Ron Hextall became the seventh general manager in Philadelphia Flyers history when he was promoted on May 7, 2014. He filled the void left by his predecessor, Paul Holmgren, who was “moved up” to team President — a reward earned, seemingly, 22 days earlier when Holmgren re-signed Andrew MacDonald, for whom he’d already surrendered two draft picks, to a pact worth $30 million over six years.
It is from that hole the 1987 Conn Smythe Trophy-winning net minder turned front office executive had to dig the orange and black out -- one deepened through years of moving draft picks for “win now” veterans, and over-paying former stars for past performance in hopes of winning the franchise’s third Stanley Cup, a feat that has now eluded the organization for 41 consecutive seasons.
Hextall is now entering his fourth season at the helm, and the early returns have been generally positive. He has achieved his goals of strengthening the farm system, acquiring and accumulating draft picks and young talent, as well as avoiding prohibitive, long-term contracts.
From here is where I will begin to truly judge Ron Hextall, general manager. Stage one was a must: identify the organizational weaknesses and come up with a plan to address them. Hextall has done that. Stage two will be about turning the corner.
He has dug himself out of that hole left to him by the previous administration. His salary cap situation is now manageable. His pipeline of young talent is now fully stocked with defensemen and goaltenders. Thanks to an incredible stroke of luck, the organization’s offensive talent-pool will get a boost at the draft in June, having landed the second-overall pick at the draft lottery.
A run-down of the moves Hextall has made shows the positives far out-weigh the negatives. His trades have been spectacular, helping to bolster draft classes with quantity and quality, squeezing returns out of players whose perceived value may be far less.
Tye McGinn was moved for a third-round pick that became goaltending prospect Felix Sandstrom. McGinn has played in 53 NHL games in the three seasons since the trade (none in 2016-17) and has picked up a whopping two goals and five assists.
Kimmo Timonen was traded to Chicago for a pair of second-round draft picks. The Blackhawks wanted to beef-up their blue line for a Stanley Cup run, which was successful, but Timonen contributed little. He was scratched for five playoff games and averaged under nine minutes a game on the nights he did play.
Braydon Coburn, a solid-enough veteran back-ender, landed the Flyers a younger, more versatile defender in Radko Gudas, the third-round pick that became Matej Tomek, and a first-rounder which, coupled with ammo from the Timonen trade, brought Travis Konecny to Philadelphia.
Dumping Nick Grossmann and Chris Pronger for a pick plus a try-out season for Sam Gagner? Good deal. A future third-rounder for Zac Rinaldo (1 goal, 83 PIM, 52 games played in NHL since)? Laughably great trade.
Hextall grabbed Jordan Weal and a third-round pick just for dumping Vinny Lecavalier’s and Luke Schenn’s salaries on the LA Kings.
Even trading back four spots at the 2016 draft worked out. The Flyers landed German Rubtsov and used the extra second-rounder to draft Pascal Laberge. Laberge’s concussion issues hindered his 2016-17, but he still has 100 points in 102 games over the last two seasons. That’s production any team would take from a prospect taken after the first round.
It’s not much, but a seventh-round pick for Petr Straka, who has played 3 NHL games since being drafted in the second round in 2010 by Columbus, is better than nothing.
And, of course, turning Mark Streit’s expiring contract and aging legs into an extra year of Valterri Filppula, plus fourth and seventh-round picks, is a job well done. Streit, as we know, got flipped to Pittsburgh where he has dressed in three of the Penguins’ 24 playoff games thus far, skating an average of 15 minutes per, when he is in the lineup.
Even Hextall’s most questionable move, the first trade he made, sending Scott Hartnell to the Blue Jackets in exchange for R.J. Umberger, has paid off.
Umberger was atrocious in his return to Philly, posting 11 goals and 15 assists in 109 games. He was slow and, overall, not very useful. The Flyers bought R.J. out of the final year of his deal following the 2015-16 season. The buyout cap hit was $1.6 million in 2016-17 and will be $1.4 million in 2017-18. Not ideal, but manageable.
Hartnell, on the other hand, had 51 goals and 58 assists his first two seasons in Columbus, putting up his typical mid-20s goal totals. However, at 34-years-old, Scotty scored a mere 13 goals in 2016-17, playing 12 minutes a game for coach John Tortorella, who scratched the former Philly fan favorite for one of the Jackets’ five playoff games.
With two years left on his deal at $4.75 million per, the Blue Jackets find themselves in a tough situation with the expansion draft approaching. Hartnell has a no-movement clause, meaning he’ll have to be protected from selection by Vegas.
If Columbus buys out Hartnell, they’ll be on the hook for four years of dead cap hits that break down like this: $1.5 million in 2017-18; $3 million in 2018-19; $1.25 million in 2019-20 and 2020-21 (according to CapFriendly.com).
If the Golden Knights were to trade for the former All-Star, they’d likely require Columbus to expose a more attractive player in the draft or have an asset like a draft pick included in the trade. All of this would be contingent on Hartnell waving the no-trade clause he originally signed in Philadelphia.
That trade stung when Hextall made it, especially considering how dreadful Umberger was, at one point going 50 games (through two seasons) without a goal. But in the long-view, Hextall took a short-term loss to put his team in a better situation going forward.
Oh, and the trade also included an extra 2015 fourth-round pick for the Flyers. Hextall traded down, with Los Angeles, and used the pick from the Kings that year to draft Mikhail Vorobyov and the extra sixth-rounder the following season on Anthony Salinitri. Quality and quantity.
Contract-wise, Hextall has made a few investments, but none of the glaring nature like $51 million for Ilya Bryzgalov, or a $9 million signing bonus for restricted free agent Chris Gratton.
Sean Couturier was locked up for $26 million over six years. Lengthy, no doubt. But he’ll only be 30 when the deal expires and his value in the lineup is well worth the $4.33 million average annual value - comparable to Nazem Kadri, Andrew Shaw, Alex Killorn and Craig Smith.
Radko Gudas got a four-year deal worth $3.35 million annually in June 2016, which compares quite favorably to the four-year, $3.5 million that Paul Holmgren awarded Nick Grossmann in April 2012.
Brayden Schenn’s $5.125 million/year for four years seemed a little high at the time, but the length isn’t terrible and to sign a player more productive than Schenn would cost the Flyers quite a bit more.
Schenn’s 51 goals since signing are 32nd most in the league over that time, and his 114 points are 45th most. With a contract comparable to Mike Hoffman (55 goals last two seasons), Reilly Smith (40 goals last two seasons) and Derrick Brassard (41 goals last two seasons), Schenn slots in nicely for his value. He’s certainly not a superstar, but teams pay for production in this league, and Schenn has produced.
Despite a tumultuous sophomore campaign, highlighted by a few healthy scratchings and less than ideal puck-luck, Hextall made a sizeable investment in Shayne Gostisbehere on the June ninth, signing him for $27 million over six years. Nearly the exact deal fans had in mind when looking at the pacts Nikita Zaitsev, John Klingberg, Danny DeKeyser and Adam Larsson have inked over the last several seasons.
Ghost was drafted by the previous administration, but a key piece in the Flyers core moving forward. Locking him up for six years signals that Hextall values 24-year-old defenseman’s current contributions, as well as his potential to build on what he has learned in both success and failure through his first 146 games in the National Hockey League.
The only outside-the-organization signing of consequence has been Dale Weise last summer, which, to this point, has been Hextall’s most universally-disliked move. Four years at $2.35 million each isn’t prohibitive, but for a 28-year-old bottom-six winger, it certainly seemed excessive.
Weise did little to ingratiate himself to the skeptical fanbase, logging zero goals and two assists in his first fifteen games before breaking out for goals in back-to-back nights in late November. The former Hab and ‘Hawk then went his next 33 games without scoring, while picking up only one assist.
However, six goals and four assists over his final 14 games have some critics willing to wait at least a little while longer to call the signing a complete and utter failure. He looked decent playing alongside Couturier and Schenn to end the season, and perhaps that carries over to 2017-18.
The boldest and most questionable move Hextall has made so far has been choosing a coach straight from the NCAA ranks to lead his transitioning team.
Dave Hakstol, following an enjoyable rookie year that saw his Flyers make the playoffs thanks to an incredible run down the stretch and landed him ninth in Jack Adams Award voting, drew the ire of much of the fan base this year for questionable lineup decisions, deployment and goalie juggling.
While many of Hakstol’s players weren’t much of a help for most of the year, his handling of Steve Mason, Shayne Gostisbehere, Konecny and MacDonald was, at best, questionable.
The team’s reliance on perimeter play and point shots rather than high-danger scoring plays to generate offense also lead to fans, as well as a few players, pondering the direction of the team.
Personally, I’m not ready to completely judge Hakstol until the depth and goaltending issues are addressed (the Flyers did have a .595 points-percentage over the season’s final 21 games, thanks in large part to Weal and Filppula entering the lineup, as well as Mason’s .928 save-percentage from February 28th through the end of the year), but his stock is certainly trending down.
But before the question of who the right coach for this team may be is answered, Hextall’s front office must figure out who will make up this team.
How many rookie defensemen will suit up this fall? What kind of leash is Hakstol on? How long until we see Oskar Lindblom? Who is the starting goalie? How much is too much for Weal? Is there a blockbuster in the works? Is the number two pick NHL-ready? These are the questions that will follow the Flyers through training camp and into the season.
The team is in position to take the next step in this “rebuild on the fly,” as Claude Giroux hasn’t yet fallen off a cliff and Ivan Provorov appears to be on the verge of becoming the first homegrown true number one defenseman since… forever?
Hextall does not need to go out on a July 1 spending spree or divert from his plan in a major way. His success navigating the franchise out of its spiral of poor personnel decisions and his ability to stock the pipeline with a number of highly-touted prospects has brought clarity to the question “where is this franchise headed?”
Now, as is the case with any plan, the execution is key. The draft picks have to become NHL contributors. A few must be high-level producers.
Giroux and the veterans can’t decline much further. The coach has to figure out how to best utilize the players Hextall has given him, or the general manager must find a more suitable bench boss.
From here, Hextall will build his legacy. We’ve all liked his drafts to this point, but there does have to be some progress. The fanbase has to be given a sign that this process was worth trusting. Phase two of Hextall’s plan begins when the No. 2 selection at the draft is announced and will continue through the season. It is time to turn the corner.
Given the progress of the prospects along every level, from the AHL to the CHL to the NCAA and internationally, it appears there is reason for optimism.
To conclude, as a response to an article grading Hextall’s drafts “incomplete” so far, I’ll let you decide what the Flyers front office has done picking talent at the entry draft since Hextall took over.
Contrary to the belief of at least one professional sports writer in this city, Sam “Motrin” Morin was taken in 2013, fifteen days before Hextall left the Los Angeles Kings for the Philadelphia Flyers.