In the wake of the Flyers firing GM Ron Hextall on November 26th, Flyers fans were left in a classic “He said/he said” situation. While team president Paul Holmgren and chairman Dave Scott painted a simple picture of “philosophical differences” and were fairly gracious to Hextall, a series of stories appearing in various mediums shed light on a side of Hextall that was none too flattering. Hextall was depicted as either an over-involved micromanager who was too single minded to see how his level of involvement affected those around him or a HR Haldeman-level tyrant, turning the Flyers front office in a Nixonian nightmare where plumbers hunted leaks and a small circle controlled everything.
Hextall’s press conference was obviously an attempt to address some of that and to accommodate the numerous press requests he received in the wake of his surprising dismissal in the middle of the season. He was more open about his plans for the team than he’s ever been and one is left wondering that, even if he did more, would it have been enough to save his job given that he didn’t really come out and deny the reports that he was, at the very least, a a GM that involved himself in just about every aspect of his team.
I’m not going to weigh in too strongly on that aspect, though. I don’t feel Hextall said anything that refutes the factual accuracy in the reporting of several long time and well respected journalists. There’s also the possibility that Hextall’s “tighter ship” approach led to ill feelings from alumni and employees that long had very open access to the team and its facilities during the days that the late Ed Snider ran the organization. The extent of the issues there may never be fully known, as the people involved may have axes to grind, or may simply be trying to spin the removal of a popular former player from his role as GM.
The thing is, while all those are valid concerns and issues, they’re not really hockey issues. What really struck me hardest were Hextall’s comments covering the moves he did - and more importantly did not - make over the last 18 months or so of his tenure. While many became concerned after hearing from Hextall, that he was being pressed to swing huge blockbuster deals for older players, I was actually somewhat reassured that upper management acted to remove him. It’s not that Hextall was an actively bad manager, it’s that he was far too passive in terms of correcting issues at the NHL level. While Hextall was correct in asserting the Flyers are not at the level of elite teams, that should not have precluded the GM from addressing long standing, chronic issues with the team he has assembled.
For instance, he knew the PK was such a trouble spot, and says he had developed second thoughts about not removing Ian Laperriere as PK coach. He mentioned, too, that the Flyers were interested in signing veteran winger Daniel Winnick as a PK specialist. However, he did neither, amazingly weighing the three weeks at the end of last season where the Flyer PK performed at a near league average rate more heavily than their 4 year performance as a bottom 5 unit under Laperriere. Hextall stated he had no interest in signing free agent winger Michael Grabner, who signed with Arizona, despite his reputation as an exceptional penalty killing forward. Doing any of these things would not have derailed Hextall’s rebuild or cost him prospects. Instead he did nothing and held nobody accountable, and the Flyers PK has been an utter disaster, basically costing them a goal against per game.
In goal, he knew that Brian Elliott was coming off a pair of surgeries (and could have possibly not been ready to start the season) and that Michal Neuvirth’s injury history was likely to render him unable to be relied upon for the 35-40 starts that Elliott wouldn’t have made had he been fully healthy. Rather than pursuing a free agent like Carter Hutton, Robin Lehner or Jaroslav Halak, Hextall decided to roll the dice with his two incumbents, despite the red flags. As it stand right now, the Flyers have used 5 goalies in 25 games and have the worst save percentage in the NHL. Signing one of the aforementioned free agents, while either buying out Neuvirth or burying him in the AHL, would have provided the Flyers with solid goaltending both to split time this season with Elliott, but also as a bridge to Carter Hart in the next few seasons. Now Hextall’s replacement will likely have to deal assets to correct the problem.
Hextall also said he was being aggressive in light of the Flyers latest swoon, and was working on a trade the night before he was fired. That’s all well and good, but given his history, one has to wonder about his definition of aggressive. Hextall has made one trade in his tenure that was a direct attempt to improve his NHL roster-last season’s deadline move to add goalie Petr Mrazek-and even that was necessitated by injuries that knocked out both goalies with NHL experience.
As mentioned before, Hextall stressed that the Flyers were not at the level of teams like Nashville, Winnipeg or Tampa Bay, and that seemed to him a reason not to be more proactive. I’m not sure that logic holds when the Flyers-despite their well chronicled issues-are currently just 5 point out of third place in the division. Shoring up the team could mean a division title and a possible playoff run. Allowing players like Ivan Provorov, Nolan Patrick, Travis Konecny, Oskar Lindblom, and Shayne Gostisbehere to get more experience would be a vital step to their development as the future core of the team.
In the end, despite whatever background issues were in play, Hextall didn’t do enough to address the NHL team. His press conference basically confirmed this to an undeniable extent. He never seemed to get past the “thinking” stage on many moves. One wonders if he had acted on 1/5th of the moves he simply considered, whether or not it would be enough for him to retained his job as Flyers GM, despite the reported behind the scenes drama.
Obviously, part of the rationale behind Hextall having his own presser was to counter the stories coming out in the wake of his firing. But at the same time he did very little to dispel my worries that he simply wasn’t being aggressive enough to move the team forward and actually reaffirmed my doubts that he ever would be aggressive without intervention. Hextall’s patience was needed-desperately-by a franchise in the depths of a cap nightmare with a shallow system. But the time had come to start taking steps, even small ones, forward. If Hextall was unwilling to do so now, it’s hard to imagine him being willing to do so if the team ever reached contender status.