Tough Part Starts Now For Ron Hextall, Flyers

Almost six years ago demolition of the Philadelphia Flyers’ old home, the Spectrum, began with a few smacks from a wrecking ball on a November day. While the destruction started then, it took months for the building to come fully to the ground.

But it took years for its replacement, Xfinity Live!, to be built. It wasn’t until 2012 that the first opening of the mega mall took place.

Across the street from Xfinity Live in the Flyers’ current home, the Wells Fargo Center, the team has been doing its own tearing down and rebuilding. Instead of a building, though, it’s a roster of hockey players and if there’s anything the management should have learned from the building on Pattison Avenue, it’s that it’s a lot easier to tear something down than build it up.

The Rebuild

The beginning of Philadelphia’s rebuild can be narrowed down to one day: May 7, 2014. The day Ron Hextall was promoted to general manager, replacing the asset-selling, win-now Paul Holmgren, who was promoted to president.

The Flyers had actually just come off a playoff berth where they took the eventual Eastern Conference champions, the Rangers, to seven games, but the defense was aging with Kimmo Timonen, Mark Streit and Braydon Coburn. The offense was still relatively young, but the biggest problem was a lack of prospects in nearly every area.

Samuel Morin and Shayne Gostisbehere were in the system on the blue line, but both were seen as long-term prospects. Ditto for Scott Laughton, Nick Cousins, Taylor Leier and Anthony Stolarz at other positions.

Scott Hartnell (#43) and RJ Umberger (#18) faceoff against each other. [photo: Amy Irvin]
Scott Hartnell (#43) and RJ Umberger (#18) faceoff against each other. (Amy Irvin/The Hockey Writers)
It was clear to Hextall that the team was still years away from contending for the Stanley Cup, so the first move he made was dealing Scott Hartnell, signed for the next five seasons, to the Columbus Blue Jackets for R.J. Umberger, signed for two less years than Hartnell, and a draft pick.

Hindsight’s 20/20, but at the time of the trade, it was still lopsided in Columbus’s favor. However, Umberger was still seen as a potential 10-goal, 15-assist winger that could play up-and-down the lineup. Obviously things didn’t turn out that way, but the Flyers will still free cap space at least two years before they would have with Hartnell.

The 2014-15 season was clear that the Flyers were in a rebuild mode. They finished 12th in the Eastern Conference and sold off Timonen and Coburn for draft picks. Hextall also picked up Michael Del Zotto and Radko Gudas throughout the year, gaining two blue-line pieces.

The reward for a down year was a better draft position at the 2015 Draft after selecting Travis Sanheim, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, among others at the 2014 Draft. Ten years from now, the 2015 Draft could go down as the Flyers’ turning point. The team drafted WHL star defenseman Ivan Provorov and forward Travis Konecny, who has shown superstar potential in the OHL.

Ahead of Schedule

The 2014-15 season went how it was supposed to go. The Flyers weren’t playoff contenders. The 2015-16  season didn’t go as planned. The team surprisingly made playoffs.

But a lot of it was due to Hextall’s patient approach. Gostisbehere joined the team in November and took off, instead of being forced into a role in 2014. Cousins earned a spot after a strong stretch in February, not after a poor showing in December.

That patience also showed in the offensive core that the former Flyer goalie kept together. Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek and Wayne

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Brayden Schenn was a surprise star for the Flyers this year. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Simmonds were already stars, but Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn made big leaps in their respective development, helping to shore up the top six.

And along the way, Hextall made moves to help the future, such as extending Michal Raffl for three years at $2.35 million a year. But the biggest move was offloading Vincent Lecavalier and spare defenseman Luke Schenn to the Kings for Jordan Weal and a third-round pick. Philly had to eat half of both players’ salaries but with Lecavalier agreeing to retire if the trade was made, Hextall again fixed a Holmgren error.

Expectations Ahead

The Flyers are a step ahead of where fans, analysts and most likely even management thought it would be. With that territory comes expectations, which weren’t there last September.

Missing the playoffs in the 2016-17 season would be considered a step back. Unfortunately for the Flyers surprise playoff teams don’t typically do great – or even repeat – the next season.

In 2013-14, the Colorado Avalanche looked like they were ahead in their rebuild when they made the postseason. The same can be said for the Calgary Flames in 2015, and especially after they won their first-round playoff series against the Vancouver Canucks.

Both teams made big splashes the following off-season. The Avs signed veteran Jarome Iginla and the Flames acquired Dougie Hamilton from Boston. Despite those additions, both teams failed to make the playoffs the next year and even finished in the bottom five.

That’s the last thing the Flyers need to calm a volatile fan base and city. It’s clear looking at the roster that Philly could use another top-six forward. Does the team sign someone, use some of the many draft picks Hextall has accumulated or just sit back and wait for Konecny to develop?

The Good News

Big moves didn’t work for Colorado or Calgary and being patient with prospects is Hextall’s mantra so the third option seems to be the most likely.

Plus, there’s good news for the Flyers. Colorado had terrible possession numbers during their surprising year as did the Flames. Philadelphia was right around the middle of the pack for most advanced statistic numbers this year according to

Nick Cousins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Nick Cousins will be counted on next season after a strong showing this year.(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Then there’s the fact that key players for the Flyers could continue to grow. Cousins and Laughton could be the next Schenn and Couturier, while Provorov could be the newest rookie sensation defenseman after Gostisbehere.

But therein lies the tough task for Hextall and company – expectations are starting to abound for the Flyers and trading off extra pieces isn’t as easy as changing a roster into a Stanley Cup contender.