It has been a week since the Philadelphia Flyers relieved Ron Hextall of his duties as general manager of the team. It was a title he held for just over four years in the organization after being brought on as assistant GM a year prior.
We’ve now had a week to sit back and sift through what rubble is coming out from the Hextall era, and there has been quite a lot to go through.
First, it was simply shocking. A change was seemingly on the horizon, but I don’t know if many people saw Hextall as the fall guy. Looking down at my phone on Monday morning, I almost couldn’t believe what I was reading. It was surreal.
It made sense in a way, however. The Flyers needed change and if Hextall wasn’t willing to change, they were going to find someone that could. Hextall did his part in getting this team through a few hellish years, but now it’s time for a new face, a new perspective — time for the next step.
As the week moved on, and nothing changed on the ice as the Flyers collapsed against the Senators, more came out about Hextall’s time with the Flyers. The reports ranged from mild to inflammatory with people seemingly wanting to push certain agendas. History belongs to the victors — or in this case, those who are left standing. That meant that Paul Holmgren and Dave Scott would explain their reasoning for the move in their press conference, which they did rather well, and sources from inside the organization would start to leak out.
Ron Hextall then held a press conference of his own on Friday. He said during it that part of the reasoning was for closure, as he bleeds orange and black, but there may have been things he wanted to clear up as well.
Before this gets any further, I want to be upfront in saying that I don’t dispel any of the things coming out since Hextall’s firing. I do believe that he ran a tight ship — likely too tight — and isolated himself from the rest of the front office. He was likely controlling in what his players could and couldn’t do to a certain extent. Yes, he was stubborn, and he was too patient in certain areas. Hell, he may have done all the negative things that have been reported since the firing.
Holmgren, Scott, and the people left standing have their story, and Hextall has his. Neither side is 100-percent accurate, so the truth lies somewhere in the middle. And that’s the hard part: finding the truth.
With all of that being said, I believe that firing Hextall last Monday was a premature move out of panic and desperation by Paul Holmgren and the Flyers.
First and foremost, we cannot forget about all of the positives that Hextall did for this organization. He took over for Holmgren, dug out of the cap hell that inherited, and stocked the farm system with top-level talents at every position with depth to boot.
When he was promoted to GM, Hextall said that he had a long-term plan to make the Flyers a contender year after year. It was a five-year plan, and he was fired after four-and-a-half years. He did all the dirty work just to hand the reins back over to the man he cleaned up the mess from.
Hextall learned about the management side of hockey in Los Angeles, where the Kings went through their own turnover before winning the Cup two times in three years.
“I went through it in L.A. and trust me the first three, four years they were hell. They were hell. I mean that. It was hard. There was a lot of pressure to move young players and we held firm. We struck when the timing was right, and it ended up we raised that Cup. Let me tell you, you do that once it was worth the six years of pain,” he said on Friday.
Hextall joined the Kings in June 2006. In their first three seasons after that, they missed the playoffs. They lost in the first round in Years 4 and 5. Then Year 6 came, and they won the Cup. We’ll get to that in a little bit.
Hextall took over as GM of the Flyers in May 2014. They were in a better spot than the Kings, but they made the playoffs in Year 2 and 4, getting ousted in the first round both times. This was Year 5, and the Flyers weren’t on pace to make the playoffs despite being a better team on paper. However, they made a run last year and are now just five points out of a playoff spot despite all of this.
It seemed like he wanted to follow the Kings’ blueprint here in Philadelphia, and he was close to getting to that next level.
As far as being too patient is concerned, we know all too well how a knee-jerk reaction of a trade can haunt a franchise for years to come (see: Justin Williams, Patrick Sharp, Scottie Upshall, JVR, and others). Hextall was stockpiling assets and hopefully wanted to strike when the timing was right, just like in LA.
Signing James van Riemsdyk showed that Hextall was willing to spend when necessary. The Flyers were also reportedly in on Paul Stastny and had been somewhat linked to Artemi Panarin. Those are two big names along with JVR that Hextall was in on.
After Year 5 of Dean Lombardi’s time in LA, which coincided with Hextall’s, the Kings made their big move to take that next step. They traded for Mike Richards in the offseason and then acquired Jeff Carter in season. They struck when the timing was right, like Hextall said; it wouldn’t surprise me if he wanted to do something similar in Philadelphia.
This upcoming offseason has a free-agent class that is full of big names, particularly in the Flyers’ area of needs: center and defense. It is also when the Flyers will have a lot of cap space, meaning that Hextall would be able to make those big moves needed after Year 5 to get the Flyers over the hump in Year 6.
That extra year also gives time for the young players to get their seasoning and legs under them. We’ve seen the growth of the players in their second and third years after so-so rookie campaigns, and that would’ve continued. The core would still be in their low-30s at the oldest, with the budding core reaching their low-to-mid 20s. That opens up the window for the Flyers to compete year in and year out, just like Hextall wanted.
Hextall had his flaws. Everyone does. But if Hextall’s flaws were that bad that they were affecting the entire organization — if they were affecting the passion and fight in which the team played with — then that should have been addressed in the offseason. It should be addressed when there could be time to find a solution, whether that be in the form of a new GM, new coaches, or both.
The thing about those flaws is that they’re only seen as a problem when the team is losing. They were fine when Hextall was turning trash into treasure, turning goons into third-round picks, finding steals in the draft, and making high cap hits disappear.
If the team didn’t have passion, they wouldn’t have bounced back from a 10-game losing streak to post one of the best records in the league in the latter stages of last season. They would have rolled over after a Game 1 beating by the Penguins. They wouldn’t have gone 5-0-1 in a six-game stretch earlier this year. They wouldn’t have put together their most complete effort of the season just days prior to Hextall’s firing.
The Flyers have actually been one of the league’s best teams in expected goals percentage at even strength, and overall if you can believe it, but their save percentage lacked. And that is likely where the main disconnect happened this season, leading to the firing.
But the main flaw that seemed to cost him was his stubbornness when it came to making trades. He was too patient and he didn’t do anything to solve the problem in the crease, although no one could have foreseen five goalies either being injured or playing below NHL level.
Hextall had seen the negative side of a rash trade for a goalie when he acquired Petr Mrazek for a pair of mid-round picks in February. Sure, Mrazek stole a few games, but he didn’t move the needle that much at that time. This season, in November with a few goalies on the mend, it’s somewhat understandable that he didn’t want to give up a few more assets for a short-term stopgap when Michal Neuvirth (as injury prone as he is) was ready to be activated (he was activated on Thursday), and Brian Elliott (the team’s No. 1 goalie) was just a week or two away.
Calling up Carter Hart would be premature as well, and Anthony Stolarz needed time to get back into the swing of things.
The Flyers are still a good team on paper, as Hextall said on Friday and the players showed on Saturday with a win in Pittsburgh, so them climbing back up the standings in the coming weeks and months wouldn’t be a surprise. They are likely going to be a strong contender in the coming years — it’ll be hard for them not to be — and that will be thanks to the work that Hextall did during his time in Philadelphia.
Hextall was fired in the beginning of the fifth year out of his five-year plan. He got the team most of the way there, and maybe he could’ve gotten them to the top, but he won’t be around to see the fruits of his labor. If the Flyers do end up winning the Cup in the next few years it will be under a new GM, Hextall won’t be able to truly enjoy it, and that’s a damn shame.
Ron Hextall was not perfect. He was controlling, stubborn, and at times frustratingly patient, among other things, but he did a lot of good here. The Flyers needed to make a move as the on-ice product wasn’t living up to expectations, and it could have been as simple as firing an assistant coach or two, or trading for a goalie, or shuffling things around. It shouldn’t have been Hextall’s head that rolled — at least not yet.
Firing Hextall isn’t necessarily the wrong move — hell, it may end up being the move needed to turn the corner — but it was a panic move nonetheless. Firing Hextall in the middle of the season, after a brutal loss with no plan in place, was a panic move.