Meltzer's Musings: Hextall's View on Analytics and Roster Building
Once the formalities of introducing Paul Holmgren as the Philadelphia Flyers' new club president and Ron Hextall as general manager were completed at yesterday's press conference, the two men each had separate off-podium media availability. It has been my experience over the years that there is more to be learned during these sessions than during the question and answer period of the main press conference.
The main session is all about presenting basic information and collecting a few soundbites. This is the time where the primary focus of the question-and-answer period is related to getting the principles to expand on the Five-W questions related to the subject of the press conference. It is during the latter portion in which there is greater opportunity to ask more specific hockey-related questions.
Yesterday, it was fascinating listening to Hextall lay out some of his philosophies on team building and player assessment. He was candid and forthcoming about his viewpoints on today's game, and on the challenges of trying to ice a contending team while also remaining committed to retaining draft picks and developing young talent.
Two of the more interesting topics that Hextall discussed during his breakout session dealt with the use of hockey analytics and the areas of team-building focus against the constraints of the salary cap.
Hextall has, in my opinion, a healthy viewpoint on the role so-called advanced stats and internally kept analytics play in assessing individual and team performance. On the one hand, it is foolish to simply dismiss their usefulness. There is valuable information to be mined. On the other hand, there is a real danger in taking the individual analytics out of the context of team play and to dismiss traditional metrics and good old fashioned observation because they may not jibe with the advanced analytics.
The new general manager seems to understand that.
Said Hextall, "Analytics is where we’re going. I’m very interested in it. It’s very intriguing. Why I have an analytical mind I have no idea, but I do. You can’t overvalue it, but in my mind it’s going to become more and more and more valuable, I think in all sports. It’s another tool. Why not use every tool available? You still need eyes on hockey players. You need that. I don’t think that will ever change, but the analytics – I wouldn’t say it’s a huge part – but it’s going to get bigger and bigger. I’m interested. It intrigues me.”
In terms of trying to build a team capable of winning the Stanley Cup, Hextall strongly emphasized a belief that championship teams need to first build down the middle. In terms of forwards, that specifically means a heavy emphasis on centers as the (no pun intended) centerpiece of each line and then trying to find complementary wingers to fill specific roles around the pivot.
"I guess the one thing I’ll be looking at is the fit with our forwards. Does everything fit together? Do we have the best fit for the player accent, player [role] wise? I’ll be looking hard at that," said Hextall.
In addressing a question related to players under long-term contract, Hextall admitted there may be some pieces moved around in order to seek a better fit.
Said Hextall, "A lot of the guys that we’ve got locked up are young players, so that’s great. Are there guys locked up that maybe don’t fit with us? Maybe."
It doesn't take much deep analysis to figure out that Hextall was likely referring to Vincent Lecavalier as a player locked up in a long-term contract who may not fit Craig Berube's lineup and the objectives Hextall himself wants to accomplish as the new general manager. The Flyers tried to find the right spot for Lecavalier all over the lineup during the 2013-14 season and, despite his 20-goal regular season, were largely unsuccessful.
Something that is unclear at this point but will become evident as the off-season progresses is how Hextall assesses Brayden Schenn's best fit on the team. The new GM went into detail in describing how championship teams have a potent one-two punch at center -- citing the likes of Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic in Colorado, Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov in Detroit and Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards on the Cup-winning Los Angeles team for which Hextall was the assistant general manager under Dean Lombardi.
Hextall cited enough examples to make his point clear. If he had wanted to keep going, he easily could have added the names of Eric Lindros and Rod Brind'Amour to give a Flyers-specific example of the current likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh.
For obvious reasons, Hextall will probably never divulge his true feelings about the trade that sent Richards to Los Angeles in exchange for Schenn (then considered LA's top forward prospect) and Wayne Simmonds. Although Richards struggled this season in LA, he was a major part of the reason why the Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2011-12 and still has on-ice value beyond his statistics.
In the meantime, right winger Simmonds has been a major boon to the Flyers, emerging as a quality power forward as well as an ever-increasing part of the leadership group. Schenn's development has been staccato, but has shown flashes of ability to be an impact player and just completed his first 20-goal season in his third NHL season.
Does Hextall believe that Schenn has the upside to be the second half of an elite caliber one-two punch at center, along with Claude Giroux? The collection of names that Hextall put out there set the bar very, very high for Schenn or whomever they have at second-line center next season.
Don't forget that Hextall was also part of the decision-making process and deeply involved in discussions about the player's development curve while he was in the Kings system. Los Angeles vacillated a few times on whether Schenn, the 5th overall pick of the 2009 NHL Draft, was NHL ready despite posting big junior numbers for the Brandon Wheat Kings (which, strictly by coincidence was also a young Hextall's junior club) and starring for Canada at the World Junior Championships.
There were whispers that while a teenaged Schenn had the hands and competitiveness of an NHL impact player, his feet and pacing needed work. Those factors likely played into who Schenn was twice sent back to junior hockey after seeing brief periods of time with the Kings.
Of course, that was then and this now, Schenn has developed and improved since that time. Being a 20-goal scorer in the NHL at age 22 is nothing to scoff at or casually dismiss.
What is clear is that Hextall, with input from Craig Berube and Holmgren, needs to make a decision about Schenn and stick to it. Do the Flyers believe that Schenn has the upside to be a second line center of the caliber Hextall inferred? Is he a left winger to complement a particular center's skill set, especially if Simmonds is the right winger on that line? Should he be a featured part of a trade to bring back an impact player who is still reasonably young?
Hextall gave some mixed messages about what he hopes to do with the Flyers' defense corps this offseason. He did say that he is high on the organization's top three defense prospects (Samuel Morin, Shayne Gostisbehere and Robert Hägg) but stressed that these players should not get rushed to the NHL. In the meantime, he talked about the need to avoid having too many undersized defensemen or too many aging ones (while also saying that he hopes to sign Kimmo Timonen for one more year).
"We’ve got to be really careful about getting too small. You look at some of the series out West and Boston – it’s not a real small man’s game. It is a quick game, it’s a fast game, it’s a puck moving game. There’s no doubt about that," said Hextall.
"Some people talk about small puck movers and stuff, and that’s the way to build a team, but if you look at the best defensemen in the league, they’re not small puck movers. They’re bigger guys that you have some physical play, you have puck movers, you have smart guys."
He concluded, "I think the defensive stick is something that people don’t talk about enough. It’s huge. It’s huge. It’s so hard to score goals. You can’t give up easy goals, whether it’s your goaltender or your defense. You’ve got to close on players. So you’ve got to have good feet, you’ve got to have big bodies and again, hockey sense is a huge part of the game. The average fan doesn’t necessarily see it, but I really like smart players, competitive players, obviously fast players.”
Basically, what Hextall is getting at is that the defense corps needs to mix-and-match skill sets to fill a variety of roles. Very few defensemen around the NHL have all of the aforementioned qualities that Hextall cited. The ones that do are are the stars. The rest excel in some areas and have shortcomings in others.
A big and savvy defenseman may lack quick feet or he may be both big and a plus skater but have questionable poise. A smaller counterpart may be prone to getting outmuscled or be deceptively strong while lacking speed but compensate through smarts.
Taking a look at the Flyers current top seven defensemen at the NHL level, there is basically a collection of players who are all individually useful in the right role but none who are elite level players. Taken collectively, it's an adequate group but not one that will strike fear in many opposing teams.
Timonen used to be a level one step down from the Norris candidates, but is on the downside of his career. Andrew MacDonald and Braydon Coburn would be starters somewhere on virtually every NHL team's blueline.
Lookin within the current top seven group, there are two players (Timonen and Streit) in their mid-to-late-30s. There are two (Nicklas Grossmann and Luke Schenn) who are big and physical but lack speed. Schenn is the better passer of the two, and the only righthanded stick in the top seven. Grossmann is more positionally sound of the two.
Three defensemen (Timonen, Mark Streit and Erik Gustafsson) are undersized. Timonen and Streit have high levels of hockey sense but neither are especially fast. Streit at times struggles with getting on the wrong side of the puck defensively and not recovering. At other times, the Swiss veteran is fine. Gustafsson skates well but is inconsistent in using his feet and passing ability to compensate for the risk of getting outmuscled.
Andrew MacDonald has good mobility, makes a solid first pass and blocks a lot of shots but is not particularly physical. Braydon Coburn has size and mobility but needs to keep his game simple to be effective. He is prone to mistakes with and without the puck when he tries to do too much.
When the Flyers' collectively -- forwards and defensemen alike -- keep their feet moving and maintain a high level of puck support, they play their best hockey. When they don't, they struggle. Ron Hextall's biggest challenge this offseason and beyond will be to assemble a team that is consistently able to attack more and defend less.