Flyers

Future Flyers Report: A look at what lies ahead in Ron Hextall's plan

Future Flyers Report: A look at what lies ahead in Ron Hextall's plan

July 1 hasn’t been the same in Philadelphia for quite some time. It was once a day the Flyers were among the busiest buyers in the NHL. I don’t see a return to that anytime soon, either.
 
This summer was another the Flyers stayed away from crippling contracts pursuing short-term fixes on the open market. They filled a need with Brian Elliott and that was it.
 
Looking ahead, we shouldn’t expect this to change, either. This is the world we live in, one in which the salary cap dictates play and history knows the Flyers haven’t lived well in it.
 
This isn’t a column about this season. Instead, let’s use this summer as a predictor for what to expect in the summers of 2018 and 2019 because that’s when things become interesting.
 
It all ties together with Flyers general manager Ron Hextall’s ideology of drafting and developing, a drastic shift in the franchise’s historic operation that is entering Year 4 under Hextall.
 
Sound familiar? We can draw comparisons to the Sixers, but that’s a different sport with a different system. The NBA has a higher salary cap and is superstar-heavy. Teams need multiple stars to win and unless they get multiple top-three picks or get lucky, they have to buy them.
 
That’s not how the NHL works. This isn’t to compare the Flyers to the Sixers, hockey to basketball. But both teams that play at the Wells Fargo Center are rebuilding.
 
One has just been more vocal about it.
 
The Flyers are getting younger after two seasons of putting a stagnant roster on the ice. All signs point to as many as four or five rookies here in 2017-18: Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom, Mike Vecchione, Sam Morin and Robert Hagg.
 
We’ve written about the youth movement plenty since the end of the season. The Flyers drafted Patrick with the No. 2 overall pick. Lindblom is coming overseas. Morin and Hagg, who both impressed in their debuts at the end of last season, will bring more youth to the blue line.
 
There is plenty more to write about 2017-18, but let’s take a step back for a moment. Let’s take a look at where the Flyers are and what’s ahead on the “course” Hextall set out on three years ago.
 
Salary cap
Hextall was handed a bad cap situation when he took over. The Flyers have long struggled to adapt to the cap world, and Hextall has been cleaning up the previous regime’s mess.
 
The cap increased by $2 million this season. It's up to $75 million from $73 million in 2016-17. The Flyers have slightly over $6 million in projected space, according to CapFriendly.com. They still have some restricted free agents and Patrick to sign. They’ll likely begin the year with, give or take, about $2 million in cap space.
 
Hextall locked up Shayne Gostisbehere for six years with a $4.5 million average annual value. It’s a team-friendly deal compared to what free-agent defensemen land on the market.
 
Next summer, Hextall has three players and $9.6 million coming off the books: Valtteri Filppula ($5 million), Matt Read ($3.625 million) and Brandon Manning ($975,000).
 
Hagg and Morin will be RFAs. The cap will likely increase again. No problems there. But in summer 2019, that’s when things get interesting and could potentially spell trouble.
 
Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny and Travis Sanheim will all be RFAs after the 2018-19 season. Wayne Simmonds and Jordan Weal will be UFAs. Both goalies, Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, will be UFAs as well but only one spot will need to be filled.
 
Remember, this is all projection. By 2019-20, we can expect one of the kids in net will be here. With more kids coming, they carry cheaper cap hits but will need cap space for extensions.
 
Looking ahead
We can expect the cap ceiling to continue to increase. Patrick should expedite the process but will not change how it operates. We should keep this in mind going forward.
 
The Flyers have some difficult decisions coming in the summer of 2019, which means don’t expect Hextall to shop in free agency next summer regardless of the outcome in 2017-18.
 
Drafting and developing require hitting on prospects. The Flyers have a highly respected prospect pool, but that has to translate to the NHL in order for this to work.
 
This will play out over the next two seasons. In 2018-19, more kids will join the fray. Where it gets compelling is summer 2019 when Hextall faces his first real tough contract decision.
 
Provorov and Konecny figure to land long-term extensions while we can guess Sanheim will get a decent bump in pay as well on a bridge deal depending on his development.
 
Those will be done. That isn’t the worry. We can take an educated guess Provorov will net a hefty extension with a cap hit larger than Gostisbehere’s. Think in the $5-6 million range.
 
Where it gets murky is Simmonds and Weal, who signed a two-year extension last Thursday. Simmonds will be the most interesting decision Hextall will face.
 
Simmonds will be turning 31 in August 2019 and, barring a major decline over the next two seasons, he’ll be in line for one final big contract. That is where it gets difficult for Hextall.
 
As a fan favorite and the Flyers’ top scorer, Simmonds is among the team’s leaders on the stat sheet and in the locker room. But what do the Flyers do when his contract expires?
 
Will Hextall feel obligated to bring Simmonds back because what he brings in terms of leadership and scoring despite knowing he’ll be paying for Simmonds’ decline years?
 
A lot of it has to do with where the Flyers are in terms of contending, what prospects are at the NHL level and where they are at that stage of their young careers.
 
Then comes the money question.
 
Simmonds signed what has proved to be an extremely team-generous six-year, $23.85 million extension in 2012 at an AAV of $3.975 million. The next deal will be much higher.
 
It will be a tough decision for Hextall and a bridge he doesn’t have to cross yet. But considering he has a long-term approach, it’s safe to suggest this is something on the mind of the front office.
 
So while it’s easy to focus on 2017-18, we also should keep in mind this is a long-term plan. The summer of 2019 will be one in which Hextall faces some difficult decisions. It’s one reason why we shouldn’t expect the Flyers to jump back into the free-agent frenzy in 2018.
 
There has been a lot of praise for what Hextall has done. Despite their rebuild, the Flyers have still been competitive. They made the playoffs in 2015-16 but missed last season.
 
The Flyers’ offseason has been a solid one. Hextall hasn’t boxed out young players by adding veterans in free agency. He, in fact, has opened up spots. They got lucky with the No. 2 pick. There are plenty of reasons to be excited for 2017-18. It should be a fun season — there is no doubt about that.
 
But before we place too high of expectations on the Flyers in 2017-18 because of the of young blood that projects to improve the team significantly, let’s put things in perspective.
 
The Flyers are still a few years away from being considered true contenders. While they should make the playoffs this season, they’re still not there yet.

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