Today the Seattle Kraken named Dave Hakstol as the first head coach in the history of the franchise. The hire is the culmination of a long coaching search that reportedly spanned as far back as 2019. Kraken General Manager Ron Francis stated multiple times that the team was going to conduct as thorough a coaching search as possible, wanting to consider all candidates that might potentially become available. The Kraken did just that, waiting until less than a month before the expansion draft to make the call.
With his trademark secrecy, Francis kept us all guessing who would be the coach until the last minute. As big-name candidates like Travis Green, Gerard Gallant, and Rod Brind’Amour were either re-signed by their teams or signed elsewhere, the list of potential candidates narrowed, with Rick Tocchet appearing to have the inside track. But Francis threw one final curveball, as Hakstol’s name emerged as the frontrunner for the job about 30 minutes before the official announcement was made.
While not the flashy, big name hire some fans were hoping for, Hakstol gives the Kraken a well-respected leader who makes sense for the organization in a lot of ways. Most importantly, Hakstol will be fully on board with the organizational mindset, a factor whose value to the Kraken was demonstrated by their lack of serious interest in Gallant. The Kraken are big believers in the importance of analytics. Ron Francis even mentioned in today’s press conference that questions about analytics were part of the Kraken’s process to make their final coaching decision. Hakstol echoed the organizational sentiment, saying “Analytics is a phenomenal tool for us as coaches to evaluate, to discover, and to find different avenues to improve our team.” Francis, who has used his prior connections to make numerous hires for the Kraken so far, worked with Hakstol for Team Canada during the 2019 World Championship. Francis said that at the World Championship he “got to know [Hakstol] as a person and watch his work ethic and how he operated and sort of building that respect for what he can do.” Hakstol also fulfills the prerequisite of having prior experience an an NHL head coach. In an April press conference, Francis said, “In a perfect world, I’d like a head coach who’s been in that role before.”
Hakstol initially rose to prominence coaching in the college ranks as head coach at the University of North Dakota for 11 years. In his highly successful tenure at UND, Hakstol led the team to seven NCAA Frozen Four appearances, won two conference coach of the year awards, and was an eight-time finalist for national coach of the year. Hakstol’s success at the college level earned him the rare opportunity to move to a head coaching position in the NHL. When he joined the Philadelphia Flyers in 2015, Hakstol was the first head coach to go directly from the NCAA to the NHL since 1982. Despite the promise of a historic career move, Hakstol’s tenure in Philadelphia was underwhelming. Although the Flyers made the playoffs twice in Hakstol’s first three seasons as coach, they never advanced past the first round of the playoffs. Hakstol was fired in December 2018, finishing his Flyers tenure with a 134-101-42 record. Hakstol would then join the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2019 as an assistant coach. In charge of the Leafs’ defense and penalty kill, Hakstol oversaw great improvements in those areas over the last two seasons.
Looking at Hakstol’s track record gives a clear picture of his greatest asset as a coach: player development. Throughout his career, Hakstol has consistently been able to develop young players into NHL difference makers. At North Dakota, Hakstol’s program had many distinguished NHL alumni including Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie, Travis Zajac, and Brock Boeser. With the Flyers, Hakstol helped develop Sean Couturier into a future Selke winner while getting the best out of core players Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Shayne Gostisbehere. In Toronto, Hakstol was tasked with focusing on two specific aspects of the Leafs’ game and improved them dramatically in his time with the team. Wherever he’s gone, Hakstol has made the players he’s coached better.
When evaluating coaches, it’s tempting to simply look at wins and losses, but that only tells part of the story. Player development and communication is equally important. In fact, when looking at how Ron Francis handled the coaching search, the argument could be made that Francis believes it’s more important. At every turn, Francis seemed to prioritize development and communication over a winning track record as an NHL head coach. Francis reportedly had little interest in the big names with extensive winning pedigrees like Gerard Gallant, John Tortorella, and Mike Babcock. He instead chose to focus on coaches like Rick Tocchet and Dave Hakstol, who despite less than stellar records, are highly-regarded for their ability to communicate with and develop players.
Ron Francis knows that the Kraken are going to be a young team. The Hakstol hire shows that Francis believes the Kraken’s most important priority is ensuring that their young core of players develop and improve in the team’s first few seasons. Francis used the term “sustainable success” in today’s press conference. While Hakstol wasn’t the biggest name out there, his track record shows that he’s the kind of coach that can lay the foundation for sustainable success. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the Ron Francis struck out in his coaching search. It’s clear that in Hakstol, he got exactly what he was looking for.