Before listening to Ron Hextall’s press conference on Thursday, I went to Twitter to get a sense from the masses, if you will, and came away with the conclusion that a strong contingent of Flyers fans were more than a little upset with the leader of the Philadelphia Flyers’ front office.
I myself came away with some concerns once I listened to it for myself, but I wouldn’t say I was ready to grab my pitchfork just yet. Allow me to take this opportunity to expand upon what I felt were the major takeaways from Hextall’s press conference.
UFAs are gone
I’ll start with a positive. I would be willing to bet all unrestricted free agents formerly with the Flyers set to hit the market on July 1 will find themselves elsewhere next season. No longer will we see Brandon Manning taking on second-pair minutes (take a second to appreciate that; it feels good!).
I realize Hextall appeared to make an exception for Filppula, but based on his statement, I didn’t come away thinking he had a strong desire to bring him back. I believe it was more of a contingency plan, that they are more interested in exploring the field (trade/UFA/in-house), but if all other options were exhausted and nothing came to fruition, they’d be willing to bring him back for next season.
In terms of players due for contract extensions after July 1, Hextall was once again unrevealing in his statement. Charlie O’Connor of the Athletic and BSH Radio posed questions specifically about the likes of Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, Wayne Simmonds and Robert Hagg.
I don’t think Hextall is necessarily in a rush with respect to the young players in particular. I did find it a bit interesting that he didn’t have much to say about Simmonds. There wasn’t a ringing endorsement for Simmonds in that line of questioning. Hextall isn’t one to disclose his plans, but he does tend to be pretty forthright about his feelings towards players. He doesn’t usually beat around the bush when talking about his own guys. He said Robert Hagg played excellent this year. He praised Sanheim for raising his level of play when sent down and sustaining that level of play upon being recalled.
He was asked multiple questions about Wayne Simmonds and at no point did he go out of his way to heap praise on the power forward. I’m not suggesting that this is huge news or that Simmonds is guaranteed to get traded. No Marcus Hayes impressions here. I simply found it interesting that Hextall didn’t seem committed and determined to signing someone perceived as a core player going into a contract year.
Hextall pointed out the center, defenseman and goalie positions as areas in need of improvement this off-season. Specifically, he mentioned wanting to find a penalty killer “up front” to address their PK woes. Again, nothing earth-shattering here. Would I have liked to hear him say he was looking to add a scoring winger? Sure, but I don’t think it means he’s not interested in doing so this off-season.
One of my main concerns heading into this season with moving Claude Giroux to left wing was thinning their depth at center. Giroux went on to have a career year on Sean Couturier’s wing and I could not be happier about that, but my concern was unfortunately realized; they were certainly lacking in talent down the middle this season. Nolan Patrick had a slow start, Scott Laughton never got a legitimate look at a larger role, and we all know the struggles of Uncle Teri (aka Valtteri Filppula) this season. The defense corps is likely getting younger next year, with Travis Sanheim becoming a full-time member, and Samuel Morin no longer being waiver-exempt. Maybe Philippe Myers impresses in camp. Does Hextall look outside the organization as well?
What about the goalie position? Carter Hart will almost assuredly not be ready for the NHL next season without any pro experience. Michal Neuvirth is just now deciding to work with a new trainer after years of a chronic case of the injury bug; will he return? How will Brian Elliott respond after a potential “clean out” procedure to his abdomen? Maybe most importantly, will Dave Hakstol finally learn to not run his goalies into the ground? The team needs to improve in these areas. How he will go about upgrading those positions remains to be seen.
PK is a focus ... but Lappy?
One thing that was made fairly clear in this press conference was the focus on improving the miserable penalty kill. As previously mentioned, Hextall noted he would like to add a forward to help the penalty kill. He talked about their success rate (or lack thereof) not being good enough.
And yet, Hextall attempted to put a somewhat positive vibe on how the PK performed at the end of the season. He specifically mentioned the last 22 or 23 games, plus the playoffs, almost as a base off of which to grow. While he’s not wrong about the PK being better over that period of time, is that taking precedent over the previous 311 or so games where it was an overall disaster?
So this is the one point in the press conference where I found myself legitimately disappointed: I’m not sure how Ian Laperriere still has a job as a coach on this team. Hextall left open the possibility of a shift of responsibilities among the coaches, but the fact that it hasn’t been definitively determined that the PK coach of the last four years will no longer run that unit is nothing short of perplexing.
Provorov and Gostisbehere “kinda vets now”
Moving on from my most disappointing portion of the press conference to my favorite part, this part of Hextall’s address made me happy. Hextall, when answering questions about the defense corps heading into next season, talked about Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere as being “kinda vets now”. This is a big deal, as it leads me to believe that Hextall no longer feels this team needs to surround his young defensemen with glue-guy veteran presence players. He sees Provorov and Ghost as having enough experience now to provide that veteran leadership to younger guys coming up.
Last year, this was not the case. Hextall was very much against having “too many” young defensemen on the roster. This year, Hextall suggested he wouldn’t be against having to “go young” on the back end. Hextall didn’t give us much to work with today, but this little nugget is a potentially big development towards building the roster next season.
Four Years, but really two years?
My last major takeaway from this press conference was this little quote that may have gone unnoticed by some who listened this afternoon. Hextall was asked a question by Dave Isaac about the Flyers’ standing within the city, if he feels the Flyers are slipping in that regard and what effect that has on the team. This was the part of Hextall’s response that irked me a bit:
…this is a bit of a slow process. Four years ago, again, when we started…really Ivan and Travis were the start of the, kind of the turnover. It’s only two years ago. So it sorta took two years to kinda get wheels in motion, and we’re…we’re on plan.
I understand that Konecny and Provorov were the first wave of young players to join the NHL roster. It may have begun there in terms of it being Hextall’s first real imprint on the roster. That being said, this came off to me as a bit of a kick-the-can-down-the-road statement. It may have only been two years since Provorov and Konecny ascended to the NHL ranks, but it’s been four years of filling roster holes with glue and duct tape.
It can’t continue. This can’t be part of his plan anymore (it probably never really should have been). There can’t be another off-season of Weise/Gordon/Lehtera-type acquisitions. Hextall may not want to make things “go sideways” as he said, by focusing on what the Sixers and Eagles and Phillies are doing, but I would hope that adding better players than the aforementioned wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.
I expanded on a few nuggets from the 40+ minute press conference. As I previously stated, I didn’t come away ready to storm the castle and run Hextall out of the building. There were some things that were satisfying to hear and others that made me raise an eyebrow. But overall, I think it’s important to keep it all in perspective. Hextall was never going to come out and discuss his off-season plan in detail. Ultimately, actions speak louder than words, and we’ll all just have to wait and see how Hextall handles the biggest off-season of his career to date.