Flyers GM Ron Hextall Fired
It's something many people fear. Others welcome it. Sometimes it's made just for the sake of it (see the LA Kings). Other times it's necessary.
Over the course of the 2018-19 season, the Philadelphia Flyers have been on a collision course with change. After a respectable 2017-18 campaign which saw the Flyers scrape into the playoffs before being bounced in the first round by the Pens, Philadelphia seemed ready to take that next step. The Flyers were done with mediocrity, we were told. James van Riemsdyk was brought back to improve the forward depth, which, combined with the growth of young core players and healthy goaltending, would push the Flyers over the edge as they looked to become true Cup contenders for the first time in nearly a decade (that window ended sometime between 2010-2012, I'll let you decide when).
Yet the Flyers have still failed to usurp the clutches of mediocrity this year. Everything that was wrong last year has only fallen further into shambles. The defense is structureless. The special teams are abysmal. Dave Hakstol is still stubborn as hell and has already forced the demotion of two rookies who could score and drive play because he wouldn't give them the minutes they needed to learn on a consistent basis. The Flyers are 10-11-2, 4 points out of a playoff spot at a point in the season where roughly 80% of teams in playoff position since the lockout have stayed there. And all this inepitude has cost Ron Hextall his job.
In no way should Ron Hextall's tenure as GM of the Flyers be viewed as a complete failure. When Ron Hextall took over as GM in May 2014, the roster he inherited was flawed at best and in dire straits at worst. Previous GM Paul Holmgren had bogged the roster down with ineffective veterans on large contracts like Vincent Lecavilier and Niklas Grossmann. The prospect pool was baren, as hulking defenseman Sam Morin was the probably only prospect worth getting excited over (although smooth-skating d-man Shayne Gostisbehere was about to change that). 4 years later he has played just 3 career NHL games.
The Flyers were in cap hell and there was no denying it. Hextall got the Flyers out. Crafty trades of Lecavilier, Luke Schenn, Braydon Coburn, and Kimmo Timonen netted the Flyers not only some decent young talent and draft picks, but much needed cap relief. Only trading Scott Hartnell to Columbus for R.J. Umberger was viewed in a negative light short term, although both wound up being bought out of their contracts. Hexy avoided the big mistakes in free agency that had bespelled Holmgren far too often - if Dale Weise at $2.35 million is your worst deal, you probably did ok.
Even more impressive was his restocking of the farm system. Hextall was responsible for selecting Travis Sanheim, Travis Konecny, Nolan Patrick (a tap-in, in fairness), Ivan Provorov, and Oskar Lindblom, all of whom are currently in the NHL and will likely impact the Flyers for years to come. Selections Carter Hart, Joel Farabee, Morgan Frost, and others could be in the same light in the near future. Only picking German Rubtsov 22nd in the 2016 draft can be viewed as a draft day blunder, and even he was having a strong first pro season with the Phantoms until recently suffering a season ending injury.
So after all the good he did, why was Hexy let go? There may not be a 100%, clear-cut reason for his firing, but there are 2 glaring reasons that suggest why he was let go. It was clear that the organization felt the Flyers were ready to take the next step this year - the return to the playoffs, signing JVR, the "Raise the Bar" workout shirts, everything suggested the Flyers felt they were done with retooling and were ready to become contenders.
There was just one problem - the team on paper didn't look that much different than the one that delivered a disappointing effort in their return to the playoffs in April. James van Riemsdyk was a significant addition, no doubt, and the addition via subtraction of veterans Brandon Manning and Valtteri Filppula was welcome. But if you go back and look at that series, the Flyers biggest weaknesses were clearly play in their own zone and goaltending. The Flyers gave up 28 goals in 6 playoff games - an average of 4.7 goals per game, which is simply unacceptable. Yes, Brian Elliott was playing so hurt he couldn't make it through the series, and Ivan Provorov, the team's best all-around defenseman, played hurt in Game 6. But injuries happen. And it is the GM's responsibility to make sure his team has the depth to deal with them, at least to an extent.
Ron Hextall had the whole offseason to improve the team's top 4, which was painfully lacking at least one bonafide player of that quality, and a secure option in net that could last the whole season. His response? Calvin Pickard, who was viewed as a fringe-NHLer when he was claimed off waivers from Toronto and has done little to change that sentiment. If anything, he's made the case he's not even an NHL-caliber goaltender. The tandem of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth was a ticking time bomb, and Ron Hextall chose to sit there and watch it explode in his face. Given an entire offseason and plenty of cap space to fix the glaring issues that seperated this team from the 2nd round, Hextall did nothing. And the Flyers organization has now deemed that wasn't good enough.
The Dave Hakstol effect also cannot be ignored in this story. For whatever reason, it is also apparent that keeping Hakstol, at least in the short term, was a hill Hextall was willing to die on. That's a phrase that gets thrown out a lot - in 2004, the NHLPA said avoiding a hard cap was "the hill they were willing to die on," and then in 2013 deputy commissioner Bill Daly dragged it out again to express the league's desire to limit contracts to 5 years. People say they are willing to do things, sometimes crazy things, for a hill they are willing to die on. In many cases, they jump off. Ron Hextall was not willing to do that. And so he died (not actually, calm down).
The bottom line is that Hakstol is not an effective NHL head coach in the eyes of many (including myself). The reasons for that are obvious and have been listed tirelessly - he relies on veterans too much, he doesn't know how to manage goalies, his strategies are too defensive-minded when he has a roster thats greatest strength is offense, his team constantly starts games and seasons slow, and whatever success his team does achieve, they have always proved unable to sustain it. Ron Hextall may have been willing to admit some of these faults, but they were clearly not enough to give Hakstol the ax in his eyes. We'll likely never know if Hextall was given an ultimatium - fire Hakstol, or we'll fire you - but it can be reasonably inferred that there were at least discussions about Hakstol's potential termination as well.
To make things clear, Hakstol (and the rest of the coaching staff) are anything but out of the clear as a result of Hexy's firing. If anything, they're more susceptible to being fired than ever. It was clear Hextall trusted Hakstol, Ian Laperriere, and the rest of the coaching staff through their struggles - otherwise, they wouldn't still be here. They were Hextall's guys - the people he brought in, the people he trusted the most to get the job done. Whoever the next GM is won't have this same feeling. He will likely take some time to evaluate Hakstol and the rest of his staff and will make changes accordingly.
How the Flyers will move on from Hextall's reign remains to be seen. According to TSN's Darren Dreger, early contenders for Hexy's vacancy include Ron Francis, Chuck Fletcher (formerly of Carolina and Minnesota, respectively), and, of course, Gritty. Dean Lombardi, the architect of the same LA Kings team that won 2 cups in 3 years that is also in the same cap hell scenario Hextall inherited when he was hired, may also garner consideration since he's currently employed by the organization. But whatever happens next, it is clear the Flyers, at least the higher-ups in the organization, are no longer content with failure, or even mediocrity. That doesn't necessarily mean a gutting of the prospect pool Hextall worked so hard to restock to salvage this season, and nor should it. Hextall's legacy in terms of the players he selected, developed, acquired, and signed will live on for years, maybe a decade, maybe longer. If the Flyers are to win a Cup in the next few years, which seems unlikely now but is certaintly not unthinkable, Hextall will certainly deserve part of the credit. But at the end of the day, the Flyers organization decided the current state of the team was unacceptable. Ron Hextall did not. And thus his time in Philadelphia comes to an abdrupt yet foreshadowed end.