LOS ANGELES — This is where it began.
Some time during the seven years Ron Hextall labored as Dean Lombardi’s assistant general manager with the Kings, he developed that sense of patience that has both tantalized and frustrated Flyers fans who want to win now.
“Every year you spend in the game, you become more educated,” Hextall said. “The more time you spend watching the game and the cap and not only short-term but long-term ramifications, you become more experienced at balancing things out and keeping them in perspective. I couldn’t make a move this summer that kills us in two years.”
Which is why the Flyers' GM didn’t mortgage the future — something his predecessors did so often — by dangling one of his many prospects or draft picks for a “win now” player who would guarantee playoff success.
“I see what’s going on,” Hextall said. “I’d like to make our team better every single day, but the reality is that sometimes you make moves to make your team better and two years down the road, look back and say, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’”
Hence, while some Eastern Conference clubs had significant makeovers, the only notable signees this summer were Boyd Gordon and Dale Weise — replacement parts for Sam Gagner and Ryan White and Russian forward Roman Lyubimov.
“I don’t make decisions on emotion or what other people are doing because in the end, it will hurt us,” Hextall said. “We are focused on the Philadelphia Flyers and what will make us better not just today, but also a year, two or three going forward.”
Something wonderful happened to Hextall this fall. He was rewarded for his patience.
Ivan Provorov came to training camp and simply became the club’s most standout defenseman. And while that was happening, fellow 19-year-old Travis Konecny showed people the many things he could do with a puck on his stick.
These kids weren’t ready to help the Flyers cross that void a year ago, but they sure look as though they’re ready now.
Last season, we witnessed what an amazing difference one young player could make with the emergency addition of Shayne Gostisbehere on the blue line.
Imagine what might behold coach Dave Hakstol’s club this season with two rookies, both of whom were impact players in junior. If they can have a fraction of the influence that Ghost had, the Flyers are in good shape.
Hakstol’s club, which takes the ice Friday night against the Kings at Staples Center, has gone from bubble team to playoff wild card with these two additions.
Think the Flyers are better?
“I do,” Hextall replied. “Part of it is we have a belief in ourselves. But it can’t be, ‘OK, we’re gonna get it done this year.’ We have to put the work in.
“It can’t be, ‘We’re gonna make the playoffs.’ We have to make the playoffs. We have a lot of work to do. We have to get off to a better start. Our first half (of the season) has to be better. With the additions, I believe we’re a better team.”
This season, the Flyers have more than one highly-skilled line. With Konecny here, Sean Couturier finally has a set of wingers — Jakub Voracek is the other —who can move quickly up ice with the kind of skill necessary to finish at the other end.
Finally, some of the pressure is off team captain Claude Giroux, who will get a reprieve in ice time from Gordon, whose sole purpose is to play Pac-Man and gobble up PK minutes and handle defensive draws. That allows Giroux to spend more offensive minutes on the ice.
And to top it off, both Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth — either of whom could be No. 1 goalies on many clubs — give assurance that no matter who is in net, the club has a chance to get two points.
That’s not to say the Flyers don’t have miles to go to achieve the level of Pittsburgh in the Metro Division, but fans can now see tangible evidence of a team in transition making forward strides and knowing there’s young talent right behind it in the organization, clamoring for a chance.
The evolution of the Flyers began last season under Hakstol, a first-year coach, and takes a larger step toward the unknown this season, as well.
“We’re beginning with a better foundation than what we started with last year,” Hakstol said. “A lot of that probably has a lot to do with most of this group being together for the year.
“That doesn’t guarantee anything. That is foundation we are working off. What I learned from Year One was the value of each and every point and hard how you have to scratch and claw for every one of those points. Whether or not you can say we’re ahead, that is for others to judge.”
They start the season with back-to-back games out West, then meet a Cup favorite in Chicago before heading home.
While their systems remain mostly the same, the single biggest factor that can influence the Flyers’ fortunes — or seal their fate — rests in how they begin the season.
Hakstol is the third consecutive coach who slogged his way through the first quarter of the season lacking momentum and points and ultimately watching his club gasp its way to the finish.
Last year, the Flyers barely made the playoffs and were exhausted when it began from trying to make up a points deficit.
A strong start in October means less angst in April.
Hakstol wants this club to resemble the one from February and March last season at the outset — not the end.
“That’s our bar and our starting point in terms of effort level, consistency level, and being a good team,” he said. “That was the biggest difference for our team those last couple months. We were able to really play every night with an identity that is called consistency.”
Three years into the rebuild, Hextall believes the organization is in “a good spot,” from the standpoint of veteran leadership, the sprinkle of youth, and talent developing in the minors.
This being the 50th anniversary of the franchise, it’s probably a bad idea to remind people the Flyers haven’t won a Cup in four decades and some core players are already in their prime years.
“We have time,” Hextall said. “And before that happens, as those guys age, these younger guys come up and take more of the burden from them.
“You end up having a deeper team and that’s the vision that we have. Those guys are still going to be productive players for us, but we won’t have to depend on them in three or four years as we do now. That’s a good thing.”
So how close are the Flyers?
“We've got some work to do,” Hextall said. “We've got some work, some growth to fully get better. How far to go? I don’t know. It has to play out on the ice.”
As it always does.