 23, scored 11 points in 47 games and appeared in all six playoff contests, averaging close to 11 minutes per night.

In terms of big picture, it sure seems like Hakstol was hired to partly replicate what he did at UND, the whole “build a program” philosophy. Schenn, Laughton, Cousins and Sean Couturier are part of an under-24 forward group that will eventually include ’15 first-rounder Travis Konecny.

On defense, Gostisbehere is just part of the tantalizing young group Flyers fans salivate over.

Hakstol will be the guy to oversee this whole thing, which may be why Hextall wasn’t overly concerned about the lack of big-league experience upon hiring him.

“I had a list of things that I wanted from a head coach, and went down this checklist in my mind,” Hextall said at the time. “Every box was checked except for the NHL experience.

“And, quite frankly, for me, that was the one that was the least important.”

Guess it pays to listen to your gut.