Following yet another uneven and wildly streaky start to the season, the Flyers decided to act in the most decisive manner possible by announcing Monday morning that they had relieved GM Ron Hextall of his duties and would begin an immediate search for his successor. Team president, and Hextall’s predecessor, Paul Holmgren will lead the search.
Hextall’s dismissal is surprising in many ways, especially the timing. It is rare to see a NHL team fire their GM in-season and almost unheard of for the hammer to fall before December. It’s obvious a pretty serious breach has formed between Hextall and the team’s upper management for the firing to happen at this juncture.
It’s also surprising that the news came prior to another move, such as a coach being dismissed or a trade being made in an effort to shake up the team and perhaps see an uptick in play. That’s certainly a lot more common as we have seen three coaches let go already this season and less than 24 hours removed from a trade that saw former third overall pick Dylan Strome traded to Chicago, along with Brendan Perlini, with Nick Schmaltz headed back to Arizona.
Of course, Hextall’s reluctance to make these sort of changes may well be the reason he was fired. A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece comparing Hextall to former Philadelphia Phillies GM Ed Wade, noting that Wade had added a lot of key pieces that eventually brought a title to the Phillies after he had been replaced by Pat Gillick. It’s not a note for note copy, but Hextall’s successor will inherit a team with a lot of good young pieces and a system that is deep in prospects and picks.
While Wade was active in trying to add pieces, and willing to change managers, Hextall has done little from the outside to improve the NHL roster. When he did swing a trade, more often than not the key return for the Flyers was a draft pick, rather than a proven NHL talent. Outside of this past summer’s signing of James van Riemsdyk, his free agency additions have been depth guys( Dale Weise, Boyd Gordon, Christian Folin) or stop gaps (Brian Elliott, Michal Neuvirth). That’s a stark contrast to the seemingly annual Flyers big splashes on July 1st for years under both Holmgren and former GM Bob Clarke.
Hextall was also seemingly unwilling to make changes behind the bench. He hired Dave Hakstol out of North Dakota and despite fan unrest has stood solidly behind his guy. Outside of Kris Knoblauch, all the assistants were here prior to Hakstol. Joe Mullen, who routinely had PP units ranked in the top ten (or top five more often) in terms of percentage was not renewed during the summer of 2017. Ian Laperriere has run the PK unit since 2013, and during that time frame the unit ranks in the bottom five of the NHL. Changes here, especially in regards to the PK, would not have been rash.
The bottom line for many fans is that the weaknesses with the Flyers are nothing new, and have plagued the team for years. Hextall never seemed to hold anyone accountable. Not that they wanted a return to the freewheeling Holmgren days, but just some recognition that repeated failures would not be tolerated. I think that the presence of high priced and productive stars like Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek may have had a role in the view of upper management types like Holmgren and Dave Scott, the Flyers Governor, that it was time for the team to show more progress on the ice.
I feel the past week really brought matters to a head. The Flyers stumbled out of the gate Wednesday night, falling into a 4-0 hole against the Sabres in Bufflao, before losing 4-2. On Black Friday, they thumped the New York Rangers 4-0. They followed that up with an embarrassing effort in Toronto, losing 6-0 to the Leafs on Saturday night. It’s just a microcosim of the Flyers the past five years.
I imagine that after the loss to the Leafs Hextall met with Holmgren and probably Scott. My speculation is that it wasn’t a specific refusal to make an immediate change that led to the decision to fire Hextall, but an overall disagreement on where the team is now and where it should be. It’s hard to disagree with that from the Flyers’ prospective.
It’s impossible to say Hextall did a bad job. Rather, his refocus on building the system and getting out of the cap nightmare he inherited was great. He not only managed to ditch bad contracts, he often managed to land a decent asset besides. That side of the coin was ideal. It’s the flip side that wasn’t. Problems were allowed to fester for too long, and whatever was tried behind the scenes too often didn’t impact the on ice performance of the NHL team. The Process isn’t the goal, it’s simply the path you take to get to the goal. The goal is contention, and the Flyers need to take the nest step towards that.
At the end of the day, we can’t say whether the decision to remove Hextall was a good one or a bad one. I hope that whatever the result is, that the Flyers find a happy middle ground between Hextall’s patient approach and Holmgren’s MadMan Max big splash style.