There’s no disputing that, at the time Ron Hextall took over the GM duties from Paul Holmgren, he was taking over a mix of talent and problems that didn’t add up to a Cup contender. We can argue about what ultimately put the Flyers in that position, be it Ed Snider’s insistence that they “fix” the goalie problem or Paul Holmgren’s massive deal to get Chris Pronger shortly before Pronger suffered a career ending injury, but the reality is, it doesn’t matter.
The Flyers had lived by the motto “live every day to its fullest”, throwing money, picks and prospects at their problems, as if the ownership was standing directly behind them screaming “make it rain Paul!”. To some extent, I admire the aggressiveness to attempt to win, every year, and I’d tell you that I think that Ed Snider, “involved” as he was, should be sainted for creating, caring for and never financially limiting this team. However, on the other end of the spectrum, when you push all your chips to the middle of the table and lose, there’s nothing left to admire but bravado and memories.
The decisions made, collectively, left the Flyers with “top prospects” like Kyle Wellwood and Jason Akeson and eventually placed players like Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier and Matt Read into positions where they were heavily relied upon sooner than they probably should have been. It also left coach Peter Laviolette with a roster that couldn’t play his trademark aggressive style without hemorrhaging scoring chances. Capped out, with few legitimate prospects who weren’t on the NHL roster and a shortage of picks, Hextall was brought in to take over.
The Flyers of today look nothing like the Flyers of the past. Ron Hextall has prioritized the future and patience, slow burning years off of unwanted contracts and planning for days to come. Prospects like Morgan Frost, Joel Farabee, Jay O’Brien, Phil Myers, Samuel Morin, Carter Hart and many others are lined up, waiting for their shot at an NHL role. Ivan Provorov, Shayne Gostisbehere (drafted by Holmgren), Travis Konecny and to a lesser extent, Travis Sanheim, Robert Hagg and Oskar Lindblom, have already developed into NHL players. All of this is, very clearly, the result of an extensive commitment to the draft.
Their organizational health doesn’t end there. Financially, the Flyers share the same success and in the not-so-distant future, Jori Lehtera and others will also fade away, presumably opening up even more cap space for new contracts. Andrew MacDonald though, he’s staying forever, like that chest cold you caught that one year that just came back over and over, through round after round of antibiotics. “Hey, it’s me, Andy, I hope you like watching hand grenade passes and pucks off the boards because, I’ve got you all covered.” All joking aside, the Flyers of today are extremely healthy in terms of future talent and cap space and even the most unpleasant of contracts are now manageable, MacDonald included.
Unfortunately, the reorganization of priorities that brought today’s sturdy foundation did come at a cost. Gone is coach Peter Laviolette, who is now consistently challenging for the Cup in Nashville using the same system he employed here. Ed Snider sadly, passed away during the 2015-2016 playoff push, leaving a void that is unlikely to ever be filled with as much passion as it once was. Contention, excitement and some of the focus on the “on ice” product, has seemingly been lost as well. Patience, to a large extent, replaced performance.
Taking the next step….
The decision to sign a player like James van Riemsdyk is one I suspect was not taken lightly by the Flyers and was based on the recognition that they’re approaching a new and delicate time period in which contention is a real possibility. His signing being the first legitimately substantial free agent signing of Ron Hextall’s tenure, it was enough to make even the most adamant Hextall hater’s heart beat like the Grinch’s when he was accepted in Whoville. The main difference between these two events, as far as I can tell, is that one happened in December and the other happened in July (technically).
The signing, at the very least, signified that the Flyers understand new problems are always developing and changing and conditions for winning are rarely, if ever, “perfect”. Every team solves and creates new problems each year. The league changes and the strength of teams or divisions change as well. While no team, the Flyers included, should be irresponsible, they equally, cannot be in a situation that turns into paralysis by analysis. The key to transitioning is never risking your whole lot, not never risking at all.
It also speaks to a further recognition that the problems facing the Flyers, if they don’t begin to increasingly focus on transitioning to contention, could be how to replace a talented core that never got the chance to contend or how to pay the kids who run out of ELC years as key veterans take a downward turn. In short, the challenge has shifted over the years from cap space, prospect building and contractual issues to how to truly execute putting a contending team on the ice.
Building a team is a lot like making a meal from scratch; it’s not just about having all the ingredients, knowledge and time to act, it’s about having all of those things, at the same time. Sometimes, getting all of those things together at once means spending money or trading parts to create the end goal. The Flyers are no different and though they have a lot of the ingredients here today, they have a shelf life and there are still some items that must be acquired and grown. Though many fans are convinced you could give Dave Hakstol the ingredients to make a 5 star meal and still end up eating cold mac and cheese at 3am in a puddle of tears, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put him, or the rest of the team, in a position to be better through whatever means necessary.
The Flyers seem to now recognize that, while no one “buys” a Stanley Cup, no one entirely organically wins one either. Though teams clearly must draft and develop, they must also inevitably supplement that effort with signings and trades in order to truly contend. To visualize that point in living color all we need to do is look at some recent Stanley Cup Champions and compare their rosters to our own….
2010-2011 Boston Bruins
Key Drafted Players: Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Brad Marchand
Key Acquisitions: Tim Thomas, Nathan Horton, Mark Recchi, Michael Ryder, Tomas Kaberle
2011-2012 Los Angeles Kings
Key Drafted Players: Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown
Key Acquisitions: Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams, Simon Gagne, Jack Johnson, Dustin Penner
2012-2013 Chicago Blackhawks
Key Drafted Players: Patrick Kane, Jonthan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford, Brandon Saad
Key Acquisitions: Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Nick Leddy, Michal Handzus, Michael Frolik
2013-2014 Los Angeles Kings
Key Drafted Players: Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, Tyler Toffoli, Dustin Brown
Key Acquisitions: Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik, Justin Williams
2014-2015 Chicago Blackhawks
Key Drafted Players: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brandon Saad
Key Acquisitions: Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette
2015-2016 Pittsburgh Penguins
Key Drafted Players: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Matt Murray, Marc-Andre Fleury
Key Acquisitions: Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin, Kris Kunitz, Nick Bonino
2016-2017 Pittsburgh Penguins
Key Drafted Players: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Murray
Key Acquisitions: Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Justin Schultz, Chris Kunitz
2017-2018 Washington Capitals
Key Drafted Players: Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Brayden Holtby, John Carlsson
Key Acquisitions: T.J. Oshie, Lars Eller, Matt Niskanen
By comparison, the Flyers of 2017-2018 had…
Key Drafted Players: Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, Nolan Patrick, Travis Konecny
Key Acquisitions: Jake Voracek, Wayne Simmonds (UFA to be), Val Filppula (left via UFA), Jori Lehtera, Radko Gudas, Andrew MacDonald, Dale Weise
If we compare the 2017-2018 Flyers to those championship combinations, it’s easy to see that I’ve used the words “key acquisitions” in an almost comically reckless way and that of the two areas, the area the Flyers were lacking most in was not drafted talent, but instead, the key acquisitions by other means. Adding JVR, a very consistent scorer, is no doubt a start, but we can’t lament when eventually, some of the picks and prospects we’ve amassed are dealt to push the needle further in the direction of contention. The time is now to remove the “placeholder” atmosphere of rostering and playing players who are no longer part of the solution, be it through natural growth of prospects or signings and trades. This is the way of the true contender. This is the path forward.
Holmgren may have inadvertently taken the team to near ruin, despite trying to do the right thing, and Hextall may have taken them to a safe middle ground, but until the Flyers entirely blend risk with their incredibly deep prospect pool, the fans will be waiting for a contending team. My hope is that JVR’s signing signifies a shift to a commitment to excellence, at the NHL level, not just in conducting a master course on prospect building and contractual management.
The Flyers, and Ron Hextall, can now use some of the assets he’s created to smartly expedite the process, because, for almost every championship team, that is eventually, part of “the process”. Showing fans that patience and aggression can not only co-exist but thrive in this market, when utilized correctly, might make “the process” something we’re all willing to trust.