Flyers

How much will Flyers change? Another summer is here for Ron Hextall

How much will Flyers change? Another summer is here for Ron Hextall

This is a peculiar time for Ron Hextall.

In one facet, it's his time, precious for a build-from-within disciple who must feel like a kid on Christmas when the NHL draft arrives.

Then again, it's a weird time. Shortly after the Flyers' general manager unwraps his gifts and adds them to the toy bin, NHL free agency hits. Not a time when Hextall likes to play. Quickly, Christmas turns into the first day of school.

It's that time of year again for Hextall. The question is, have the times changed for the GM?

With the Flyers entering Year 4 under Dave Hakstol and looking to take the next step forward, some wonder if Hextall is ready to make free agency his new time. After all, much of the organization's youth is here and contributing, the core isn't getting any younger and the Flyers have more financial wiggle room — thanks to Hextall — with $17.2 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly.com.

But if Hextall's vision was ever in danger of shifting, an expansion team's marvelous story lent credence to his plan, reinforcing the belief in the way he operates and constructs his own hockey team.

When asked Thursday about the constant chatter regarding his core's clock and the team's youthfulness catching up to it, Hextall spoke with conviction and at length.

"They might have different roles; you almost might not depend on them quite as much because your younger guys are coming up and taking a bigger piece of the pie," Hextall said. "So all of a sudden you don't need one guy scoring 85 points, he can score 75 points or 70 points because we've got these kids coming up that are scoring more and more. 

"That's how you build a team. You don't build a team by having three top players and they go out every power play and they win you games. It's just not the way it works. You saw — Vegas is a good example. They were the best team in the league. Not the best talent, they were the best team. Teams still win. Teams still win. And that's what we've got to continue to build."

So if you were hoping Hextall was tinkering with the thought of making a free-agent splash, think again. He will stick to his guns and always has, constantly stressing the importance of never deviating from the course set at the journey's start.

None of which is to think Hextall won't utilize free agency to improve. He will make additions strategically and judiciously, but doling out money and years to a stud won't happen.

And the moment Hextall reaffirmed his M.O., the pressure picked up.

On all levels.

On Hextall's faith in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and the mainstays delivering star-like production.

On the young foundation pieces taking heftier strides to lighten the loads for the veterans.

On the scouting and development personnel finding and molding game-changing talent.

And on the confluence of Hextall's motives and ultimate goal.

"We are still the ultimate team sport and I think Vegas proved that to all of us this year. The more we move along here, the more society, pro sports seem to put a spotlight on a star, and that's fine, but that star has got to have his teammates in our sport or you're not going to win," Hextall said. "You look at Washington, they had a lot of really good players in the playoffs. Devante Smith-Pelly. Do they win without Devante Smith-Pelly? A couple guys get all the credit but look what this guy did. We are still the ultimate team sport, we really are."

The ultimate test will be the Flyers proving it themselves.

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Alex Lyon provides keen insight on Carter Hart's transition to pro hockey

Alex Lyon provides keen insight on Carter Hart's transition to pro hockey

VOORHEES, N.J. — Regardless of his playing status, it’s easy to gravitate to the Yale-educated Alex Lyon with his insightful answers and his introspection on all things hockey. Following his call-up from Lehigh Valley, Lyon provided some keen observations on what he’s seen from goaltending prospect Carter Hart, who struggled in his initiation to pro hockey.

“You’ve got to learn it for yourself, that’s the key,” Lyon said Friday from the Skate Zone in Voorhees. “I don’t try and get in his ear. He’s a great goalie. From my end, the only thing I try to let him know is that it’s going to be hard, and there’s going to be days when you don’t practice or get your gear on, but you have to and you have to make the most of it.

You can’t feel sorry for yourself even when you want to. That’s what I try and let him know. Just prepare right now for the fact that it’s going to be extremely difficult, even if you’re the most highly touted second-rounder or whatever he may be."

Lyon took a different route to pro hockey, spending two years in the USHL in Omaha, Nebraska, before enrolling at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he spent three more years. When he signed with the Phantoms, Lyon was 23. Hart, on the other hand, is just three months removed from his 20th birthday and still adjusting to independent living in a city 2,820 miles away from where he came from.  

“It just takes time. I don’t know how else to put it than that. It’s so difficult,” Lyon said. “If you think he was living with somebody who cooked him all his meals and didn’t have to pay rent, didn’t worry about taking out his garbage at night. You come home and your fridge is stocked. All of a sudden your whole world gets turned upside down. He was the most important player in that franchise (Everett Silvertips) for four years, and then everything is totally different.” 

Compounding the myriad of changes is that Hart is now cashing big paychecks in the first year of his entry-level deal that pays him roughly $750,000 bi-weekly over the course of a six-month season after receiving a mere monthly allowance at the junior level.

“You get a pay check every two weeks,” Lyon said. “It’s pretty easy to get high on life when you start making money. I’ve fallen into that trap so many times. I still fall into it.”

But financial matters don’t define greatness, and with that, Hart is forced to prove himself all over again to a group of coaches and teammates who have the same NHL aspirations as he does. 

“You get to professional hockey and he’s just another commoner,” Lyon said. “Obviously, he’s a very good goalie. It’s just so different and it’s easy to look at it in terms of your glove isn't quite as sharp or your squareness isn’t quite as sharp. Maybe his long-distance girlfriend just broke up with him. I don’t know, but that’s what it is and that stuff affects your play. It does. And to think that you can just erase that when you get to the rink is just crazy. I think that’s one thing that gets overlooked is you have to try and adjust to that.

It’s just patience. He’s going to be fine.”

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Between the pipes, Ron Hextall's patience and process being pushed to the brink

Between the pipes, Ron Hextall's patience and process being pushed to the brink

Ron Hextall, a build-from-within ideologist, is having his belief system tested.

In fact, the staunchness behind that belief system has come back to bite the Flyers — and it took only 19 games into the season.

Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth are the Flyers' placeholders. The organization has its plan with young goalies waiting in the wings — one, in particular, by the name of Carter Hart.

But those prospects haven't been deemed ready. And Hextall's vision since taking over as general manager in May 2014 has always been competitiveness in the present with a keen eye on the future. Turns out, the Flyers' fort had to be held down much firmer than the shaky stakes currently in the blue paint.

This season marks the biggest win-now moment in the era under Hextall and Dave Hakstol. The Flyers went out and landed James van Riemsdyk for five years, $35 million. The core, a big chunk of it coming off career seasons, is getting a year older, while the Flyers' youth movement has climbed another peg on the ladder.

During the offseason, though, the Flyers stood pat in net and they're now trying to survive the backfire at the mid-November mark.

Was this a risk they could afford? We'll find out.

But banking on Elliott and Neuvirth looked a heck of a lot more risky than it did safe.

Elliott underwent core muscle surgery in February and had a summer comprised of recovery and a cleanup procedure. He played 43 games in 2017-18 and, as a tandem goalie for most of his career, has played more than 50 games just once, back in 2009-10.

The oft-injured Neuvirth had offseason surgery on his hips after playing just 22 games last season and 28 the year prior. This year, Neuvirth suffered an injury during the preseason, has played one regular-season game and currently isn't practicing with the team.

The situation appears dire.

Even with Elliott out only two weeks approximately after sustaining a lower-body injury Thursday, who's to believe he won't get hurt again? He's 33 years old and was injured trying to go post to post, oftentimes a routine maneuver in net.

So what now?

Calvin Pickard is the guy. He's a goalie from outside the organization but not exactly a savior given he spent almost all of last season in the AHL.

Alex Lyon is the backup. He's played four AHL games this season and has 11 career games of NHL experience under his belt.

This is all part of the Flyers' internal approach — trusting who's next in line. Maybe Lyon or another prospect quickly rewards them.

The Flyers believe in the overall approach. They like their goalie prospects and are willing to be patient, but did the Flyers have enough time to be patient?

Or even the bodies?

Again, this is just 19 games into a season that should mean something.

The Flyers may have to act.

Because Hextall's build-from-within mindset is breaking down in net.

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