Ron Hextall was pretty upfront about what organizational needs he wanted to address with the 2018 draft, and the Flyers’ general manager did just about everything he wanted in the end. But is simply filling needs enough for the Flyers right now? Is it too basic, or just the continuation of a trusted process that will someday reap incredible benefits for the organization? A Hextall-ian masterstroke, if you will.
Hextall was open during his media availability ahead of the draft about wanting to add centers and defensemen — specifically right-handed defensemen. After taking winger Joel Farabee with the Flyers’ first pick at No. 14, Hextall took high school center Jay O’Brien with his second first-round selection. After Farabee fell in the Flyers’ lap, Hextall went a little off the board, according to some scouts, with O’Brien. But he’s an intriguing talent who also happens to be a center, an organizational need in Hextall’s mind going into the draft.
After adding physical defenseman Adam Ginning with his second-round pick, Hextall took back-to-back right-handed defensemen in John St. Ivany (112th overall), and Wyatte Wylie (127th overall) with his next two picks. Two of his final picks in the 2018 draft would be centers, with Gavin Hain and Marcus Westfalt joining the Flyers’ prospect ranks, the third was goaltender Samuel Ersson.
In the end, five of the eight players the Flyers drafted fell under the category of pieces Hextall singled out as organizational needs ahead of the draft. But while Hextall accomplished what he set out to do with this draft (at least on the outside), I can’t help but think that Hextall played it too safe this time around.
Nobody denies that the Flyers’ prospect pool is among the very best in the NHL, and Hextall deserves full marks for turning that part of the organization fully around. But take a peak at the under-24 depth chart that the Athletic’s Alexander Appleyard put together following the draft.
That’s a ton of quality and depth there, to say the least. There are NHL-ready players, top picks, and more just about everywhere. Prospects are never a sure thing, but the sheer amount and depth of the Flyers’ prospect pool lends Hextall the ability to go any one of directions to improve his NHL roster.
With a pair of first-round picks in the teens, Hextall could have used that ammunition to move up and target more of an NHL impact player that fell than the likes of Farabee (Committed to Boston University next year) and O’Brien (Committed to Providence College). Or to even leverage those picks into a veteran NHL roster player along the lines of a Jeff Skinner, Dougie Hamilton, or Max Pacioretty.
As far as draft players, the inclusion of two centers not earmarked for the top-five throughout the draft process —Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Barrett Hayton— caused a couple of touted prospects to fall. Filip Zadina, an electric goal scorer and sniper, dropped to No. 6 overall and the Detroit Red Wings while well-regarded defensemen Evan Bouchard and Noah Dobson slipped to No. 10 and No. 12, respectively. All three players would have required some creative movement from Hextall, but would have been worth the price tag given the Flyers’ immense prospect depth.
It’s not the end of the world, as the Flyers were lucky to have Farabee fall to them and O’Brien could very well become the next Hockey Hall of Famer out of Thayer Academy, but if there was a time for Hextall to use some of his asset muscle to procure a higher-end player, this draft would have been the perfect time.
Instead, Hextall stuck to the board and made his picks while addressing what he felt were needs down the middle and on defense. It wasn’t a sexy draft in the end, but maybe Hextall did try and spice things up before deciding prices were too high or for some other reason. We know the phone at the Flyers’ table wasn’t silent all night, that’s for sure.
Hextall did watch division rivals like the Islanders and Rangers have savvy drafts, especially with picks right in front of the Flyers in the first round. The Islanders, under new management and Lou Lamoriello, nabbed Dobson and Oliver Wahlstrom: two players who would have looked quite good in the Orange and Black.
The Flyers are inching closer to being a contender at the NHL level, and while Ron Hextall has done a masterful job in amassing talent and building the farm system from scratch, he had an opportunity at this draft to make splash and didn’t.
Just because there were no big deals doesn’t mean Hextall didn’t fix holes and get good players. It also doesn’t make the 2018 draft a failure by any means, but it felt like a chance for Hextall to do more, to go above and beyond: to make a real move to help his hockey club right now.
Instead he did what he’s always done: quietly stockpile good assets and players to either be a part of the next Stanley Cup champion in Philadelphia or be the pieces in a package for a player who puts his club over the top in that pursuit. Whether that will be enough remains to be seen.