PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Flyers fired general manager Ron Hextall because — to swipe a page from their glory days — he was Broad Street Bullheaded.
Hextall preached patience.
The Flyers want to win now.
That clash of ideology turned toxic in Philadelphia’s front office, and it cost Hextall his job in his fifth season as GM. Paul Holmgren, the Flyers’ loyalist and team president, had few solid answers Tuesday as to why he made the move, other than to repeatedly call Hextall “unyielding.”
Hextall’s arrival signalled a new era in Flyers history, one where short-term fixes, big-budget spending and mortgaging the farm system were no longer in vogue. He gamely tried to restock the farm system and refused to make a major trade for a star that could instantly inch the Flyers closer toward contention.
And when all that got the Flyers were a pair of first-round playoff exits and a 10-11-2 record this season, Hextall got the boot.
“He was unyielding in his plan and remained that way,” Holmgren said. “Good for him. He’s a well-thought out, deep-thinking guy.”
The deep thoughts included packaging draft picks and prospects for All-Stars capable of carrying Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Jake Vorcek and James van Riemsdyk at least into May.
The Flyers expect to hire a GM in weeks and he’ll have to make an urgent decision: keep or fire coach Dave Hakstol.
“I hate to say Dave Hakstol’s fate is in the next GM’s hands but it is,” Holmgren said. “I’m not going to make that decision.”
Hakstol, 132-97-40 in three–plus seasons, was set to coach the Flyers on Tuesday night against Ottawa.
Holmgren said he never asked Hextall to fire the coach he hired with no NHL experience out of North Dakota. But Holmgren said Hextall had told him “of course, I’m thinking about it.”
But, Holmgren added, “he never did it.”
The Flyers did at least discuss the potential of adding Joel Quenneville after the Chicago Blackhawks fired the three-time Stanley Cup champion coach.
“I can tell you his name came up right away when he was let go,” Comcast Spectacor CEO Dave Scott said. “I think Ron was set on, stay the course.”
With his biggest backer gone, and the Flyers wallowing, Hakstol’s job is in serious danger.
“I like Hak. I think he’s done a decent job under the circumstances he’s coached under,” Holmgren said.
“Decent” isn’t exactly an encouraging vote of confidence. Hakstol has had his issues — the Flyers are last in the NHL in the penalty kill (69.7 per cent) — but Hextall’s decision to enter the season with two oft-injured goalies haunted the team. The Flyers have matched a franchise-high with five goalies this season while prized prospect Carter Hart lingers in the minors.
“Is he our long-term solution? I don’t know that,” Holmgren said. “I’m not prepared to answer that. That’s another topic for the next GM.”
Holmgren punted about every major issue facing the Flyers to the next GM, and there are plenty of top candidates. The Flyers have about $7 million in salary cap space, and enough talent that should entice some heavy hitters for the job. Former Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi, who won two Cups and now works for the Flyers, told Holmgren he wasn’t interested. But Chuck Fletcher, Ron Francis, Sean Burke and Brian Burke are sure to pique the interest of a team eyeing its first Stanley Cup since the back-to-back titles in 1974 and 1975.
“What can we do now, today, to make the team better now? Not two years or three years from now,” Scott said.
Hextall was criticized for refusing to listen to scouts and advisers and had been accused of cutting off alumni from access to the team. Hextall, a star goalie and one of the franchise’s more popular players, had wanted his own process on his terms.
“His plan was his plan and we’re really hoping for a little more openness going forward,” Scott said.
Asked when the Flyers decided to shift from long-term rebuild to legitimate contention, Holmgren was blunt.
“We’re in the fifth year,” Holmgren said. “That’s a long time in hockey years.”
The Flyers haven’t made the Cup finals since 2010 and haven’t won a playoff round since 2012.
“It’s a long time,” Scott said. “We’re gonna go for it.”
The decision to dump Hextall was about dollars and cents as much as it was the state of the roster. Fan apathy is at a low, attendance is down and tickets are steeply discounted on StubHub. There is little buzz apart from the new googly-eyed mascot.
What’s more, the 76ers, their fellow Wells Fargo Center tenant, have overtaken the city in popularity, with big stars and packed houses.
“They were having some challenges and then (Jimmy) Butler coming certainly helps things,” Scott said.
So the Flyers need their own Butler?
“Couldn’t hurt, that’s for sure,” he said, laughing.
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Dan Gelston, The Associated Press