Clarke, Hextall Controversy Indicative of Flyers Fall from Grace

Bobby Clarke chose an interesting time to criticize a prominent former member of the Philadelphia Flyers. As a guest on the Cam and Strick Podcast, he harshly denounced former goaltender and general manager (GM) Ron Hextall for his work in the organization’s front office from 2014-2018. 

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Clarke, widely considered the best skater in Flyers history, said that Hextall “made himself bigger than the team” and “alienated” other members of the organization. He second-guessed the decision to draft Nolan Patrick with the second-overall pick in 2017 instead of current Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar, whom Clarke claimed was the preference of the organization’s scouts. Clarke also questioned the trade that sent Brayden Schenn from Philadelphia to the St. Louis Blues and Hextall’s inability to bring Ryan O’Reilly to the Flyers when he had the chance. 

Related: Revisiting Flyers’ Decision to Draft Patrick Over Makar

Clarke is the franchise’s all-time leader in points, and he held the captaincy for their only two Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975. Hextall is one of the most successful goaltenders in franchise history. He won the Conn Smythe and Vezina Trophies in his rookie season in 1986-87, and he played 84 playoff games in two stints with the Flyers, including 10 starts in two Stanley Cup Finals appearances. 

So, why did we suddenly hear about a rift between two members of the Flyers Hall of Fame over events that happened over four years ago? The implications of Clarke’s public condemnation run deeper than a personal disagreement. They indicate the fall from grace of a once-proud organization in the midst of the worst era in its 55-year history.

Flyers Struggles Create Turmoil

The Flyers are reeling. They have lost five straight and fallen to 11th place in the Eastern Conference, nine points behind the Boston Bruins for the final wild-card position. GM Chuck Fletcher’s offseason roster overhaul has not produced the results they hoped for. The decision to fire head coach Alain Vigneault on Dec. 6 hasn’t sparked the team into playoff contention.

Bobby Clarke Philadelphia Flyers
Bobby Clarke, Philadelphia Flyers (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

Conversations around the NHL involving the Flyers focus on the possibility of contending teams plucking one of their veterans before the trade deadline with the assumption that the Orange and Black will be sellers. Interim coach Mike Yeo publicly questioned his team’s level of preparation and willingness to compete last week. Comcast Spectacor, the ownership group of the team, is fed up with the lack of results. The fan base is running thin on reasons to feel optimistic.

The most recent source of negativity before Clarke’s criticism was the organization’s failure to acknowledge co-founder and long-time chairman Ed Snider’s birthday five years after his passing. Charlie O’Connor of The Athletic called the rampant social media criticism within the fan base “a stand-in for frustration with the on-ice product” and a result of the “hopelessness” that has spread to every area of the organization (from ‘Hopelessness has infected Flyers World — and it ain’t pretty: O’Connor’s Observations’, The Athletic, 1/10/22).

Major changes are imminent, but there is no clear scapegoat after a decade of failure. Looming decisions have already led to finger-pointing from one of the most revered voices ever to wear the Flyers sweater.

Clarke’s Motivation to Criticize Hextall

Elliotte Friedman dove deeper into the motivation and timing behind Clarke’s comments. On the Jeff Marek Show, he pointed to a moment of discontent during the 2006 NHL Entry Draft when Hextall was with the Los Angeles Kings front office. Clarke, the Philadelphia GM at the time, felt the former Flyers netminder had swindled him and sabotaged his draft strategy.

Friedman explained the public criticism as a way for Clarke to protect Fletcher from taking the blame for the current struggles of the franchise.

“If you know anything about Bobby Clarke, if you are his friend, or you’re on his side, he will go to the end of the Earth and back to protect you and fight for you.”

-Elliotte Friedman

Hextall deserves a substantial share of culpability for the current state of the team. He dragged the Flyers through a period of competitive rebuilding during his tenure. His “pivot to a draft-and-develop model” was supposed to lead to a long-term reward for extensive patience, but it never materialized. Former first-round picks Travis Konecny, Travis Sanheim, and Ivan Provorov have become serviceable NHL regulars, but they don’t make up a core of players who make suffering through years of mediocrity seem worthwhile. 

Ed Snider
Philadelphia Flyers executives Paul Holmgren, Ed Snider, Ron Hextall (Scoop Cooper)

He inherited a less than ideal situation from Paul Holmgren, who lavishly handed out contracts to players like Vinny Lecavalier, Andrew MacDonald, and Ilya Bryzgalov without proper consideration to the transition of the NHL into the salary cap era. His immediate strategy involved keeping players like Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds to help the team maintain a passable product on the ice without legitimate hope of immediate Stanley Cup contention. 

However, O’Connor also pointed out that it’s possible Hextall’s intention of avoiding a losing environment actually had an adverse effect because “an entire era of Flyers hockey became defined by the brass ring being just out of reach.” The period of malaise extended too long and cost Hextall his job. Clarke clearly feels that the slow-developing rebuild left Fletcher in a bad position, and he doesn’t want Hextall’s replacement to shoulder the blame.

Flyers Pointing Fingers

There is plenty of blame to go around for the failure of the Flyers to transition from their period of rebuilding back into Stanley Cup contention. Clarke didn’t acknowledge the full scope of the problem when he made his decision to point the finger at Hextall, and many of his assertions were imperfect.

Clarke initially pointed out that scouts wanted Makar who “went next” after Patrick in the 2017 draft. Colorado actually drafted the electrifying defenseman two picks later. The mistake appeared to be a minor slip-up until Friedman brought up that the Flyers scouts actually had their eyes on eventual third-overall pick Miro Heiskanen. The benefit of hindsight with Makar (or Heiskanen) also ignores that the overwhelming majority of experts considered Patrick and first-overall pick Nico Hischier the two top prospects of the draft.

Nolan Patrick Philadelphia Flyers
Former Philadelphia Flyers center Nolan Patrick (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

His criticism of the Schenn deal was unwarranted. He spoke about the return package, saying “I think we got two first (round) picks, but so what.”

The Flyers acquired the picks used to select Morgan Frost in 2017 and Joel Farabee in 2018. While Frost is a skilled forward still getting his feet wet in the NHL, Farabee has been one of Philadelphia’s best players since the beginning of the 2020-21 season. He has more goals and more points than Schenn during that time span. 

The 21-year-old has also developed into a solid penalty killer in his third season. According to Natural Stat Trick, his expected goals for percentage (xGF%) of 51.48 and Corsi For percentage (CF%) of 50.56 at 5-on-5 last season outweighed Schenn’s numbers of 47.00 and 45.92 in the respective categories. Farabee’s advantage in both analytical categories has continued in 2021-22, despite the advantage Schenn has of a much stronger team around him.

Jason Myrtetus spoke Wednesday on the Flyers Daily podcast about a conversation he had with Hextall shortly after he worked as the GM for Team Canada at the world hockey championships in 2017. Myrtetus said the O’Reilly was “clearly a player that he (Hextall) wanted to acquire” entering the 2017-18 season.  

Fletcher’s three years in Philadelphia haven’t steered the ship in the right direction for reasons that go far beyond the mistakes of his predecessor. The favorable salary cap position Hextall worked toward vanished quickly when the Flyers turned their focus toward immediate contention. The acquisitions made by Fletcher have had their ups and downs, just like the acquisitions made by Hextall. The common denominator, however, is a lack of team success. 

Fall from Grace

It’s been just two months after Hall of Fame inductees and respected alumni Rick Tocchet and Paul Holmgren lauded “the common bond” of being a member of a great organization. The tension has now mounted to the point where one franchise legend is publicly criticizing another franchise legend with hopes of deflecting blame.

The organization has serious questions looming. A long period of rebuilding didn’t work. An offseason overhaul to assemble reputable veterans didn’t work. A coaching change didn’t work. They are unlikely to commit to a full-scale rebuild. The development of Farabee and 23-year-old goaltender Carter Hart coupled with the lack of flexibility with veteran contracts for players like Kevin Hayes and Sean Couturier will keep them out of the league’s bottom tier in upcoming seasons. The organization has exhausted its options.

Carter Hart
Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The only time the Flyers have ever missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons was during their five-year playoff drought from 1989-90 through 1993-94, but only a miracle comeback would save them from their second straight absence in 2021-22. Giroux looks increasingly likely to move on from the Flyers at some point in the coming months. Negative press involving Clarke, Hextall, and Snider dominated the headlines in Philadelphia during the first two weeks of 2022.

Some fans might side with Clarke and blame Hextall’s misplays for the current state of the team. Others might blame Fletcher’s strategy after inheriting the situation. However, none of them will be able to feel optimistic about ugly fractures between prominent figures of the Flyers’ past while the least successful era in franchise history refuses to end.