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May 07, 2015

What they’re saying: Sizing up Hextall’s first year

Plus a look at a shakeup in New Jersey, the Flyers' defensive corps, and a potential draft pick

Flyers NHL

Simply because we like round numbers and anniversaries in sports to evaluate things, Ron Hextall has been a frequent topic of conversation over the past few days. Hextall was named general manager of the Flyers on May 7th, 2014, so now seems like as good of a time as ever to gauge his performance as the team’s primary decision maker. We’ll give you one year, but not a moment longer!

It’s a good question: What have we actually learned about Hextall in the past 365 days? Two local outlets, one traditional (Philadelphia Daily News) and one, um, untraditional (Broad Street Hockey) have delved into the topic at length over the last few days.

After one year at the helm, we still don’t actually know what Hextall has in store for the franchise. He has made some good small moves like the Kimmo Timonen (could still be two second-rounders) and Braydon Coburn (Mr. Game 7) trades. He has made some questionable small moves like the Nick Schultz and Zac Rinaldo extensions. There’s nothing that has truly moved the needle in either direction, and the DN’s Frank Seravalli feels that the first move that really, really matters will have to be made in the near future:

No, as Year 2 of the Hextall regime begins today, the next hint at the master plan won't come until a new head coach is hired. Can Hextall lure Mike Babcock away from Detroit? Will Todd McLellan be intrigued enough by the Flyers he's coaching at the World Championships in Prague to consider Philadelphia? Couturier scored his second even-strength goal in four games under McLellan for Team Canada yesterday.

Short of a blockbuster trade ahead of June's draft, this coaching hire - Hextall's first real franchise-altering move since taking over - will tell us a lot after a tumultuous first year.

Hiring a coach will be something to keep an eye on for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s the one move Hextall can make without the salary cap constraints he inherited from Paul Holmgren. Second, there’s room for creativity because a lot of potential candidates are qualified to do the job well. It’s about selecting the right one.

For now, all we have to go on are the transactions that he made in his first season. One of the more interesting deals Hextall swung was trading Scott Hartnell to Columbus for R.J. Umberger and a fourth-round pick. The move undeniably made the Flyers worse on the ice this season, as Hartnell ran circles around Umberger. The question is if that trade-off is worth getting out of Umberger’s contract two years before being able to do the same with Hartnell.

The fine folks at Broad Street Hockey feel that although the move might be better for the books in the long run, it also gives you some pause about the general manager’s talent evaluation:

Still, my point is this: though salary cap considerations were surely part of why the deal was made, I think Hextall made the deal because he didn't think this team would be much worse off, if at all, with Umberger than it was with Hartnell.

And if that is what he thought, then that does raise questions about Hextall's talent evaluation ability. I think the idea that Hextall was willing to make a deal that would make his team actively worse for the next three years solely for cap savings in 2017 and beyond probably is, as bizarre as this sounds, wishful thinking.

Every executive whiffs once in a while, but the key is to limit those mistakes to smaller moves. Considering that the Flyers won’t have to pay a 36-year-old Hartnell $4.75 million in 2018-19, this trade probably qualifies as such.

Hextall’s first draft class appears to be pretty solid, especially after Travis Sanheim had such a strong season in juniors. Yet like everything else, only time will tell if the picks that he made this year were wise in the long run. As the DN’s Sam Donnellon writes, Hextall’s patience has been his defining characteristic so far. Isn’t it funny how much people can change when they grow older?

There was none of that in Year 1 Hextall. No well-publicized reaming-out sessions of the team after listless Sunday performances as there was during Holmgren's regime. No tantrums after near-pointless road trips. No midseason coaching changes to spark the team, no interference with the coach in place even as said coach made curious scratches and substitutions, including infamously inserting Steve Mason midway into a February game just 16 days after knee surgery and with little practice beforehand.

There was also no immediate firing of Craig Berube after the season ended. Hextall did his due diligence and then agonized for days before firing his friend and former teammate, a coach he inherited when he was promoted to the general manager's job last May.

Other Flyers news, notes and analysis from around the web:

Ray Shero, Lou Lamoriello and end of Devils hockey as we knew it: Greg Wyshynski, Puck Daddy

This isn’t Flyers news specifically, but it definitely will affect them greatly as one of their divisional rivals makes a shakeup we haven’t seen in almost three decades from them. “In Lou We Trust” will no longer be the motto of New Jersey Devils fans, as Lamoriello will hand over the reins to former Pens general manger Ray Shero. Moving forward, Puck Daddy paints a picture that makes it seem as if Shero and Hextall’s tasks are fairly similar:

Shero, for example, will hire the next Devils head coach after the three-headed monster is disassembled. (Cue Dan Bylsma to New Jersey/“we’re getting the band back together” speculation.)

He’ll also help build around a roster that has an elite goalie in Schneider and some great young defensemen in the system, but not nearly enough offensive pop in the pipeline. And here’s where Shero is going to have to outrun his past: His trading history after the Penguins’ Cup was lackluster; his draft history overall was atrocious at the forward spot.

Ray Shero taking over as Devils GM; Lou Lamoriello to remain team president: Tom Gulitti, The Record

Speaking of the Devils, I’m sure you’ve heard of the guys that own the team! If Gulitti’s reporting is correct, the parallels between Lamoriello stepping back and Doug Collins skipping town are pretty evident (besides the former having, like, way more success):

Although Lamoriello said this change was his decision, a source said Devils' co-owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer pushed him in this direction after the team missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season.

Ownership left the decision who would get the job up to Lamoriello quietly conducted the GM search over the past few weeks. In fact, Lamoriiello's conversations with Shero began before the Devils' season ended on April 11.

Dougherty's Mailbag: Which D prospects will start with Flyers? Tom Dougherty, CSN Philly

The Flyers have all of this defensive talent in the pipeline, but they also could have eight guys under contract if Michael Del Zotto is re-signed, which Hextall indicated he’d like to do. The question is when some of the young guns will get called up. Samuel Morin already made a good impression in last year’s training camp, and many observers think Travis Sanheim has progressed ahead of him. Dougherty believes Shayne Gostisbehere will be the one to crack the roster:

It won't be easy for him, even if the Flyers do end up moving a contract or two on defense. He'll still have to beat out one of the veterans on the team. But I think he will and I think whoever the head coach will be will put him in a position to succeed with the Flyers.

As for the other three, I don't think any of them will be here next year. It would be great to see Morin earn a spot, but he has one more year of junior eligibility and it would be best for him to take the extra year in juniors to continue developing. I could see Hagg getting some NHL time next season at some point. And Sanheim is still a year away from consideration.

Will Flyers draft Russian? There is risk involved: Mike Sielski, Philadelphia Inquirer

June 25th and 26th are going to be two absolutely insane days. First on Thursday, the Sixers will have a high pick and Sam Hinkie will be wheeling and dealing. Then on Friday, the Flyers will have the seventh pick (and seven of the first 103) in what is supposed to be a strong NHL draft class. Sielski writes that Hextall may have a complicated decision to make about a defenseman named Ivan Provorov:

The source of Hextall's caution wouldn't be an antiquated and stereotypical prejudice against Russian players - an attitude that isn't fair to affix to the Flyers anymore - but pure pragmatism.

Over the last half-decade, the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia has positioned itself as a viable competitor with and alternative to the NHL. During the 2013-14 season, 188 former NHL players skated for KHL teams, according to a survey conducted by TheHockeyWriters.com, a hockey news service based in Quebec, and before Hextall or any NHL executive drafts any Russian player, he has to be certain that the player won't decide to return home.

Snider says Flyers can develop players and still contend soon: Sam Carchidi, Philadelphia Inquirer

Just in case you thought Ed Snider would waver, the company line has been reiterated:

"People were misinterpreting Ron Hextall's words," said Snider, chairman of the Flyers' parent company, Comcast-Spectacor. "All I did was clarify what Ron Hextall had been saying - which is simply, we're going to be extremely patient with all of the young players we have coming. We're not going to rush them along; we're going to make sure they're NHL-ready before he brings them up to the big club. . . .

"But the bottom line is, that patience was misinterpreted to mean that he was going to be patient with the team in and of itself. Which he's not. He's going to do everything in his power to produce a winner as soon as possible, which means it could be trades, it could be coaching, it could be all kinds of things."

In case you missed it at PhillyVoice:

We looked at how all of the Flyers players were faring at the IIHF World Championship and Flyers prospects were doing in the junior playoffs.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann

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