When the Philadelphia Flyers fired Dave Hakstol earlier this season the immediate speculation was that Joel Quenneville, who had been fired by the Chicago Blackhawks just weeks earlier, was going to be the eventual long-term replacement.
That speculation existed because, well, it just made a ton of sense.
Quenneville is a Hall of Fame coach, an all-time great behind the bench, and the Flyers’ job is one that should be an attractive one for a coach of that caliber, especially given the talent they still have at the top of the roster.
For whatever reason, whether it was from the Flyers’ side, or Quenneville’s reluctance to jump back into a job this season, or a combination of the two, the Flyers instead went in an interim direction with Scott Gordon, their AHL coach, whose future with the team after this season remains highly uncertain.
But should the Flyers consider removing the interim tag from him and making him their next full-time head coach?
The team’s performance in the win column has certainly given management reason to at least consider that.
Since Gordon took over the Flyers have compiled a 20-12-4 record, including a rather impressive 17-6-2 run over their previous 25 games. Overall, they have played at a 100-point pace under Gordon, which would almost certainly be good enough to make the playoffs in any season assuming they maintained that over 82 games. But that is far from a guarantee, especially when you dig down below just the wins and losses.
The results matter in the short-term, but the process behind those results is what matters in the long-term.
How much of this success is due to something Gordon has done as a coach? And how much of it is due to the circumstances he has dealt with versus what Hakstol had to deal with? The biggest chance in circumstances, of course, being the goalie.
First, some numbers.
The table below features the Flyers’ overall team performance this season under each coach, looking at Corsi percentage, scoring chance differential, goal differential, power play percentage, penalty kill percentage, and save percentage.
The shocking thing here is that at 5-on-5 the Flyers were actually a better team under Hakstol than they have been under Gordon. They controlled shot attempts better, they controlled scoring chances better, they were better when it came to goals. They deserved a better record than they had. The two things crushing the Flyers early in the season were quite obviously their special teams and their goaltending.
The special teams have definitely spiked under Gordon, which is important, but the biggest factor in the Flyers’ change in fortune has been the improved play of the goalies, specifically as it relates to the arrival of rookie sensation Carter Hart.
What would the Flyers’ season have looked like at the beginning had the Hakstol coached team received the caliber of goaltending that the Gordon coached team has received? Obviously there would have still been flaws on the special teams, but goaltending masks a lot of flaws (including on the penalty kill). That’s obviously a huge “what if question” that we will never know the answer to, but for the sake of being objective when analyzing what the Flyers’ should be doing behind the bench we need to find the biggest factor in their late-season turn around, and goaltending is right at the top of that list.
The thing about the Flyers under Gordon is they have, in a lot of ways, been the exact same team they have been the past few years — A mostly flawed, yet still talented team that is prone to wild streaks in both directions. At one point under Gordon they lost eight games in a row. Then a week later they started what would go on to be an eight-game winning streak that looked like it might be enough to get them back into playoff contention (ultimately, it was not). This is what the Flyers have done in each of the past few seasons and the result at the end is always the same, a mostly mediocre team that either misses the playoffs or loses in the first round if it gets in.
That is not good enough for what the expectations are in Philadelphia.
That is also what the Flyers have to weigh when assessing Gordon’s future.
The problem for Gordon is that every piece of objective evidence points to this recent success simply being the result of one of the Flyers’ patented random hot streaks and the emergence of a potential franchise goalie.
The other problem for Gordon is the reality that there is still a Hall of Fame coach sitting out there without a team right now, and it is not very often that you get a chance to hire a coach like that. When that coach is available, and when you’re a team like the Flyers in a major market, it is a shot you pretty much have to take.
The Flyers’ season has turned around dramatically under their interim coach. But that may not be enough to keep him behind the bench next season, especially if the Flyers decide to go after the one big name that is still sitting out there.
As they 100 percent should.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.