Dave Hakstol is headed back behind an NHL bench, joining the Maple Leafs’ coaching staff as an assistant under head coach Mike Babcock.
The appointment came down from the Leafs on Saturday, six months after Hakstol was fired as head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers on Dec. 18, 2018 in the midst of that team’s 12-15-4 start. He now joins former Florida Panthers assistant Paul McFarland in rounding out Babcock’s crew for the upcoming season.
“I’m excited to have the opportunity to join the Maple Leafs coaching staff,” said Hakstol, via the Leafs' press release. “I look forward to building relationships with the players and getting to work with the entire group.”
Toronto had been in search of its second assistant coach for over a month, having parted ways with both its former assistants D.J. Smith (now head coach of the Ottawa Senators) and Jim Hiller (an assistant coach with the New York Islanders) in late spring. The Leafs announced McFarland’s hiring on May 23 - the same day Smith was announced as the Senators’ coach - and Babcock continued meeting with potential candidates to fill the second vacancy.
In the end, Toronto landed on Hakstol, offering him a second chance at an NHL coaching job. A former defenceman, Hakstol played three seasons at North Dakota from 1989-1992, and then spent five seasons between the International Hockey League’s Indianapolis Ice and Minnesota Moose.
By 1996, Hakstol had retired to coaching, taking over as head coach of the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers. After four years there, Hakstol returned to his alma mater, the University of North Dakota, as an assistant coach in 2000 and became head coach of the squad in 2004.
Over 11 years in that role, Hakstol took the Fighting Sioux to seven NCAA Frozen Fours, won conference coach of the year in 2009 and 2015 and was a finalist for national coach of the year eight times.
Despite that success, it was still a bit curious when then-Flyers GM Ron Hextall tapped Hakstol to take over the Flyers’ bench. The Alberta native was still a relatively unknown commodity, one who hadn’t played or coached at the pro level before, and he walked into a turbulent tenure with the Flyers.
Hakstol lasted only three full seasons in Philadelphia, making the playoffs twice but never advancing past the first round. His best campaign was in 2017-18, when the Flyers finished with 98 points (42-26-14). Hakstol would later be fired three weeks after Hextall was let go by the Flyers with a 134-101-42 coaching record in the NHL.
Not content to stay idle after being let go, Hakstol participated in an exchange set up by the NHL Coaches’Association, spending a week with Team Sweden in February as it prepared for the Beijer Hockey Games.
“We are coaches and we coach. It is our lives,” Hakstol told Swedish outlet Hockeysverige. “I wanted to find different opportunities to socialize and be with different people and different coaches, see different things and different ideas.”
Now that he’s back in the game, Hakstol’s new position will likely be focused on improving a Leafs’ defence that gave up the 12th most goals-against per game in the NHL last season (3.04), while McFarland works with Toronto’s forwards and on its power play.
The two new colleagues arrive with the Leafs at disparate points in their careers, Hakstol a 50-year-old veteran with two decades of coaching experience next to the 33-year-old McFarland, who didn’t take on his first coaching job until 2012. But it's exactly that mix of experience and creativity Toronto needs to guide its young team, one on the cusp of coming into its own and aiming to compete for championships.