ron hextall

Recent Devils trade should open Ron Hextall's eyes

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Recent Devils trade should open Ron Hextall's eyes

The New Jersey Devils took a significant step this past week in their quest to be a serious contender in the Eastern Conference playoff picture by acquiring 26-year-old defenseman Sami Vatanen from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Adam Henrique, Joseph Blandisi and a third-round pick.

Seemingly not content with his team’s red-hot start, Devils general manager Ray Shero jumped at the chance to improve his team, which had nothing to do with navigating the salary cap, bolstering his position in future drafts or building a future contender.

It was a pure hockey move to get better right now. Vatanen is a puck-moving, top-four defenseman who gives New Jersey depth and can play in whatever situation the Devils need. The play of Jersey's young forwards made Henrique, a very good two-way center, expendable. For a team that finished dead last in the Eastern Conference a season ago with just 70 points, the Devils have seemingly made a 180-degree turn quicker than if Shero was operating a jet ski.   

Compared to their neutral-zone trapping Stanley Cup title days, this brand of Devils hockey is actually enjoyable to watch. While they could eventually come back to the Metropolitan Division pack, the Devils have something brewing and Shero is not willing to wait around, sit on his hands and just watch it happen. 

Since taking over in the summer of 2015, the Devils' GM has made bold moves that have included the additions of Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmeiri, Brian Boyle, Marcus Johansson and now Vatanen. And, of course, he had the first overall pick, Nico Hischier, fall into his lap. While some hockey executives in a similar rebuild may see a light at the end of the tunnel, Shero’s road map has just about avoided the tunnel altogether.       

Just down the turnpike, Ron Hextall’s turnaround has been a considerably slower process in spite of a one-year head start over Shero. In the three-plus years since taking over as the Flyers' general manager on May 7, 2014, Hextall has executed 15 trades, and almost every transaction has involved future considerations through draft picks and few, if any, difference-makers. 

The Hextall era started with the lopsided deal in June of 2014 involving Scott Hartnell to Columbus for R.J. Umberger and a 2015 fourth-round pick. All Hartnell did was score 64 goals along with 146 points with the Blue Jackets, while Umberger contributed just 11 goals and 26 points all while playing through injuries he had sustained prior to the trade. Sure, Hextall was able to shave a few years off a contract, but Umberger was simply damaged goods.

More recently, there was the 2017 draft day swap of Brayden Schenn to St. Louis for a pair of first-round picks and a possible third, to go along with forward Jori Lehtera. While Schenn has emerged as a No. 1 center for the Blues, Lehtera is now a potential buyout candidate at the end of the season, much like Umberger was after his two years back in Philadelphia.

What the Flyers have received in Hextall’s trades have been secondary pieces, hardly key contributors: Jordan Weal (from L.A. as part of the Vinny Lecavalier-Luke Schenn trade), Valtteri Filppula (from Tampa Bay in the Mark Streit deal), and Radko Gudas (from Tampa Bay as part of a Braydon Coburn swap). Once again, role players, but not the necessary moves capable of taking the franchise to the next level.

Furthermore, with Hextall's combination of trades and free-agent signings, there’s a widespread belief that the team isn’t surrounding cornerstones Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek with a supporting cast good enough to be a perennial playoff power and there's a feeling that their prime years are being wasted. And the misery of the current 10-game losing streak doesn't help a single thing.

The last time both star players won a playoff series came in 2012 when Giroux was 24 and Voracek was just 22. Since then, there have been three non-playoff seasons and a pair of first-round exits as Giroux and Voracek inch closer to 30. Giroux will turn 30 in January.   

Regardless of their record, the Flyers have been able to stare down at the Devils within their division, as New Jersey has finished below Philadelphia in the standings every season since 2009-10, even though the Devils eliminated the Flyers from the playoffs in 2012 and went on to the Stanley Cup Final that year. But the order now appears to be changing.

Following the Flyers' ninth straight loss this past Tuesday vs. the Sharks, Hextall reiterated to the media that the team he’s assembled is good enough to make the playoffs, while also adding, “I try to make this team better every day if there’s something that can be done.”

Which begs the question, exactly which team is Hextall referring to? The one preparing for the Calgary Flames on Monday night or the Philadelphia Flyers of 2020?  

There’s proof you can address the present and the future at the same time. 

Those details are in the Devils and Shero.  

The Flyers are in a big rebuild — and they can't hide it

The Flyers are in a big rebuild — and they can't hide it

They can't win away from the Wells Fargo Center, and they can't win at the Wells Fargo Center. The Flyers, quite frankly, can’t win anywhere.

The Flyers aren’t who we thought they were. This season wasn’t supposed to go this way. This team was expected to be better. The harsh reality is, it’s not. That much is clear after the Flyers' ninth straight loss Tuesday night, a 3-1 decision to the San Jose Sharks in a game the orange and black didn’t look interested in playing.

What the fanbase is disgruntled with isn’t so much the process; in large part, the Flyers faithful have embraced the rebuild, even though general manager Ron Hextall hasn’t called it what it is. The fans are more so growing miffed with the handling of the youth, and both the head coach and general manager sugarcoating a nine-game losing streak.

Hockey, in the Philly sports landscape, is irrelevant. The Flyers are last in the Metropolitan Division, mired in a downward spiral with no end in sight. Meanwhile, the Eagles are the NFL’s best, and Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are must-watch commodities with the Sixers. The Flyers are nothing more than an afterthought.

How did they get here, what needs to change and are we overreacting? These are all questions we have to examine here. We have to take a step back and again evaluate whether we placed too high of expectations on a team we knew wasn’t a contender yet.

“I’ve always said, ‘Talk is cheap,’” Hextall told NBC Sports Philadelphia on Wednesday afternoon. “It does take time. I think if you look at Chicago and L.A. and do the timeline when they build, it takes time. In saying that, we can be competitive right now. … 

“As much as right now things aren’t real positive — we don’t feel real positive about things right now the way they’ve gone recently — there are some positives.”

Los Angeles timeline
Let’s look at the Kings' because, well, Hextall was directly involved in it. Many have made these connections before, and it’s fair to connect the dots again. It’s a good blueprint for what Hextall is doing here, and in L.A., it took a while to see the results.

After four straight seasons of missing the playoffs, the Kings reshuffled their front office in April 2006. Dave Taylor, who had been the general manager since 1997, was replaced with Dean Lombardi. Two months later, Hextall was hired as assistant GM.

We’re using the Lombardi hire as the benchmark, though three major players — Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick — were drafted by the Taylor regime. For the first three years of the Lombardi era, the Kings didn’t qualify for the postseason but did improve each season. By Year 4 — 2009-10 — the Kings were in the playoffs. And then in Year 6, Los Angeles won its first of two Stanley Cups with Lombardi as the GM.

The 2011-12 Stanley Cup team had 13 drafted players and one undrafted free agent, which we’ll include since they had to come up through the ranks. Eleven of those 13 played throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs, while two other picks also saw time. Three players — Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Dustin Penner — were acquired in trades during the rebuild with draft picks. Of course, Lombardi had some free-agent signings, too, that contributed — Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi, Simon Gagne, to name a few.

Under Lombardi and Hextall’s guidance, the Kings won a Stanley Cup in six years. They were a non-playoff team in the first three years of the rebuild, a playoff team for two years before finally adding missing pieces via trades and free agency in Year 6, which, again, has to go to the credit of drafting and developing. The Kings were the 10th-oldest team in the NHL when Lombardi took over and by Year 4, they were the youngest team in the league. When they won the Cup, they were around the middle of the pack at 13th.

State of the Flyers
Fans have every right to be displeased with how this season is playing out. When Dale Weise is getting more ice time than Nolan Patrick, like he did last game, there is a reason to be ticked. When Samuel Morin, who many believed should be here along with Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim, is stuck in Lehigh Valley, there is a reason to be upset. When the Flyers scratch Taylor Leier and Jordan Weal for Jori Lehtera and Weise, there’s a reason for fans to yell behind their keyboards. When the Flyers have lost 46 of their last 74 games since their 10-game winning streak last season, there’s a cause for concern.

The fan is the customer, and right now, the product they’re paying for — attending games, tuning in, buying merchandise, it’s all relevant — isn’t satisfying. Philly fans don’t want to hear Dave Hakstol say, “I think in seven of our last 10, we’ve gotten a point” after the Flyers lost their seventh straight, or Hextall say the Flyers “are not playing poorly” after the ninth straight loss. Even if it's true, that's what bothers them.

While the Flyers are last in the Metro, they are within striking distance of a wild-card spot in a jam-packed Eastern Conference. We're just hitting December and there is plenty of time to turn this season around. Playoffs are not out of the picture. Yet. But if there is anything this losing streak has reminded us, it’s this team is not quite there.

It might not even be as close as we believed it was, either.

“We’re a young team,” Hextall said Wednesday. “We have a lot of young kids coming and we’re going to get better. We’re going to play better than we’re currently playing.

“We’re going to get better every year. We’re going to get younger every year and we’re going to be competitive and we’re going to get there.”

Hextall has continually said the Flyers are going to get younger, and since he came back to Philadelphia in 2013-14 as an assistant GM, the orange and black have done just that. When Hextall was the AGM in 2013-14, the Flyers were the fourth-oldest team in the NHL. This season, in his fourth as the GM, the Flyers are the seventh youngest. And they’ll get even younger next season and the following year, too.

With youth comes growing pains, and it might even get more painful. Hextall refuses to put a timeline on when the rebuild will be complete. He says the Flyers will be competitive while they build, and they have been. This team can make the playoffs. But if we use the Los Angeles blueprint and factor into what Hextall inherited as GM — a nightmare of a salary cap situation — we might be looking at three or four more years before this team becomes a legitimate contender.

When discussing the Flyers' nine-game losing streak Wednesday and last season's 10-game winning streak, Hextall said, "You do have to keep a balance, a realistic view of your club."

The realistic view is, this rebuild is just getting started. The Flyers are younger than last season, and they'll be younger next year. For all intents and purposes, Hextall has drafted well. The reality there is, we won't know for a few more years if his picks hit.

Perhaps a little more transparency with what’s currently going on would help with the fan backlash.

Ron Hextall: Dave Hakstol's 'our coach and he's going to remain our coach'

Ron Hextall: Dave Hakstol's 'our coach and he's going to remain our coach'

Throughout the Flyers' lifeless 3-1 loss Tuesday night to the San Jose Sharks — their ninth straight defeat — there were audible chants filling the Wells Fargo Center.

Flyers fans made it clear: They had enough of third-year head coach Dave Hakstol.

Fans chanted, "Fire Hakstol." On Twitter, #FireHakstol was the No. 3 trend in Philadelphia.

After the loss, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall stood in the locker room and said the Flyers "are not playing poorly." He said all the things he had to say as the GM — even if it didn't please the fanbase or the media.

And on Wednesday afternoon, in an interview on NBC Sports Philadelphia's Philly Sports Talk, Hextall not only doubled down on that thought process but also threw cold water on any indication that Hakstol's job is in danger.

"He's the guy," Hextall said. "Dave Hakstol is our coach and he's going to remain our coach."

Here are some of the highlights of the interview in Q&A form.

Q: How would you assess Hakstol's job?

A: "Hak, first of all, is a very good coach. He's as hard a working person as I've ever seen in the game. His staff works hard. Hak, if you look at our young players — (Ivan) Provorov, (Travis) Konecny, Taylor Leier, Scott Laughton. Nolan Patrick's getting his feet wet.

"Hak's done a good job with those young kids. There have been lessons to learn along the way. Shayne Gostisbehere — throw him in there. There've been lessons to learn along the way and there always is with young players.

"So, whether they get a couple minutes taken away, Hak does a lot of things behind the scenes for young players, older players that help them improve not only short term but also long term. You get a 19-year-old kid in your line. You have a lot of work to do as a human being.

"I remember myself, as a 19-year-old or, again, some of the kids we have coming up. These are really young people and they've got a lot to learn about being a pro. When you put a 19-year-old in your lineup like Provy last year, Konecny last year, Nolan this year, there's a lot for those kids to learn. Hak's done a good job with these guys.

"Have they stumbled a little bit? Of course, they have. They're young people, they're young players but they're getting better every day."

Q: What are the positives you've seen during the nine-game losing streak?

A: "A nine-game winless streak isn't acceptable probably in most franchises but certainly not in this franchise. Let's start off with that. My job, and the coaches' job to some degree, too, is to evaluate how well we're playing, not just the results.

"If I didn't know the results of the last nine games, I wouldn't have an issue with the way we're playing because I would probably guess we're 5-4 or somewhere in there, which isn't great but we'd still be in a pretty good spot.

"So our evaluations aren't how well our team plays. If we were playing to an 0-9 level right now, that's different than being 0-9 and playing better than that. Again, we're not happy with what's going on. Our players are going through a lot right now. Our coaches are going through a lot, management's going through a lot.

"Obviously, our fanbase is going through a lot. It's a tough time for everyone involved, and we're going to rectify it. We're going to find a way to battle through this. No one is jumping ship and I think you just asked me the positive, I would say this.

"Our players haven't started pointing fingers. Our players have stuck together and trust me, I've been in some locker rooms where you go 0-9, guys start to blame other people and get frustrated, and our guys have stuck together and that's a credit to them."

Q: You can have a winless streak and come back. Last season, you had a 10-game winning streak …

A: "That's a great analogy, too, because our 10-game win streak, we probably could have lost three or four of those games. But everybody's excited, we win 10 games, as we were. The results were there. Were we playing to a 10-game winning streak? 

"Trust me, I don't just look at this and go, 0-9, we're playing better. I looked at it back then, 10-0 and we're not playing 10-0. You do have to keep a balance, a realistic view of your club. Again, a positive of our guys sticking together, the positives — the kids. Our kids have played pretty well.

"Andrew MacDonald out, Radko Gudas out, [the kids are] probably playing more minutes than they should play, a little higher in the lineup than they should play and they've done a pretty good job. Last year, obviously, [Provorov and Konecny] come in and do a good job. And this year, the kids that we have in our lineup currently.

"(Danick) Martel has been in our lineup, (Samuel) Morin has been in our lineup. I think I looked a few days ago with Gudy and Mac out, our defense corp — 20, 21, two 22-year-olds and a 24-year-old. Five of our six, I don't know if I've ever seen that before.

"I know Carolina's defense is pretty young this year, but that's a young defense and for them to hold their own, [it's] a good sign. That's part of the future moving forward.

"We're in the present right now. We're trying to win hockey games. We're not going to dwell that we have a young defense. We need to win hockey games."

Q: When will the Flyers transition into being a winner?

A: "Well, you know what, I've always said, 'Talk is cheap.' It does take time. I think if you look at Chicago and L.A. and do the timeline when they built it, it takes time.

"In saying that, we can be competitive right now. The first eight games, everybody was excited. I thought it was a little bit of an overreaction. It's a small sample size. We did play well. Our record was good — could have even been better.

"I think we gave one game away there. Right now, again, we're not as bad as 0-9, which, thank goodness for that. And we need to find a way to win. Three of four games, we've found ways to lose — critical mistake at a critical time, we have to knock those off."

Q: Do you still think it's a playoff team?

A: "I think we're six points out. Now, six points are more than you think, don't get me wrong, because you have to catch up to the team in the eight spot or the wild-card spot, plus you've got to jump the teams over. We have our work cut out for us.

"We understand that, but two years ago, we did it, I think, in the last 20 or 30 games. We have a lot of hockey left and we've got to start playing the way we're capable of playing."

Q: The Sixers are now through the hard part of their rebuild. Do you have a timetable for being a Stanley Cup contender?

A: "Basketball's a little different because we've got 20 players on the ice every night, or 19 with the backup goalie. It's a little different building a hockey team than a basketball team, so you certainly can't follow that timeline.

"But again, I think I looked after 20 games, we were the same we've been the last four years in terms of points after 20 games. But I believe we were the 28th oldest in the league and we're now around seventh youngest in the league.

"As much as right now — things aren't real positive — we don't feel real positive about things right now, the way they've gone recently. There are some positives and again, we're a competitive team.

"We're a young team, we have a lot of young kids coming and we're going to get better. We're going to play better than we're currently playing."

Q: So a couple of years?

A: "I'm not … talk's cheap. Talk's cheap, right? We're going to get better every year. We're going to get younger every year and we're going to be competitive and we're going to get there."

Q: Can you give us some insight on Wayne Simmonds' struggles?

A: "Simmer's history is a little bit of a streaky player. He'll score a bunch of goals and then he'll go quiet for a few games and then he'll score a bunch of goals again, so that part doesn't surprise me that much. And at the start of this — I think he went 14 games without a goal — but at the start of that, he was pretty banged up.

"He had three things going on with his body and to his credit, he played through it. People don't see that and he's not producing, so all of a sudden, he plays a few games banged up and all of a sudden, he gets healthy but he's not feeling great because he got banged up. Now, he's not scoring so it just snowballs a little bit. The last guy we're worried about right now is Wayne Simmonds."

Q: Has Brian Elliott performed up to your expectations?

A: "Brian's met our expectations. He's a good goalie. He's been around a long time. I think one of the things we liked about him is, he played in a tandem and when we've asked him to play, he's done a real good job for us.

"He's a very competitive guy. He works hard every day. Teammates like to play for him because he works hard every day, competes hard for screened shots and rebounds and tips. He's done a good job for us. Certainly held up his end of the bargain."