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It’s time for Ron Hextall to make moves

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The most important off-season of Hextall’s career as GM starts this summer. He needs to put this organization in position to take a big step forward.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Pittsburgh Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I’ve been one of the more patient and positive Flyers fans out there, particularly this season. I was one of the few who felt this team was still capable of making the playoffs during their 10 game losing streak. Overall, I’ve been on board with how Ron Hextall has handled the organization since taking over as general manager in the summer of 2013. But given the debacle that has unfolded before us over the past week, I think it’s time this organization is put on blast by one of its more patient and rational followers.

Coaching has been a problem

Earlier this calendar year I wrote about the issues I’ve had with Dave Hakstol during his tenure as the head coach of this organization. Watching this playoff series unravel has only strengthened my opinion. This coaching staff needs to be wiped clean. Taken apart. Scrapped. Hakstol has coached here for three years now, Gord Murphy and Ian Laperriere each a year longer.

Craig Berube was the bench boss before Hakstol. I bring him up in this discussion because the coaching staff is largely the same as it was under Berube. From the 2013-14 season until now, the Flyers have made the playoffs every other year. I’ve seen many fans clamor about how the stars on this team have not produced in the playoffs over that span of time. For reference sake, here are some adjusted 5v5 statistics to shed some light on the team in the years the Flyers made the playoffs over this five year period:

Flyers Team-Level Metrics In Most Recent Playoff Seasons

Metric (5v5, Adjusted) 2013-14 2015-16 2017-18
Metric (5v5, Adjusted) 2013-14 2015-16 2017-18
Corsi-For % 49.8% (18th) 50.25% (16th) 49.9% (18th)
Expected Goals For % 49.5% (18th) 49.0% (20th) 50.7% (15th)
Goals-For % 48.5% (19th) 49.9% (15th) 52.5% (12th)
Shooting % 8.4% (11th) 7.4% (22nd) 8.4% (11th)
Save % 91.7% (19th) 92.9% (2nd) 92.0% (12th)

Outside of the amazing 5v5 goaltending the team received from Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth in 2015-16, this organization has been largely mediocre. There has been quite a bit of shuffling of players over that time; salaries being shed, younger players coming into the fold. All understood and well noted. But, still, these teams haven’t been juggernauts by any stretch of the imagination, and looking at the numbers, you could argue they’ve been the definition of mediocre heading into these three playoff appearances.

So while some have taken the stance that players like Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Sean Couturier, and Wayne Simmonds simply haven’t been good enough, I’m going to take a different approach: it’s easier to carry a team through the regular season than the playoffs. Teams don’t get nearly as specific in their game planning during the regular season as they do for the playoffs. Because of that, it’s easier for teams to hide or get away with their weaknesses on a night to night basis. Once the playoffs start, that goes away. Teams are scouring video, sifting through analytics, looking for any and all weaknesses of every player and every detail of the system of their opponent. Coaching becomes much more important come playoff time, because adjustments need to be made more quickly and more timely. It’s very much a chess match, particularly when your team is inferior to your opponent with respect to talent.

This year, we’re witnessing a coach who led his team to be team outscored 17-1 in their three series losses, 10-1 on home ice to a division rival. In the two playoff series this team has played under Hakstol, they’ve been outscored 30-3 in seven losses to Washington and Pittsburgh. Overall, they’ve been outscored 32-12 in 10 playoff games, 19-3 in 5 home games. I repeat: 32-12 in 10 playoff games, 19-3 in 5 home games.

Obviously both the Capitals and Penguins were/are the better team in each of these series, but they were/are not that much better. No playoff team should get demolished to that extent, especially against teams with which they are very familiar. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a coach that’s made many strong adjustments or coaching decisions to help his team. Of the three playoff series they’ve played, a fair argument can be made that Berube did the best coaching job. And that was against a New York Rangers team that represented the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. Think about that. Let that sink in.

The players have to be better. This isn’t about absolving them completely of not performing. Simmonds in particular has been a shell of himself. But I think it’s also fair to say that these star players – Giroux, Voracek, Simmonds, Couturier – have dragged three mediocre rosters kicking and screaming into the playoffs and just haven’t had the support from the depth of the roster and especially not the coaching staff to have success come playoff time.

Hextall needs to step up

That was a lot of words and a few numbers about the coach, but this article is really about the organization as a whole. It’s time Hextall admits his most glaring mistake as GM and does what is necessary to truly point this team in the right direction. Returning to the coaching issue for a minute, this coaching staff needs to be remade.

They need to find a head coach who can make on-the-fly decisions in-game, who isn’t married to their game plan, and can adjust when necessary. A head coach who does not value veteran presence at the expense of talent. A head coach who takes a deeper look into analytics than goal-based metrics. A head coach that significantly more often than not, will put his team in the best position to win games over the long haul.

If he can find that coach, I have faith that that coach will hire a strong supporting cast to come with him. He needs to find that guy, and it should happen this off-season.

Hextall needs to make player personnel changes as well. He’s done a very good job building the farm system into one of the best in the NHL. Young players such as Nolan Patrick, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny appear to be budding stars in the league, with players like Travis Sanheim and Oskar Lindblom filling key depth roles. He has his number one center and Selke finalist in Couturier and a top pair defenseman in Shayne Gostisbehere signed long term to fantastic deals. Overall, he’s done much more to set up the long-term success of this organization. This off-season is the time to put a little more focus on the short-term.

If this series has taught him anything, I would hope it has taught him that this team needs to add more speed and skill to their lineup. Whether it’s from within through another wave of young players, via trade or free agency, or (hopefully) a combination of all three, Hextall needs to find more than just stop gaps to fill his bottom six forward lines and second and third defensive pairs. Cap space and roster space will be aplenty. Currency in the form of picks, players and prospects are copious. It’s not about spending ridiculous money in free agency or trading for aging players. A sense of purpose is required. But it’s time to be bolder and more creative with the NHL roster.

Conclusion

For a long time, the Flyers had been the most successful franchise in Philadelphia. But for a contingent of the Philadelphia sports fan base, they were, and still are, irrelevant. As a diehard fan I can honestly say it never really bothered me until now, because I always enjoyed watching this team play, win or lose. For the majority of my life the Flyers have been fun to watch.

The last few years, however, have not been as kind. And for that reason, that contingent of fans who feel the Flyers are irrelevant have grown a little louder to me; and it pains me to my core, because over the past few years, they’ve been right. This organization has done a poor job of putting together a product that a fan base could connect with or get behind, from the head coach to the glue men stopgap veterans. The famously zealous and energetic Wells Fargo Center has devolved into a pit of despair and negativity when the ice is down.

This off-season, that needs to change. This off-season, the Flyers need to show a stronger sense of direction and purpose at the NHL level, and that begins with Ron Hextall stepping outside of his comfort zone and making some potentially tough decisions.