Yesterday the Flyers broke the internet, well the hockey world’s corner of the internet, when they announced that they had relieved Ron Hextall of his duties as general manager of the Flyers. With the coaching staff and team still intact, it’s time to address one of the more pressing questions moving forward — does this solve anything?
For all the good that Ron Hextall had done for the Flyers, the most glaring issues for the organization this season fell on his shoulders. Having to play five goaltenders by late November is next to unheard of and truly unpredictable, but going into the season with Brian Elliott, a ten year veteran who was coming off major surgery, and who hasn’t played in over 50 games in a season in seven years, as your number one netminder was a plan doomed from the beginning. Now, that plan wouldn’t have been as big of a problem if they had a backup that they could rely on to not be eternally injured, but when Hextall decided to extend Michal Neuvirth at the trade deadline two seasons ago—when he had one of the worst save percentages in the entire league—he was essentially locking the team into having an unreliable backup for the next two seasons.
Fast forward to year two of that two year contract and Neuvirth has appeared in a grand total of two regular season games across the first two months of the season, one in the NHL, and looks to be sidelined for at least another week. The hard truth is that once he returns it’ll only be a matter of time before he’s out again and we’ll be right back to this goalie rotation of Cal Pickard, Alex Lyon, and Anthony Stolarz. Calling this team’s goaltending situation a mess would be an understatement at this point.
Furthermore, we can blame the coaches all we want, but at the end of the day Hextall is the one that kept them here. While opinions of Dave Hakstol varied over the off-season, just about everyone outside of the organization was in agreement that the penalty kill under Ian Laperriere would continue to be a problem if a change wasn’t made, and, well, no change was made and it’s been a really big problem. Even if Hextall had made a change, his previous decision making, while relatively short, isn’t exactly positive when it comes to the coaching staff.
Hextall’s first move was to fire then-assistant coach John Paddock, who had been with the team since 2008, and hire assistant Gord Murphy to primarily work with the Flyers’ defensemen. Nothing to really complain about here as Murphy has seemingly been a good influence on the team’s young blueliners who have been blossoming into stars in their own right. Unfairly to him or not, the next change to the coaching staff with Hextall in charge was a tumultuous one.
There was just a month left in the 2014-15 season when then-goalie coach Jeff Reese left the team in what Hextall referred to as “mutual agreement between both parties.” Later it came out that it was more-so Reese wanting to leave due to disputes over how then-head coach Craig Berube handled his goaltenders, most notably Steve Mason. Hextall did the right thing by moving on from Berube just one month later, but the damage had been done and the Flyers had lost an assistant coach that had been with the team since 2009 and was widely credited with the resurgence of Mason’s NHL career.
His second hire came in May of 2015, when he announced the hiring of the team’s current head coach Dave Hakstol, who is seemingly on thin ice and may be gone once the team finds their next general manager. A month following the hiring of Hakstol, Hextall filled the void left by Reese with Kim Dillabaugh, a former assistant in Los Angeles. He then chose the fire Joe Mullen, who primarily oversaw the team’s power play units, and brought in Kris Knoblauch to replace him. Under Knoblauch the power play has gotten worse, at least percentage-wise, and he, like Mullen in his final seasons, has been unable to get a second unit even close to clicking.
That’s a lot of “meh” to “not good” happening to the coaching staff under Hextall, without a single hire being a clear positive outside of Murphy. It’s entirely possibly that Dillabaugh has been good as well since it’s hard to truly judge him based on the talent he’s been working with, and while it’s too early to write off Knoblauch, what he’s shown thus far hasn’t exactly inspired confidence. Really, much like the team itself, the coaching staff under Hextall always left you wanting more.
So back to the question at hand, does this actually solve anything?
Immediately, no, it doesn’t. The true impact of this move depends on who the next general manager will be and how he or she handles this team and this coaching staff. If they come in and move on from Hakstol and Laperriere, maybe trade a core player or two in deals that aren’t complete disasters, and also hold on to a bit of Hextall’s patience (read: do not call up Carter Hart yet) then I think we could look back at this move and say, yes, it did lead to a lot of things being solved. Now, all of that does not have to happen this season, that’s asking for a lot, but something does. Only changing the general manager changes absolutely nothing about the 2017-18 season and there’s still about three-fourths of the season left. Don’t let it go to waste.
Moving forward, they’ll need to address the short-term goaltending situation with both Elliott and Neuvirth on expiring contracts, Lyon and Pickard simply not cutting it, Stolarz being a big question mark, and Hart not yet being ready to make the jump. Whether that means the return of soon to be unrestricted free agent Sergei Bobrovsky or not, they need someone who is capable of playing 60+ games to have an ounce of stability in goal. The last time they had a goaltender do that was Steve Mason five years ago, and right now they’re working with two goaltenders who haven’t even showed the ability to play in 50 regular season games in years. In Neuvirth’s case, never.
On the flip side, they could hire someone who sends the organization backwards by making the next Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson or P.K. Subban for Shea Weber trade. Just think about a scenario where Shayne Gostisbehere gets traded for, let’s say Tyler Myers for instance, because the new general manager thinks the former stinks at defense and Myers brings what you can’t teach: size. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s entirely possible that there’s a candidate for the position that believes that it would be a good move for the organization. That’s the scary part — because while Hextall had his faults, we never had to fear a trade like that with him in charge.
I’m talking about one of the in-house options and a name that’s been brought up as a possible replacement, Dean Lombardi, who traded a first round pick, Martin Jones, and Colin Miller for Milan Lucic just three seasons ago. Of course on top of that there’s the Mike Richards situation and the Slava Voynov situation. Let’s just not go down that road. Please.
This is a big decision that the Flyers will be making in the near future, one that will impact the team for years to come. Hextall did a lot of good in his time here, but also contributed to the team’s biggest problems, and for now all we can do is hope that his replacement takes the necessary steps to move this team forward without taking another two steps backwards.