Dave Hakstol

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.

More on the Flyers

For Flyers, it's not a popularity contest — and it shouldn't be

For Flyers, it's not a popularity contest — and it shouldn't be

While the Eastern and Western Conference Final series pick up, the Flyers will continue to outline their offseason plan as much as possible.

One thing that won't sneak into Ron Hextall's agenda is outside pressure.

If it did, he wouldn't be doing his job.

But Hextall is human. From the seat in which he sits and dissects decision after decision, he feels the daily stresses of general managing a hockey team with such a passionate following. Those fans haven't seen a playoff series victory since 2011-12 and a Stanley Cup championship since 1974-75.

That isn't lost on him.

"We all have pressure," Hextall said last month. "Pro sports is pressure. There's pressure on all of us. Now how you handle that pressure, you better handle it right. My philosophy is I do what I believe is right.

"I'm not going to do something to make me popular. I'm not going to do something that's going to take away from the success of our team to put a few more people in the stands."

Nor should he — that's not how you general manage.

Don't like him? Tough. 

Hate his patience? Sorry.

Hextall can't care about that — he made it clear he's not here to be liked. Even as the Philadelphia sports scene rises back into contention, Hextall will stay the course he carved out from the start and the one that ownership has faithfully backed.

"We're not going to change what we set out to do four years ago," Hextall said. "We put a plan in place. To go sideways now would be the wrong thing to do.

"It sort of took two years to get the wheels in motion and we're on plan. Are we happy where we're at right now? Hell no."

There's merit behind the Flyers' belief in their pace and path to an ultimate goal of contending for multiple Stanley Cups, not just one.

Dave Scott, the president and CEO of the team's ownership group, Comcast Spectacor, expressed no concern following last season in which the Flyers missed the playoffs for the third time over the past five campaigns. Despite the drop-off in 2016-17, Scott said it was "a terrific year from the business perspective."

"It was probably one of the best years we've ever had," Scott said in April 2017. "Ron's our guy. We believe in the system, we like the vision, we like the strategy, the pipeline. These young players coming up, there's a lot of excitement. From the business side, it's been terrific."

During the 2017-18 regular season, the Flyers were third among the NHL in average attendance at 19,517, according to multiple websites. They were sixth in 2016-17 with 19,644. This season, the roster also became younger and more competitive (trends that should continue), resulting in 42 wins and 98 points, both highs under Dave Hakstol, who will be entering his fourth year in 2018-19.

These are reasons why Hextall won't make reactionary moves this offseason.

He never does and won't start now just because the pressure gauge is ticking to new heights. If fans haven't yet comprehended the Flyers' motives, they'll have to start trying.

Or they can make their own decision, a power they've always possessed.

"If we're successful, the people are going to be in the seats," Hextall said. "If you look around the league, we’ve got very good attendance. That's a little bit harsh when you talk about attendance. Our attendance has been very good. Our fans are terrific.

"We're not going to make a change to appease people or because we are supposed to or for whatever reason. We're going to make changes to get better."

Popularity be damned.

How 'a little more snot' helped elevate Shayne Gostisbehere's game in 2017-18

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How 'a little more snot' helped elevate Shayne Gostisbehere's game in 2017-18

Shayne Gostisbehere knows a few things about his body, and it’s hard to hide. At 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, he won't move mountains by chiseling away at them with his bare frame. He has to utilize the utensils in his toolbox, specifically speed and smarts.

Gostisbehere, 25, knows his offensive game will always be there. He had the most points ever by a Flyers defenseman in his first three NHL seasons with 150. He added 65 more this season. He became the fastest blueliner in franchise history to reach 100 points (155 games).

The accolades go on, but after his third season, Gostisbehere is “kind of like a veteran now,” as Flyers GM Ron Hextall put it, and this year, he incrementally improved defensively. He had respectable shot suppression numbers and saw significantly more defensive zone starts.

Since the Flyers drafted him in 2012, he’s added 20 pounds. He felt stronger coming into this season and maintained it throughout the year.

It showed in puck battles. The added strength may have factored in, as did his experience. There was another source too …

“A little more snot,” Gostisbehere said last week.

One momentous change was, as the season went on, Dave Hakstol entrusted Gostisbehere with more responsibility. He was elevated to the top pair with Ivan Provorov on Dec. 23, a game that proved to be the turning point for another young Flyer.

Not many Flyers played well in the playoffs against the Penguins, but Gostisbehere’s struggles were apparent. He finished the series as a minus-8, including a minus-4 in the Flyers’ 7-0 Game 1 loss. There was the Sidney Crosby gaffe, where he left arguably the best player ever to play hockey alone. Other coverage mistakes and defensive lapses that were more prevalent during his first two seasons reappeared in his game, leading to Hakstol to move him away from Provorov.

“I don’t think I played well in the playoffs,” Gostisbehere said. “I played in the playoffs before and I didn’t really play against first lines in my first playoff series and then this year, I did. It’s tough. You think you’re so well prepared for it and you go out in your first game and you’re minus-4. It’s a tough pill to swallow. I was on some crappy goals and some that were my fault.”

While the Flyers broke up Gostisbehere and Provorov in the postseason, the expectation is the duo will begin next season together. They created matchup nightmares because they’re both dynamic in the offensive zone and at any given time, either could activate.

Gostisbehere finished fourth in the NHL in scoring among defensemen and led all blueliners with 33 power-play points. He won the Barry Ashbee Trophy as the Flyers’ best defenseman for the second time in three years, yet lost in it all was Provorov’s 17 goals, tied for the league lead among d-men.

“He’s a 1,000 of years better than me defensively,” Gostisbehere said. “We use that to our advantage and it really showed as a pair. Provy’s very good defensively, but offensively, he took another step. He’s probably one of the best, if not the best two-way defenseman in the NHL.”

There is an old hockey adage that goes something like this: Pair a puck-mover with a stay-at-home defenseman. We saw it in the early months with Gostisbehere and Robert Hagg. Hagg, in many ways, permitted Gostisbehere to roam freely. But the Flyers learned that partnering two puck-movers together isn’t such a lousy idea, nor is it revolutionary.

“[Provorov’s] a machine,” Gostisbehere said. “I think he’s like 35, really. … He helped me years with my defensive side of my game just watching him and him helping me along the way.”