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The highlights of Ron Hextall's first year as Flyers general manager

Including some great trades and an excellent first draft.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, we talked a bit in general terms about Ron Hextall's first year as GM of the Flyers, and what we think the scale is on which he should be evaluated for his work this past year.

In short, I said in that piece that I'm less concerned about what Hextall's moves to date mean for the Flyers in the short-term, and more for what they say about what his mindset and tendencies may be in the long run and whether or not he'll be able to successfully carry out the plan that he's got in mind to get the Flyers back into contention.

Essentially, it boils down to the following three questions:

  1. Can Hextall and Snider stick to their plan with no speedbumps?
  2. Can Hextall make the right personnel decisions to ensure that his plan will actually work out?
  3. What do Hextall's decisions this year tell us about his ability to do those first two things correctly?

With that, we'll take today and tomorrow and look at the highlights and lowlights of Hextall's year.

Today, we'll take the glass-half-full approach, and look at the things Ron Hextall has done this year that lead us to think that he is the right guy to lead this team.

Finding value in small signings

Let's start by looking at every signing that Hextall has made that even remotely affected the team at the NHL level. You can see a table with each one below, including the terms of each.

Date Player Terms Final Year
6/11/2014 Pierre-Edouard Bellemare 1 year; $600,000 2015
6/13/2014 Kimmo Timonen 1 year; $2 million 2015
6/23/2014 Brayden Schenn 2 years; $5 million 2016
7/1/2014 Blair Jones 1 year; $600,000 2015
7/1/2014 Rob Zepp 1 year; $600,000 2015
7/1/2014 Ray Emery 1 year; $1 million 2015
7/2/2014 Nick Schultz 1 year; $1.25 million 2015
7/4/2014 Chris VandeVelde 1 year; $575,000 2015
8/5/2014 Michael Del Zotto 1 year; $1.3 million 2015
8/7/2014 Ryan White 1 year; $575,000 2015
9/2/2014 Zac Rinaldo 2 years; $1.7 million 2017
10/30/2014 Carlo Colaiacovo 1 year; $625,000 2015
2/18/2015 Nick Schultz 2 years; $4.5 million 2017
3/2/2015 Pierre-Edouard Bellemare 2 years; $1.425 million 2017
4/10/2015 Brandon Manning 1 year, $625,000 2016

There's a fairly obvious trend here among all of these deals: they're short, and they aren't for much money. None of the 15 NHL contracts listed above were for more than two years or $2.5 million in salary cap hit, and the majority were just one year. The obvious benefit of these deals is that they don't wrap up much at all in terms of commitment, either in the short- or long-term.

And the idea here is that if you can't fill out the bottom of your roster with prospects or young players, you go out and find guys who can be signed for cheap, contribute above their pay grade, and bring some upside to the table. A number of these signings did that.

Take the deals he's made for defensemen, for example. Nick Schultz, Michael Del Zotto, and Carlo Colaiacovo all provided returns much greater than expected on one-year deals. Schultz was supposed to be a seventh defenseman rounding out the roster, and Del Zotto and Colaiacovo were signed to fill in following injuries to Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn, respectively.

Yet if you're ranking the play every Flyers defenseman this year, all three of those guys are probably somewhere in your top five. While that may say more about the current state of the Flyers' defense than it does those guys themselves, the hope is that Hextall saw the impact that those guys brought in on short-term, low-money deals and finds that to be a better way to round out the bottom of the roster than by giving sizeable contracts to third-pair defensemen.

The same kind of thing applies for some of the forwards on that list. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde, and Ryan White were all brought in on one-year deals and were competent fourth-liners who were slotted in on special teams and could be asked to bump up a line in a pinch. If you don't have prospects, these are the kinds of deals you can make that can give your depth a boost.

And on the flip side? No elephantine contracts handed out to anyone, either in or out of the organization. Hextall has mentioned before that he's not a big fan of spending huge in free agency, and given how hard it is to find value in spending big in free agency, that's probably for the best.

Now, there are some caveats to all of this.

For one, no obvious member of the Flyers' core has yet been due for a long-term extension in Hextall's time as general manager (Brayden Schenn is the only one who comes close, and a bridge deal made sense for him), so Hextall hasn't been forced to spend big yet. And the Flyers' terrible cap situation has prevented them from making any sizeable moves in free agency regardless -- we don't necessarily know if maybe Hextall did want to spend big last summer, but couldn't.

And yes, there are a couple of signings on that list that don't look very smart, and that sort of contradict what we've mentioned above. We'll discuss those tomorrow.

But the point is that Ron Hextall was able to bring value to this team by making low-risk signings at the bottom of the roster, and a lot of those -- even the ones that he was forced into by injury, such as Del Zotto and Colaiacovo -- worked out. If he decides that this is how he should operate moving forward, that would be excellent.

Replenishing via trades

Hextall made four trades in his first year at the helm. You can see a list of them below.

Date Added Subtracted
6/23/2014 R.J. Umberger, 2015 4th-round draft pick Scott Hartnell
7/2/2014 2015 3rd-round draft pick Tye McGinn
2/27/2015 2015 2nd-round draft pick, 2016 4th-round* pick Kimmo Timonen
3/2/2015 2015 1st- and 3rd-round draft picks, Radko Gudas Braydon Coburn

* - denotes conditional pick; can rise to a 3rd- or 2nd-round pick depending on how far the Blackhawks advance in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The first trade Hextall made as GM was the Hartnell-for-Umberger swap, which as you could maybe guess is not a trade that we'll be talking much about today. Tune back in tomorrow for analysis on that one. But there are very good things we can take from each of Hextall's other three deals.

In the McGinn swap, Hextall identified a player that the team had decided it was ready to move on from, and was able to get something for him. Missing a third-round pick in this June's draft, the Flyers were able to get one back. Getting rid of pieces that you don't need but who may actually have some value to others is a great practice.

And while you want to be careful with giving away young players, it seems like Hextall was right about McGinn, who was eventually waived by San Jose. Nothing at all to not like about that move in hindsight, and the hope here is that Hextall can look to make more moves like this with guys he's ready to move on from.

With both Timonen and Coburn, the positives for Hextall are fairly obvious. Both were obvious trade candidates -- Timonen wanted (and deserved) one last shot at a Stanley Cup before he retires this summer, Coburn seemed unlikely to be retained beyond next year, and both of them can be top-4 defensemen on a contender -- so it's not like dealing either was a case of outside-the-box thinking the way it was with McGinn.

No, where Hextall gets full marks here is the value he extracted for both of those guys. In Chicago and Tampa, Hextall found two teams that were willing to pay at-or-above-market prices to try and capitalize on chances to win now, and the returns he got showed that. A 2nd- and a 4th-round pick (which could potentially escalate to a 3rd- or 2nd-rounder) for Timonen is excellent value, and the 1st- and 3rd-round haul he pulled in for Coburn was the best that any team pulled in for a player at the deadline outside of what Arizona got for Keith Yandle.

So here's what we can say about those deals. For one, Hextall appears to be earnest in his attempts to pick up as many draft picks as possible. The team had two picks in the first four rounds of this draft when he took over; they now have seven. That's awesome. Draft picks are mostly long-shots beyond the first or second round, but the more chances you get, the more likely you are to get a contributor.

And furthermore, these deals show that Hextall can get equal-or-better value for his important pieces. Basically, he can sell off good players for prices that are fitting of their ability. Now, ideally this isn't something he finds himself having to do for a whole lot longer. But it's good to know he can do it.

Best in class

Finally, let's take a look at the first draft Hextall was in charge of. Below is a list of those six players that were chosen last June, along with their achievements last season (regular-season only).

Player Pick Season Summary
Travis Sanheim (D) Rd 1 / Pick 17 15 G, 50 A in 65 games with Calgary (WHL)
Nicolas Aube-Kubel (W) Rd 2 / Pick 48 38 G, 42 A in 61 games with Val-d'Or (QMJHL)
Mark Friedman (D) Rd 3 / Pick 86 2 G, 17 A in 37 games with Bowling Green (NCAA)
Oskar Lindblom (W) Rd 5 / Pick 138 8 G, 7 A in 37 games with Bryna (SHL)
Radel Fazleev (F) Rd 6 / Pick 168 18 G, 33 A in 71 games with Calgary (WHL)
Jesper Pettersson (D) Rd 7 / Pick 198 2 G, 4 A in 49 games with Lehigh Valley (AHL)

Now, a disclaimer: we're one year out from this draft. Drafts are kind of crapshoots. None of these guys have played in a single NHL game, and it's entirely possible that none of them turn into full-time NHL players. Maybe that'll happen, and we'll feel silly about this in a few years.

With that said, there's a whole lot to like about this draft class a year out. Not one guy on that list saw his stock drop this year, and some of them are looking much better than they were when they were picked.

Sanheim is the headliner among that group, and after his pick at No. 17 was initially seen as a bit of a gamble, that gamble seems to have come up aces. Sanheim took a huge step forward this year, in a way that hardly anyone outside of maybe Hextall himself could have expected. He was one of the best blueliners in the WHL this season, and his stock currently seems to be higher than any other prospect in the organization.

But multiple other guys in that class are looking like great picks, as well. Nicolas Aube-Kubel had a white-hot stretch in the second half of this past season, and he now is probably the best winger prospect in the team's pipeline. Friedman putting up a half-point-per-game as a freshman defenseman in the WCHA is very solid, as is Oskar Lindblom at .4 points per game as an 18-year-old in what may be the third-best hockey league in the world.

In these picks -- and this looked apparent even at the time of the draft -- Hextall seemed to focus on guys who could skate well, who play skill-oriented games, and who all have upside. These are all good things to focus on in the draft -- you've got a limited number of draft choices, you may as well be taking big swings with them.

If that is indeed the mindset that Hextall will be approaching the draft with moving forward, that's a great sign towards this team's chances to get high-impact players through the draft. Given how much of a problem that's been in the past decade or so for the Flyers, this is important.

***

So to summarize, here's what I really liked about Ron Hextall's first year:

  • He kept his spending to a minimum, and managed to extract solid value and upside out of certain depth players on one-year deals.
  • He was able to get excellent returns in the players he sold off at the trade deadline, and seems to be intent on collecting more draft picks.
  • His first draft as general manager is looking outstanding one year out, and Hextall seems to be drafting for upside and skill.

Is it everything I've ever dreamed of in a general manager? No. But it's a start.

These are the things that have garnered Hextall a lot of praise for his first year on the job. They're all forward-thinking attributes that have not hurt the team in the short-term and keep the long-term in mind, and these are things that will help the Flyers get back on the right path if they keep up.

They're the kinds of things that a good team that sticks to its plan will do.

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