Four years ago, Ron Hextall inherited a team in cap hell and barren high-level prospects. Since then, he’s brought the Philadelphia Flyers out of both situations.
Just for perspective, here’s what the 2013 Development Camp roster looked like:
Brandon Alderson, Tyler Brown, Nick Cousins, Kyle Flanagan, Tyrell Goulbourne, Stephen Harper, Andrew Johnson, Scott Laughton, Taylor Leier, Derek Mathers, Marcel Noebels, Andrew Ryan, Petr Straka, Mark Alt, Terrance Amorosa, David Drake, Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hagg, Matt Konan, Maxim Lamarche, Frederic Larsson, Nick Luukko, Eamonn McDermott, Samuel Morin, Reece Willcox, Carsen Chubak, Cal Heeter, Merrick Madsen, Ryan McKay, Matt Skoff, Anthony Stolarz.
That doesn’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of your enemies, does it?
Hextall promised to build this team through a process, and thus far he has stuck to it. He runs a tight ship. Very little is leaked to the media without him knowing about it, so it’s tough to get a gauge for what he may actually do this offseason: the first offseason where he will have actual cap space. A big-name free agent signing doesn’t seem likely, so what could the next few months look like?
The answer could rest in Hextall’s past. In April 2006, the Los Angeles Kings named Dean Lombardi as the team’s general manager. Two months later, he brought in Hextall as Assistant General Manager. Hextall saw the Kings’ entire process from laughing stock to Lord Stanley, and he looks to be mirroring Lombardi’s process from the outside. So let’s compare and contrast the two.
So, first off, what does a championship team have? To simplify it a bit, most Stanley Cup teams have three elements: a number one center, a number one defenseman, and a number one goaltender.
I’ll admit that’s overly simplistic. There’s much more that goes into winning a Cup, but you get the point.
The Kings definitely had (and still have) all three in Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick. The Flyers seem to have the makings of those three pieces in Sean Couturier, although he and Nolan Patrick could become a lethal one-two punch, Ivan Provorov and, hopefully, Carter Hart.
Another similarity that both of these teams share is that all three of those elements were brought in through the draft, which is where we are going to start.
The Pittsburgh Penguins – no matter how much you detest them – won two straight Cups because they drafted well. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the key cogs in that machine, but Matt Murray Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary are just as important to that team.
I limited my scope to Lombardi’s first four drafts since Hextall has only completed four as well. I also placed a 200-game threshold on the Kings when it came to determining the value of the picks.
In his first four drafts, thirteen of Lombardi’s selections have crossed that 200-game threshold. They are Jonathan Bernier, Trevor Lewis, Thomas Hickey, Drew Doughty, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Slava Voynov, Kyle Clifford, Nicolas Deslauriers, Alec Martinez, Dwight King, and Jordan Nolan. Of those 13, seven were picked after the first round.
Some good, some bad. His most important pick was Doughty, but overall, Lombardi did an admirable job. He used two of those prospects when he decided to go all in for a Cup run. We’ll get to those trades later.
For Hextall, none of his picks have crossed that threshold yet, but it’s safe to say that Patrick, Konency, Sanheim and Provorov will be full-time NHLers. The rest of the lot, including Morgan Frost, Philippe Myers and Wade Allison just to name a few, show tons of promise, but right now that’s all it is. It’ll take a few years to fully evaluate any draft, but at the moment, Hextall has done very well.
Salary Cap Management
Asset management is critical to winning a Cup. Part of that management is structuring contracts and picking out which players are part of your core and which ones are not. General managers have to make these tough calls while also formatting the contract so it’s a win-win for both the players and the long-term future of the team.
Prior to winning the 2012 Stanley Cup, Lombardi handed out nineteen contracts that were worth more than $1 million. Of those 19, four of them were long-term deals. Those went to Dustin Brown (6 years, $19.05 million), Lubomir Visnovsky (5 years, $28 million), Anze Kopitar (7 years, $47.6 million) and Drew Doughty (8 years, $56 million). (For those who are curious, Jonathan Quick was in the middle of a 3-year, $5.4 million when the Kings won their first title.)
If there’s another thing Hextall has done well overall it’s contracts. Yes, the Michal Neuvirth & Dale Weise signings are terrible, but neither of them have albatross contracts that are untradeable, nor will they handcuff Hextall. Almost every GM has a gaffe contract or two. If the Weise and Neuvirth signings are Hextall’s worst moves, I’m more than willing to live with that.
Since 2014, Hextall has given out four contracts with four or more years on the term. Those players: Sean Couturier (6 years, $26 million), Shayne Gostisbehere (6 years, $27 million), Brayden Schenn (4 years, $20.5 million) and Dale Weise (4 years, $9.4 million). The other deals have all been for one to two years and were all less than $3 million.
Weise’s contract is horrible, but at less than $10 million total it is tolerable as the lone bad egg. Schenn’s deal was par for the course, and the other two contracts are looking to be steals.
Similar to Lombardi, Hextall is piecing together the future of this team. Like the Kopitar, Doughty, Brown and Quick deals, just about all of the contracts Hextall has given out are fair to the player and the team. With Provorov, Patrick and Konency coming up on extensions, Hextall will be under the spotlight again to secure the team’s young talent to manageable contracts.
Aside from contracts, this is where I see Hextall most closely mirroring his plan after Lombardi’s process. Lombardi never splurged on a free agent. From 2006 to 2010, he made small to medium-sized deals that helped form his roster. Below are the main trades Lombardi made leading up to the 2012 Cup run.
Lots of fans are wondering if or when Hextall will make the big trade to push this team over the edge. As you can see from the trades above, it wasn’t until the summer of 2011, five years after being named GM, did Lombardi go for broke. The Demetria for O’Sullivan trade set everything in motion. O’Sullivan was a decent player, but the swap for Justin Williams proved to be a huge move for the Kings.
I want to take a closer look at the Visnovsky deal (6/29/08). While this may not have the appeal of the big trades, it was important nonetheless. At the time of the deal Visnovsky was in his early 30s while Stoll and Greene were in their mid 20s. While neither Stoll nor Greene were offensive dynamos, they were impactful players in playing decent minutes and providing important depth to the team. Neither of them are highlight reel players, but Lombardi was able to get two young, impactful role players in exchange for an aging defenseman.
Let’s take a look at another deal. The 2/26/07 trade that landed the Kings a second-round pick that became Wayne Simmonds; ditto the trade that brought in Jack Johnson. Both of those swaps gave Lombardi the ammo to go out and get Mike Richards and Jeff Carter who gave the Kings some stabilization down the middle.
Now let’s take a look at the deals Hextall has executed with the Flyers.
As you can see, it’s been mostly trades for picks. But a few of those picks have turned fruitful. The Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn deals helped the Flyers land Konecny, and the Brayden Schenn trade got the Flyers Morgan Frost and another first-rounder this year.
These trades haven’t been given the benefit of time to grade them, so for now, it’s an incomplete picture. But it does give an indication that if Hextall is looking to make some kind of splash, it will be through the assets he has acquired over the last several years.
Taking a look at the bigger picture can also give us some more depth. During Lombardi’s first season, the Kings accumulated 68 points. They were 20th in goals for, 26th in goals against and were a putrid -56 in goal differential. The team steadily improved, increasing their point totals to 71 in year two, 79 in year three and 101 in year four. The goal differential climbed as well from -56 to +22 during the 101-point season. They finally made the playoffs in years four and five, but lost in the first round.
That jump to 101 points also happened to be the year Jonathan Quick took the reins as the full-time starter in his second pro season. The other key players – Doughty, Brown, Kopitar – had also taken major steps in their development.
The Flyers – on the other hand – have been up and down since Dave Hakstol took over as coach. While he’s made the playoffs in two of the last three seasons, those postseason appearances have been forgetful and the team has ebbed and flowed in terms of its play, which should be somewhat expected with an average team in the middle of a transition. Despite these frustrating years, a bright spot should be pointed toward the younger players who have forced their way into bigger roles. Half of the Flyers’ top-six were 21 or younger.
Since 15-16, Hakstol’s first season as coach, the Flyers have accumulated 96 points, 88 points and 98 points in a single season. While their goals against has increased every year, they’re scoring more, jumping from 22nd in the league in 15-16 to 20th in 16-17 to 13th in 17-18. The goal differential has fluctuated from -4, to -17 to +8.
Wrapping it up
There’s no magic 8 ball that’s going to tell us what Hextall will do this summer. All we can do is speculate, but looking into the history of the Kings, you can probably guess that Hextall is taking that blueprint with his own tweaks.
He’s followed that process pretty closely. Build through the draft, not chasing the sexy free agent (unless it’s stupid, sexy Henrik Lundqvist), and stockpile assets to cash in when your feel the team is ready.
It may not be the easiest process to follow, but it’s one that worked. We just need to trust the process.