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Cracking the code of Ron Hextall's philosophy of promoting Flyers prospects

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With the Flyers possessing an elite group of prospects, the conversation now shifts to when the kids will hit the NHL. Ron Hextall shed some light today on how decisions on those prospects are made.

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Even after a surprise run to the playoffs last season, it's become obvious that the Philadelphia Flyers will not take the next step into true Stanley Cup contention without some new additions to the roster. A relatively uneventful free agency period hammered home the point that true impact talent isn't coming from outside the organization -- it will have to come from within.

To that end, the Flyers under general manager Ron Hextall have stockpiled an enviable array of young talent. Shayne Gostisbehere was the first of their high-end prospects to hit the NHL, and his auspicious rookie season only served to heighten anticipation from the fanbase for the rest of the prospects, especially defensemen Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim, and forward Travis Konecny.

But Hextall has proven patient to a fault in promoting his prospects to the big club. Many considered Provorov to be NHL-ready after being selected with the 7th overall pick in 2015, but during last year's Flyers' training camp, he was quickly returned to his junior team after only a few preseason games. Konecny was sent back as well, despite standout performances in preseason games and a strong camp. Defensemen Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg, both drafted in 2013, have yet to sniff the NHL. Even Gostisbehere only became a permanent Flyer due to an untimely Mark Streit injury.

This track record leaves the immediate future of players like Provorov and Konecny in question, especially since both delivered standout junior seasons in 2015-16 and would fill key needs on the Flyers current roster. Will Hextall's penchant for conservative promotion strategies keep them in juniors for another season despite their success?

At the first day of Flyers development camp, Hextall addressed that specific topic in an illuminating 20-minute session with the media. In light of his answers yesterday, we can boil the Philadelphia general manager's view on prospect promotion strategy down to three key tenets.

1. No prospect is gift wrapped a spot, but if he's ready, he'll stay regardless of situation.

It's easy to look at the Flyers' roster and see players with limited ceilings like Nick Schultz, Andrew MacDonald and Matt Read as inferior to the upside of prospects like Provorov and Konecny. But Ron Hextall made it clear yesterday that he has no interest in "cleaning house" just to create space for prospects that appear close to NHL-ready. Instead, his philosophy is to build a full roster under the assumption that the kids won't take a spot.

We’ve got enough players to play for the Flyers this year, between the guys we have signed and some of the guys in Lehigh Valley. We have enough players. We’re not sitting here going, "Player X, Player Y "has" to play in the NHL." We’re not going to force these kids.

Now and moving forward, don't expect Ron Hextall to save seats for his prospects. Look at it this way -- if the Flyers keep trending upwards, there's a good chance that Ivan Provorov ends up the best prospect of the Hextall era, and even the Russian super-prospect is being forced to scratch and claw for a spot in the lineup.

In addition, Hextall doesn't buy the "short term hit, long term gain" theory of benching a veteran who might today be a 78 on the 0-100 scale for a younger player who is a 74 now but has the potential to hit 90 a few years down the road.

What’s the sense of having a young kid come in that’s not as good as a guy we already have and putting him on your team, and then your team is not quite as good as it should be, but you’re going to develop a player and hurt your team by keeping a player? No. we’re not a team like that. We have enough bodies, we have enough good players, we made the playoffs last year, so they have to come in and beat someone out.

Hextall may believe in a high barrier of entry for his prospects to make it to the NHL. But on the flip side of the coin, he seems to have no patience for the scenario of a younger player who proves he is "ready," but cannot stay with the team due to a roster logjam or a salary cap crunch.

Now if one of the kids, or two of the kids, or three of the kids come in and they’re better than the guys that we have? That’s competition. And assuming we think it’s the right move at the time, then we’ll make a roster spot for them.

If a young kid comes in and makes us a better team and we don’t think we’re going to hurt him long-term, we’re going to keep him. If not, we’ll go with what we have.

Philadelphia's treatment of Gostisbehere last season supports Hextall's assertion. The 23-year old defenseman made it obvious within weeks of his promotion that he was NHL-caliber, but the impeding return of Mark Streit following surgery led some to theorize that Gostisbehere might be returned to the AHL simply due to a need to clear cap space.

But Hextall had no intention of sending Gostisbehere back down after he had proven to himself, his teammates, and the organization as a whole that he belonged in the NHL. Instead, the team sent NHL vet Sam Gagner to Lehigh Valley so they would be allowed to keep Gostisbehere.

It was a surprising move, even if Gagner had failed to earn a regular role with the Flyers in the first half of the season. After all, the former Oiler had posted eight straight 10-goal seasons and was in the age-related prime of his career. But the young Gostisbehere deserved to stay, so Hextall found a way to keep him.

Expect the same approach when it comes to Provorov, Konecny, Sanheim, and the rest. They'll have to struggle to earn their spot, but once they have it, Hextall will move heaven and earth to ensure each player keeps it.

2. The danger of a player spending too much time in lower levels is overblown.

Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny seem to be the two players with the best chances of battling their way onto the Flyers' roster at training camp. But unlike older players like Sanheim and Morin, it's not a choice between the NHL and the AHL for Provorov and Konecny. If they don't make the big club out of camp, the two prospects would be returned to their junior clubs in the CHL due to the age aspect of the transfer agreement between Canadian junior hockey and the NHL.

Konecny had a standout season in the Ontario Hockey League last year, scoring 101 points in 60 games. Provorov was even better, winning the award for best defenseman in the entire Canadian Hockey League (OHL, QMJHL and WHL). Some worry that sending Provorov or Konecny back to leagues where they've already proven dominant could result in a stagnation of their development paths. If both are "too good" for junior hockey, they may not develop certain elements of their skills, or even worse, fall into bad habits that could be exposed at a higher level.

Hextall clearly does not buy that line of thinking.

I think any player can be the best player in junior hockey if they go back, right? Any of those guys. We want all of our players to be better than they were last year.

The Flyers general manager felt even someone like Provorov, who had a stellar draft year going into last season's camp, had a lot to learn when he was sent back to juniors in 2015. Nor does he envision that fact changing this time around.

I know the word on the street, the speculation was that [Provorov] was NHL-ready right after the draft. Not a chance. He played two games in preseason and he was okay. But he went back to juniors and was a hell of a player. He was a way better player than he was the year before. The year before they were in the playoffs and he hit a wall. Typical young kid. He’s 17 years old, and they had a long season, went deep in the playoffs, and he hit a wall. And he’s playing against kids.

So if he’s here last year, when’s he hitting that wall? Is it December? Is it January? So he busted through. He didn’t hit a wall this year. Played very well start to finish, and then he played in that [Memorial] Cup. It’s a long season. Ivan did everything we hoped he’d do in terms of becoming a better player. Is there more for him to do if in fact he goes back to juniors? Of course there is. He could be the best player in junior hockey hopefully, or the Western League. There’s always something.

Hextall seems to have the belief that as long as a player is properly motivated, he can continue to improve and develop regardless of the situation, and even if he is truly head and shoulders above his competition. To demonstrate that point, Hextall chose to reference a certain unpopular player in the Philadelphia region.

So Sidney Crosby comes in, ten, twelve years ago and wins the MVP. Well, is he now "too good for the NHL?" Or does he try to go back and win the MVP again, score more, win the Stanley Cup? That whole argument of "a guy’s too good for a league," I don’t quite get that. So, should Sidney Crosby now retire because he’s "too good for the NHL" since he’s won two Stanley Cups, an MVP and this and that? What is "too good for a league?" I don’t understand that argument.

While I'm sure most Flyers fans would be totally fine with the idea of Sidney Crosby choosing to retire immediately, Hextall's point is clear. Even a player like Crosby -- at the top of his profession -- should be able to find new heights in terms of achievements and improvements.

It's not an unassailable argument, of course. Crosby has no pressing need for further development of his skillset because he is already in the top 0.00001% of all hockey players on the planet. Provorov cannot yet make that claim, even if he was deemed the best defenseman in junior hockey, as he has a whole additional level to conquer. It's possible that Crosby's development has been stunted, in that dominating in the NHL would not be the ideal path if he has aspirations to excel in a (fictional) Intergalactic Hockey League. By that logic, he is both lucky and unlucky that the NHL truly is the best hockey league known to humans.

Regardless, don't expect Hextall to make decisions regarding prospects out of fear that their skillsets will stagnate at lower levels. He simply does not view it as a major concern.

I can tell you this: there’s very few [GMs] that will ever tell you once they send a kid back that they regret it. I don’t regret sending anybody back that we did last year. Everyone made a lot of progress and I don’t regret any of them. Will I at some point? Maybe. But last year, no. Every decision our staff made, I felt like was the right one for the kid, which means it’s the right one for the organization.

3. Final decisions come down to camp performance weighted by play in lower levels.

Hextall has long championed the idea that a prospect needs to earn his way into a roster spot with the Flyers, and that nothing will be handed to a young player, no matter the pedigree. But how exactly does a prospect "earn" that spot? Is it solely based on camp performance? Does dominance in juniors play a large role?

I asked Hextall for clarification regarding his system for evaluating when a player is "ready." Specifically, I questioned whether a player coming off a great junior season who delivers just a so-so camp would still have a chance at making the team, or if a prospect who concluded a merely decent year at a lower level but is eye-opening at camp would have a shot at the team.

The Flyers general manager admitted that, in the end, it comes down to a subjective decision. However, the process behind that subjective decision still needs to be sound and based in knowledge and experience.

There’s no real formula for decisions that you make. Quite honestly, a lot of it is gut feel.

A lot of it is just a feel you get. There was a kid named Petr Hubacek who came in [to camp] one year and lit up the preseason. Lit it up and then he started the year [in the NHL]. I want to say he played good for about the first five games and then he fell off the map, got traded to Nashville. So there’s a classic example of a kid who comes in and is great during camp, and I don’t even know where he is anymore. Probably retired by now.

So, a kid coming in having a really good year going back to junior, maintaining a high level of play, improving, getting stronger -- that helps his chances here. What it does sometimes is it affords him a little longer look. He’ll probably get a little longer look if he had a real good year of junior that probably wouldn’t have been afforded otherwise.

Basically, prospects like Provorov and Konecny will get more leeway in camp and in preseason than others, due to their stellar play in juniors during the 2015-16 season. But that just gives them a few extra games or maybe an extra week of practice to showcase their skills. Training camp still plays a huge role in the decision making process, and prospects need to show above-average skills combined with NHL-caliber size and conditioning in camp to win a spot.

Still, Hextall was careful to note that training camp is far from the end-all, be-all in prospect evaluation. It's just too small of a sample.

A tryout is not two weeks long. [Just camp] is not a fair barometer, and quite honestly, to make a decision on a week or two of training camp, how smart would I be if I start making decisions on two weeks? Not very.

Essentially, camp functions as a validation of the skills that a player showed at a lower level (juniors, college, etc). A prospect who has a great track record but starts out camp a little slow will be given extra time to prove that he just had a few off days. But if the skillset is truly there, Hextall believes that it will show up at some point during camp, and then the general manager will have a firsthand reason to consider a promotion.

On the other hand, a player with an average history at lower levels will be viewed with more skepticism in camp. This was likely Konecny's problem last year (in addition to size concerns), since he was coming off a relatively disappointing statistical season in the OHL. There was a legitimate possibility that Konecny's strong play last summer would have just made him the next Hubacek in terms of NHL-readiness had he stuck.

Conclusion

More than ever, Ron Hextall provided fans with a clear understanding of how he will address the question of prospect promotion moving forward.

Young players who have yet to see the NHL will not be counted upon to fill a roster spot, in this camp or in future camps. But if they prove better than a current member of the lineup? Hextall appears set on making the necessary roster moves to accommodate the prospect's rise to the big club.

How a player earns that spot in the first place is a bit more murky, by Hextall's own admission. But it appears to be a combination of strong play at lower levels that puts a prospect in a certain high-end class prior to camp, and then that same player taking advantage of the extended audition to prove that his advanced billing is legitimate.

Essentially, the checklist that a prospect needs to pass in order to make the NHL out of training camp is as follows:

  1. Is he physically ready for the grind of an 82-game NHL season and playoffs?
  2. Did he have a strong season last year at a lower level (CHL, college hockey, Euro leagues, AHL)?
  3. In training camp, has he consistently showcased the skillset that allowed him to thrive at that lower level?
  4. Is he better, right now, than a current player at his same position on the NHL roster who fills a similar role?

All other considerations are just noise. There will be no "open spots" left for prospects, nor will team needs play a major role in the process, aside from lowering the barrier of entry if Philadelphia has a current roster player with a 65 rating waiting to be jumped by a kid.

Also, don't expect Hextall and the Flyers to be swayed by fears that a player could stagnate at lower levels as they make their decisions. It's obvious that the Flyers' general manager is of the belief that if a prospect is not deemed to be NHL-ready, he can always find skills to improve or new goals to achieve while waiting for his chance.

In the end, Hextall envisions his prospect promotion system as a truly pure meritocracy, where prospects are not given special treatment due to reputation or circumstance. Over the next few seasons as players like Provorov, Konecny, Sanheim and Morin move through the organization, we'll see if that idealistic vision holds true.