Flyers

Recent Devils trade should open Ron Hextall's eyes

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AP Images/USA Today Images

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.  

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

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Zack Hill/Philadelphia Flyers

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.

More on the Flyers

2018 NHL draft profile: Rasmus Sandin, a defenseman Flyers should know and like

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Terry Wilson/OHL Images

2018 NHL draft profile: Rasmus Sandin, a defenseman Flyers should know and like

In the weeks leading up to the 2018 NHL draft, we're providing prospect profiles and how those players would fit with the Flyers, who have two first-round picks — Nos. 14 and 19.

The NHL draft takes place June 22-23 at American Airlines Center in Dallas. The Flyers have nine picks with two in the first, fifth and seventh rounds and one in the second, fourth and sixth. They do not own a third-rounder as it went to the Detroit Red Wings for Petr Mrazek. The 14th pick conveyed from the Brayden Schenn trade. The final details were Schenn to the St. Louis Blues for Jori Lehtera, a 2017 first-round pick (Morgan Frost) and the 14th pick.

Our prospect profiles will touch mostly on prospects projected to go in the 10-20 range but some may require the Flyers having to trade up to select. We’ll identify those prospects.

Rasmus Sandin

Position: Defenseman
Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 185
Shoots: Left
Team: Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds

Scouting report
The Swedish blueliner is a slick skater who looks like a pro with the puck on his stick. The 18-year-old sees the ice extremely well and can shoot and pass with precision.

As good as he is handling the puck, Sandin is also adept without it. He exploits gaps in the opposition's defense and attacks the net when the opportunity is ripe to create more offensive chances instead of simply floating around the perimeter.

His decision to come to North America and play for the OHL's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds did wonders in his vital draft year. Sandin's plus-35 rating was best among all OHL rookies, while his 12 goals, 33 assists and 45 points over 51 regular-season games led all first-year defensemen. He also had a strong postseason with 13 points (one goal, 12 assists) in 24 contests.

Sandin isn't the biggest or quickest skater, but he makes up for it in many other ways.

Fit with Flyers
General manager Ron Hextall said the Flyers need to "restock a little bit" on defense given their previous prospects are either with the big club or flirting with making the NHL jump.

"I would be shocked if we don't draft a couple of defensemen," Hextall said Thursday.

Sandin could be an option at both Nos. 14 and 19. He projects to go in that range or possibly a tad later. Hextall's staff likely saw a good bit of Sandin while checking in on Flyers prospect Frost's 112-point season with the Greyhounds.

So Sandin has had the eyes of the Flyers and will have them watching on draft night as defensemen start going off the board.

More on the 2018 NHL draft

Profile: Ryan Merkley

• Profile: Dominik Bokk

• Profile: Noah Dobson

• Profile: Rasmus Kupari

• Profile: Martin Kaut

• Profile: Grigori Denisenko

• Profile: Jesperi Kotkaniemi

• Profile: Serron Noel

• Profile: Joel Farabee

• Profile: Barrett Hayton

• Profile: Isac Lundestrom

• Profile: Joseph Veleno

• Profile: Vitali Kravtso