After a 3-0-1 West Coast swing, the Flyers seem more confident and maybe even back on track. Even at the lowest ebb, I had little doubt that this team would end up challenging for a playoff berth. There’s simply too much talent for them to be a team sitting at the draft lottery with a strong shot at landing a top 3 draft pick in June. They took care of business well on their trip out to California and Arizona. The question remains, was a corner turned?
The rebuilds of the major-league tenants of Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center will likely be intertwined. They both started in the mid-2010’s and forced the fan base of a city known for it’s passion to be patient. Sam Hinkie, former 76ers GM lauched his notorious “Process” by basically going scorched earth on his roster. Hinkie traded anyone that had any value and loaded up on draft picks. Ron Hextall took a different tack, hanging on to the Flyers best players and rebuilding while they kept the team competitive.
Hextall’s retooling is a lot more similar to the path blazed in the late 1990’s-early 2000’s by former Phillies GM Ed Wade. Wade inherited an awful Phillies team with a few good players and focused on trying to be competitive while rebuilding the farm system. Under Wade, the Phillies drafted or signed many key pieces of the 2008 World Series Champion team, such as Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell and Shane Victorino. Wade brought in pieces like Jim Thome, Kevin Millwood, Kenny Lofton and Billy Wagner, but ultimately failed to add enough pieces to get the talented core he developed to the top of the mountain.
Hextall has been the Flyers GM for 5 years. He’s done a lot of good. He took over a team in bad cap shape with a depleted farm system and took steps to correct both. The natural passage of time helped with some of the contract issues, but Hextall managed to trade off overpriced pieces like Vincent Lecavalier, Nicklas Grossmann, Scott Hartnell and Chris Pronger’s contract. In some cases he had to take a bad, but shorter, contract back, but overall his dealing greatly helped the Flyers cap outlook.
Hextall’s drafting has also been very solid. There are several of his draft picks playing key roles on the current team, most notably Nolan Patrick, Travis Konecny, Oskar Lindblom and Ivan Provorov. Others are developing well and contributing to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms or at the CHL or NCAA levels. The Flyers current prospect pool is a far cry from when names like Ben Holmstrom, Mike Testwuide, Erik Gustafsson and Eric Wellwood topped the Flyers prospect list.
Again, like with the Phillies and Wade, the issue is getting over the hump. The Flyers have several chronic, likely fatal flaws that have kept them from taking that next step, almost from the start of the Hextall Era. The foremost among these are inconsistent levels of intensity(or slow starts) and downright terrible penalty killing. Hextall has really failed to correct these areas, and his current wait-and-see attitude to the lingering trouble has given rise to serious unrest among the fans.
What remains to be seen is how the Flyers ownership will handling things moving forward. The late Ed Snider was well known for his willingness to toss a verbal grenade into the room when he was unhappy with his team. However, when former GM Paul Holmgren was promoted to team president and Hextall assumed the role of GM, Snider bought into Hextall’s vision. Despite the struggles, up until his death in 2016, Snider didn’t issue the sort of diktat he had in years past. After Snider passed away, his family sold the family interest in the team to Comcast, and Dave Scott assumed control of the team.
Scott has not been seen or heard from much, although there are rumors that he is starting to turn up the heat on things after the Flyers stumbled out of the gate yet again. One wonders if the issue is impacted by vocal fan criticism of the team and it’s coaching staff, and even of Hextall himself. Scott is an unknown element and new to the NHL, but he’s also a long time executive at Comcast. Comcast has never been a corporation to sit back and rest on it’s laurels, and one has to imagine Scott’s tenure there was shaped by that aggressive corporate mentality.
Obviously, until Scott makes a public comment or takes action, all we can do is speculate. But, for the first time, we are hearing that the seats at the Wells Fargo Center might be getting warm from legitimate and respected national hockey media like Elliotte Friedman and Nick Kypreos. Given Hextall’s penchant for treating every bit of information about his team like the nuclear codes, leaks of this sort have been unheard of. Is it just a shot across the bow from a poor start or ownership seeing years of subpar performance and demanding corrections? Time will tell.