Dave Hakstol spent the night before being named the first Kraken coach gathered with his new team’s general manager and CEO watching an NHL semifinal playoff game on television.
Flanked by GM Ron Francis and CEO Tod Leiweke at the latter’s Mercer Island home, Hakstol watched the upstart New York Islanders fight back to beat the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning to force a decisive Game 7. It was just the latest turnabout in a postseason that has seen talented, favored teams outbattled and out-hustled by determined playoff underdogs.
And so it wasn’t a surprise to hear “work ethic” and “resiliency” raised by Hakstol during Thursday’s news conference announcing him as Seattle’s coach. Hakstol’s near-invisible candidacy this past year amid a slew of higher-profile rumored favorites made him seemingly just as unlikely to emerge victorious as some of those unheralded playoff teams.
“There’s different levels of ability,” said Hakstol, 52, an Alberta native who spent parts of four seasons as coach of the Philadelphia Flyers and the past two as an assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs. “There’s the obvious on-ice skills portion that goes into that. But you know, I’m a guy who believes that work ethic is a part of that ability piece. Work ethic is a skill, so that’s a piece of that.
“For me, resiliency — you go through the 82-game schedule and hopefully into a playoff run, resiliency is a huge part of what our team will be about. It’s not always easy. And teams that relish those tough days and want to come back and battle together, those are the teams that will have success.”
Leiweke, speaking at the news conference, called the hiring the latest step in “an episodic journey that took us from the improbable to the probable” and praised Francis for his “methodical” and “thorough” search. Francis and Hakstol will work on hiring the remainder of the coaching staff ahead of the July 21 expansion draft, at which the Kraken will select one player off the rosters of each of 30 other NHL teams except the exempt Vegas Golden Knights.
In an interview after Thursday’s news conference, Hakstol said it’s no fluke the remaining Stanley Cup contenders share work ethic and resiliency traits.
“Competitiveness and work ethic is a huge part of it,” he said. “At playoff time, it’s elevated. That’s pretty evident right away when the puck drops come playoff time. That’s something you work at building in as a staple and a foundation of your team and of your game in order to have a chance at success.”
Hakstol last month was on the receiving end of his most recent team being outworked in the playoffs; his heavily favored Maple Leafs were bested in seven first-round games by a more resilient Montreal Canadiens squad that, like the Islanders, entered Thursday a win from the Stanley Cup Final.
Hakstol’s assistant duties centered on Toronto’s defensive corps, which yielded four goals the first four games of that series before surrendering 10 over three final contests that all ended in defeat.
As the coach here, Hakstol’s ability to get the most out of a Kraken roster with varying skill sets will be paramount.
“It’s critical,” said Francis, who approached Hakstol last summer about the job. “When you look at the expansion draft, teams get to protect their seven best forwards. We’re picking after that.
“They get to protect their top three defensemen, so we’re picking after that. And they get to protect their best goaltender. So we want to get players that we feel have some upside potential. Then you want to get a coach in place that can show those players he believes in them and then try to get the best out of them and give them every opportunity to be the player they want to be.”
Hakstol wasn’t the most prominent among potential Kraken coaches fitting that description. Rumored candidates the past two years — not all of which became available — included Rod Brind’Amour, Gerard Gallant, Rick Tocchet, John Tortorella, Bruce Boudreau, Travis Green, David Quinn, Joel Quenneville and Mike Babcock. Lesser-known candidates included Kevin Dineen and most recently Tony Granato and Joe Sacco.
But Hakstol was the last man standing.
Francis first worked with him in May 2019, before being named the Kraken’s GM and five months after Hakstol was fired by the Flyers. Hakstol was on Team Canada’s coaching staff at the IIHF World Championships in Slovakia, and Francis and former Flyers GM Ron Hextall were assistant general managers of that team under GM Jason Botterill.
Hextall, fired by Philadelphia just days before Hakstol, spoke highly of his former coach to Francis. Botterill now works as an assistant GM under Francis with the Kraken, so Hakstol had a familiar track on that front.
“We spent a couple of hours driving together in the car to go scout a game and a couple of hours back, so we talked there,” Francis said of the overseas tournament. “And then in the early morning in the coach’s office, he was always either there every time I walked in or he came in shortly after. So I got to see firsthand just how hard he worked.”
Francis, who is big on family, got to see Hakstol interact with his wife, Erinn and son, Brenden — both of whom attended Thursday’s conference — and his daughter, Avery.
He got permission from the Maple Leafs to speak to Hakstol last summer amid an initial round of Kraken interviews that included Gallant, among others. Francis continued his coaching search this spring, waiting to see whether additional candidates became available.
Hakstol didn’t breathe a word to the hockey-hungry Toronto media about the Kraken’s interest. Francis invited Hakstol for more interviews, then made his final decision “a couple of days ago” — bypassing some longtime friends such as finalist Tocchet.
“That’s never easy,” Francis said. “I’ve been playing this game a long time, and I’ve got a lot of good friendships.
“You try to be upfront and as honest with everybody that’s involved in the process as possible. Hopefully that doesn’t affect your friendships as you move forward, but at the end of the day it’s my job to hire the guy that I feel gives us the best opportunity to be successful.”
Hakstol never played in the NHL, but the defenseman captained the powerhouse University of North Dakota before a five-year career in the minor pro International Hockey League. He began coaching a United States Hockey League junior team before returning to North Dakota for 11 years as coach. He helped send more than 30 players to the NHL.
In 2015 he joined the Flyers, becoming the first NCAA coach since 1982 to jump to the top job behind an NHL bench.
Hakstol made the playoffs two of three full seasons with the Flyers — getting ousted in the first round — and was fired in December 2018 with his underachieving team languishing. He said he learned plenty from that first NHL go-round he hopes to apply in a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to build an expansion team.
“There’s a different rhythm to the NHL level in almost every realm,” he said. “From the 82-game schedule to the pace of the daily business to on-ice and the pace of the game.”
His work with younger players and with the analytics-minded Flyers and Maple Leafs also checked critical boxes with the Kraken. Hakstol said analytics are “a phenomenal tool” for coaches but added, “this is still a human game — 100% on the ice, it’s played with emotion and passion.
“So the combination of the two are valuable together.”