On a rainy Monday morning in late November, the Flyers made a move that suddenly changed the direction of the team entirely. It would be Ron Hextall, and not Dave Hakstol, that would pay the price for yet another slow start. An ex-player who had been brought in with great hopes and a brand-new plan, Hextall was, at least for a time, the compass that charted the team’s course. If so many agreed just a few years ago that Hextall may have been turning things around, why is he gone? At least in my view, that answer is that patience became the goal, not the means to an end.
When Ron Hextall was hired it was a very different time. Fans and ownership grew tired of seeing players the Flyers had drafted or once employed hoisting Stanley Cups in towns other than Philadelphia. Justin Williams, Mark Recchi, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, and others set the stage for Hextall to sell the thing he was always best at as GM: patience.
Hextall generally seemed to turn his nose up at the idea of rushing prospects, trading picks, or knee-jerk reactions. His proponents looked back at many years of wasted opportunities and ex-Flyers winning in other places and they made a strong case for doing things more “in house”. Some of his followers even mocked Ed Snider for being reckless and “too involved”. They craved stability and a home-grown approach. Hextall fit into all of the spaces that recent Flyers GMs had not when he replaced Paul Holmgren. Hextall was determined to be patient.
Over the years we’ve seen the prospect base grow and some cap concerns start to fade away, but it became apparent that the plan, which was very well-thought out in some areas, left things to be desired in others. The items the Flyers needed today would have to be put on layaway and paid for in time and development years. Patience was no longer just a virtue, it was a commitment to years of mediocre productivity and looking four and five years down the line.
Under Hextall the Flyers proved to be committed, but patience became restrictive, like clothes you’ve outgrown but continue to try to wear. Patience became a reason not to improve areas that were clearly dysfunctional, even when the risk level was tolerable. Problems changed. Players came and went, but the plan never changed even when it could have accommodated one.
So, specifically, where did Hextall fail and where did he succeed? What does he deserve credit for and what could he have done to accelerate the “re-tooling” or “rebuilding” process?
Where Hextall succeeded
Under Hextall the Flyers have developed a nearly unparalleled level of prospects worthy of NHL consideration. Whether it’s Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny or Nolan Patrick, it’s clear there are a lot of reasons to be happy with his draft choices and more of those young players are on the way. Morgan Frost, Joel Farabee, Isaac Ratcliffe, Phil Myers, Carter Hart, and many others were either drafted or signed by the Flyers. A majority of these kids will likely have a real go at being NHL players, if not impact players.
Additionally, Hextall has managed the cap very well, though I do acknowledge some of his successes in this area were more about attrition than actively moving dollars out quickly and reloading. The Flyers have cap space to spare, and with a host of young kids poised to make debuts in later years, it would seem that cost certainty is likely to carry on for a while. Even as the team has floundered through a rough start to the season yet again, Hextall maintained over $10 million in current cap space, which gave the team plenty of options.
Hextall also navigated the expansion draft very well, choosing not to negotiate with Vegas as so many other GMs did. Many GMs paid a king’s ransom to ensure they didn’t lose key pieces of their team and some paid just as much to make sure they lost dead weight. Philadelphia lost Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, but saved themselves the humiliation of being fleeced in the same way Minnesota and Florida were.
Hextall had a singular focus, and he leaned on it with regularity. The team would continue to be patient even as pressure mounted in Philadelphia. He didn’t force anything and in doing so, perhaps he didn’t achieve as much as he could have from year to year, but he did compile assets and cap freedom. In those areas, Hextall was far above average.
Where the plan failed
What ultimately damned Ron Hextall as GM, it would appear, was the failure to acknowledge that “balance” was an artform to be involved in and not avoided. As the team grew from a top-heavy, prospect-deprived organization into a talented, young, prospect-laden squad, Hextall seemed unwilling to evolve.
He trusted a penalty kill coach who hadn’t been able to improve the penalty kill for four-plus years. He vehemently defended a head coach in the midst of a 10-game losing streak last year and brushed off the fan reaction as belonging to “a small minority” of fans. Hextall proved hesitant to make any significant changes and often seemed fairly aggressive in the way he refused to do so.
Roster decisions were also always built on the idea that any move he made needed to fit the budget and never block a prospect from the chance to play. In short, instead of fixing NHL problems with the right solution, Hextall would attempt to shuffle around some pieces, get a minor improvement, and save his assets for a rainy day.
In reality that plan sounds possible and perhaps even admirable, but in practice it simply hasn’t worked. Prospects often still got blocked by veterans who had “veteran presence” but added little else. Problems remained unaddressed or poorly addressed, in many other cases.
Nowhere can this be seen more glaringly than in goal. After years of searching for the correct netminder to lead Philly to a potential cup run, Hextall elected to place his trust in Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth. Even after last year’s less-than-ideal performance and injury-prone season, Elliott and Neuvirth were brought in again this year with the expectation results would be different. Results have not been different.
Elliott and Neuvirth have both been injured twice in a less-than-25-game span, and the Flyers have already used five netminders, with no stability in sight. Now boasting the worst save percentage in the league, it became clear a team that said it “had to take the next step” wasn’t even giving itself a chance to compete. This situation, viewed as completely avoidable by some, caused the winds of change to move from a slight whisper to a roaring howl.
Yes, it is certainly possible the Flyers starter of the future is currently already in the system, but with this firing the Flyers are clearly staying “the now still matters”. It’s not good enough to simply re-arrange deck chairs on the titanic. It’s not good enough to say “we’re focused on the future” after six years of playoff futility and poor starts. Let the kids you trust develop, and retain the prospects you believe in, but not without making hard choices and certainly not while throwing away season after season in name of “the future”.
Hextall never had that sense of urgency, and he never acted to accelerate his plan. It’s unclear whether he thought he had more time or whether he simply trusted his plan so completely that he failed to see it’s flaws. Things could have turned out very differently had he only recognized a few opportunities to accept that adaptation is not admittance of loss of control, but rather the ability to more quickly claim success.
Ron Hextall’s tenure as GM will ultimately be viewed as a mixed bag and a missed opportunity. While Hextall was able to address many flaws the Flyers had, he never appeared to be willing to waver from his desire to be right in his initial assessment. The perceived recklessness of prior regimes was replaced by Hextall’s resolve to not be reactive, apparently even in the face of organizational pressure. We may truly never know how hard he pushed against the changes the organization viewed as necessary, but it seems likely those conversations happened.
What we do know is that, per the Flyers’ own statement, Hextall and the front office “no longer [shared] the same philosophical approach”. Does that mean Hextall was asked to relieve some coaches of their duties or speed up the process? In my opinion, the answer is most likely “yes” to at least one of those things, if not both of them. The Flyers essentially cited irreconcilable differences as the reason for his release, and that likely would not have come with the first conversation or request. These differences more likely occurred over weeks, months, or possibly even years of patience with Ron’s plan.
Did the Flyers want to fire Hextall? I also find that to be unlikely, but it’s possible by refusing their repeated requests to make necessary changes, provide a better product or hire staff they viewed as more fitting, he forced their hand. Even with lofty ideals and a well thought out plan, it’s impossible to completely explain away the inability to win a playoff round since 2011-12. If he chose to resist their attempts to rectify that sooner rather than later, it would obviously have been problematic and possibly necessitated a move they didn’t ultimately want to make.
Was Hextall asked to relieve Hakstol of duty? Was he asked to hire another coach with whom he knew he did not want to debate roster moves, etc? Perhaps one day that will be common knowledge, but today it seems to be speculation.
The voices of Flyers fans from Philadelphia and beyond grew louder in recent weeks. Fans asked for change, jerseys flew onto the ice, attendance dropped slightly, and faith in just about everything from Dave Hakstol to the cost of Santa Sacks appeared to be up for debate. Five years of patience had proven to be the limit in Philadelphia … and with good reason.
While many fans expected some sort of a move to be made, many thought it would come from Hextall and not happen to him. In the end it seems it wasn’t just the fans who ran out of patience; it was also the organization. Like it or not, change will now have its time. Here’s hoping what’s next leads us to parades and not just patience.