Quick Hits: November 29, 2018
1) The Flyers returned to practice
at the Skate Zone on Wednesday. James van Riemsdyk took a maintenance day. Oskar Lindblom, whose ice time has been severely and steadily rolled back ever since JVR returned to the lineup and Dale Weise was promoted again from the third line to the second line, remained on the fourth line.
The Flyers placed Calvin Pickard placed on waivers on Wednesday with apparent plans to assign him to the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms if he clears. Toronto may have interest in a reclaim of Pickard for the AHL's Marlies. They can do so directly if no other NHL team claims Pickard first and the Maple Leafs opt to make a reclaim.
Anthony Stolarz and injury-rehabbing goaltenders Michal Neuvirth (who is close to being cleared for activation from IR barring another injury before then) and Brian Elliott (not ready yet for clearance but no setbacks) were the three goaltenders on the ice.
The Flyers have also returned winger Tyrell Goulbourne to the Phantoms.
2) Ordinarily, off-days are just the preparatory space in between what actually matters; the games. Right now with the Flyers, the games are the short-term prep space for big-picture decisions to come.
This situation makes life very tough on the players and coaches alike, and cannot last for long. Until the Flyers have a new general manager in place and there is a commitment made to either give the incumbent head coach the rest of the season as an evaluation period (one which almost always ends in the new GM naming a new head coach of his own choosing, as "old regime" head coaches do not often last more than one season under a new GM) or to make an immediate change with an interim or long-term head coach named, there's a vacuum that is unfair to every one on the team or behind the bench.
For those reasons, I suspect the "weeks, not months" search for a new GM is going to be expedited as much as possible. There is no internal "hire by x-date" deadline but everyone involved knows the sooner it happens, the better. That said, the Flyers team has only itself to blame for what happened in Tuesday's latter third-period collapse against Ottawa. The GM vacuum and Dave Hakstol's tenuous situation had nothing to do with why that happened.
3) From all I have heard on-record and off-record, it appears that the reports of Chuck Fletcher being the front-runner in the Flyers' GM search are accurate. The Flyers apparently spoke to Fletcher directly on Wednesday, but plan to speak to other candidates as well before making a final determination.
I was told that the front end of the interview pool will be candidates with previous NHL-level head general manager experience. In addition to the potential short-list candidates mentioned by Pierre Lebrun in his article for the Athletic, there is said to be a plan to speak to former Vancouver Canucks general manager Dave Nonis (currently an adviser to Anaheim Ducks general manager Bob Murray).
If the search is still ongoing into a second round of interviews, there are long-list candidates who are potential future NHL general managers and highly regarded as NHL assistant GMs, AHL GMs, scouting and/or player personnel directors, etc. Lebrun mentioned Columbus assistant general manager Bill Zito and Buffalo Sabres assistant general manager Steve Greeley as candidates. I am not sure of Greeley's status but received confirmation that Columbus team president John Davidson has given the Flyers permission to interview Zito and gave his personal endorsement for his NHL GM worthiness.
4) On Wednesday, Paul Holmgren announced the firings of assistant general manager Chris Pryor and assistant coach Gord Murphy. The Flyers team president, who is the de facto interim GM until he hires a replacement, said that the Murphy decision was made in consultation with Hakstol before the decision was made.
In defenseman coach Murphy's case, apart from the struggles of key members of the Flyers blueline this season (namely, Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere) putting his job in severe jeopardy there were said to be internal reasons for his dismissal ahead of a new general manager coming in. "Murph" was probably safe under Hextall but was as good as gone with Hexy out. The reasons are similar to things that went down this season in Chicago, except in reverse.
In the case of Pryor, his dismissal was purely collateral damage. "Sarge" had been with the organization for 20 years. He had worked under Bob Clarke and closely with Paul Holmgren both when Homer was assistant GM and head GM. When Paul was the assistant GM, Clarkie typically delegated most amateur scouting-related oversight to Paul. When Homer succeeded Clarke as general manager, Pryor continued to work his way up the hockey ops ladder. But it was not until Ron Hextall became general manager that Chris became an assistant GM.
In order to work successfully with Hexy, Pryor had to be enthusiastically 100 percent on board with every aspect of Hexy's plan. As is well known, that plan centered around stockpiling draft picks and continually building through the draft plus a large-scale upgrade of player development program resources and avoiding long-term/high cap hit veterans or trades that involved prospects or picks going for veterans. As a longtime scout who will likely forever be a scout at heart, it wasn't a hard sell.
Unfortunately, as Jay Greenberg wrote in his recent blog on Hexy's dismissal, the now-former GM created a little too tight of a bunker for his own good. Pryor was Hextall's right-hand man. As such, when the trigger was pulled on firing Hexy, the shrapnel took down Sarge, too.
It is likely that the writing is also on the wall for former Phantoms forward Brett Hextall in the organizational player development oversight role in which his dad hired him. Additionally, Chris' son, Nick Pryor, works for the Flyers as an amateur scout with a USHL/NCAA hub as his main area. The organization has identified pro prospects remarkably well from those circuits in recent years, often fairly deep into the Draft, so it is possible Nick could be given a choice as to whether he wants to stay on in his current capacity as an in-the-field scout.
Overall, though, this is very much part of the downside of the professional sports. It's nothing unique to the Flyers or sports. Collateral damage, including among well-liked figures who are very good in their jobs, also accompanies regime changes in the non-sports business world, politics and any other organization that involves human dynamics.
5) I can't lie: I am pretty bummed to see Pryor let go. Chris always made time for me over the years, and I loved talking about the Flyers prospects with him or about scouting in general. He gave me a lot of great insights.
For example, when I freelanced an article for the IIHF website on how much NHL scouting presence in Switzerland had grown, Sarge provided a lot of excellent background info. Meanwhile, he was talking to me from an airport terminal, while he was just about to board a flight to scout a tourney in Europe. Whenever Chris saw me in the press box, whether in Philly or Allentown or wherever, he'd always say hello by name and often with a little tap on the shoulder. Those kind of things are noticed and appreciated. Paul Holmgren has always done the same, by the way. I think many fans would be surprised if they talked hockey with Paul. Contrary to public opinion, he's not living in the past.
Before I get to the next point of today's blog, I need to say this again: Ron Hextall is a fundamentally good person, a straight-shooter, and a hard worker who thoroughly considers any decision. He has a good sense of humor. In daily interactions, he makes eye contact, and says hello to people by name. He is also a family man who does not begrudge other people doing what they need to do for their own families.
Speaking personally, although I never had a long one-on-one conversation with Ron, he treated me kindly in his own right. When Chris Therien and I started the Real Deal Hockey podcast this past summer, Ron willingly came on the show as one of our first guests. I also appreciated that I was never censored in things I wrote for the Flyers website or caught flak for anything I wrote here at HockeyBuzz.
I never had a single problem with Ron in doing my job. Content wise, there was always an unspoken common sense understanding -- which was the case before Hexy and is still the case now -- that someone in an internal writer role can discuss issues on a macro teamwide level but it has to be balanced. Additionally, one shouldn't throw players or coaches under the bus in a team sport. Individual errors can be pointed out, as can a need for greater overall consistency so long as it's done respectfully and constructively.
There was nothing nefarious about Hextall's intentions as a GM. He was only doing what he felt was the right thing, although he came off to many as dictatorial in the process. The job he did with the farm system, the cap and in simultaneously keeping enough pieces together to still manage 96-point and 98-point seasons with playoff appearances is no small feat. The organization is well set up moving forward to the next GM.
Ron's downfall was partially related to being inflexible about entertaining the idea of parting with any assets/ prospects under almost any circumstances (the "no-brainer deal" circumstance under which he'd make an exception was unlikely to ever arise) even four years into his tenure. Unfortunately, his managerial style also played a factor in hastening his own dismissal; some of his methods were things that can be lived with for the long haul of the team is winning regularly but which tend to get a manager booted early when it hurts workplace morale, makes other departments' jobs harder to do and when one's own bosses get a clear sense their wishes are being disregarded.
Jay Greenberg wrote that Paul Holmgren had been Hexy's biggest advocate: he hired him back from LA, hastened his own decision to move upstairs as team president in order not to lose Hextall to other GM opportunities and then stayed hands off on the hockey ops side until nearly the end so that Hexy would have the freedom to run things as he saw fit.
Ron would still be the GM now if he'd used Holmgren as a resource, bounced some ideas off him for input and then made decisions using his own judgment. Holmgren would have stayed as Hexy's advocate that way, even if he disagreed with certain decisions. As it played out, though, Holmgren eventually felt compelled (partially because he also has bosses at Comcast Spectacor but primarily out of his own hockey assessments) to tell Hexy bluntly that he felt adjustments to his plan needed to be made. It didn't go over very well, and the relationship turned increasingly contentious.
Therein lay the "philosophical differences" that led to Hextall's dismissal. The reason why Holmgren danced around giving specifics at Tuesday's press conference is that pretty much all of the issues that came into play -- both hockey and workplace -- are things that the next GM will have to deal with, and it would not be beneficial to spell them out publicly. Most are pretty easy to surmise, anyway, at least from the NHL roster need standpoint.
6) Late in Ed Snider's life, he told Paul Holmgren (by then about to be named as the team president) that the main part of his job was to make sure the "Flyers brand" was always protected, across all departments and facets. That meant essentially herding cats in some cases to get everyone in the organization the same page and work as a team.
As it turned out, the most resistant person was also one of the most powerful and publicly visible: the general manager. The bunker he built worked in some aspects. Leaks of information were all but non-existent. Any Flyers-related rumors inevitably came from outside the organization, whether from agents or from sources from other organizations.
In other aspects, Hexy created a lot of internal discord by simultaneously micromanaging (including areas beyond the traditional core duties of a GM) and either severely limiting or abolishing access not only externally (e.g., media being forbidden from interviewing assistant coaches or scouts so that the GM and coach's message would never be contradicted in any way, shape or form) but also internally. Hexy was the rare GM who did not have his head coach select even a single assistant coach of his own choosing, for example.
Hextall's plan was embraced -- and it should be said that Ron himself strongly believed he could do a farm system rebuild and salary cap fix while keeping the NHL core together to be good enough to make the playoffs and then re-emerging as a Cup contender within a few years. The signing of James van Riemsdyk signified Hextall believing the team was at a point where it was ready to go over the 100-point mark and stand a good shot a winning a round or two in the playoffs. He said as much repeatedly, whether prompted or not.
When vital areas such as adjusting the goaltending plan and being willing to overspend a bit if necessary to land another top-four caliber defenseman and/or bonafide third-line center and penalty killing personnel upgrades went unaddressed, Holmgren was unhappy. Ditto an unwillingness to consider potential blockbuster moves that would involve any high-end picks and/or top prospects going the other way.
Back when Clarke retired as a player and became GM, Hockey Hall of Fame GM Keith Allen had already moved upstairs in the organization one year earlier when the Flyers made the ill-fated decision to give Bob McCammon the GM title on top of his head coach job in order to keep him from accepting a dual-title role elsewhere.
Allen never tried to undercut any of Clarke's decisions as a general manager to the Sniders or tell him how to do his job. He simply made himself available to offer counsel whenever Clarke sought it. In the earlier years, Clarke would ask advice as needed from Allen -- widely regarded as one of the wisest, savviest and shrewdest GMs of all-time -- and also placed his trust in scouts originally hired by Allen.
Years later, when Holmgren became GM and Clarke moved into the largely honorary executive VP role he still holds, Clarkie did the same thing Allen had once done for him. He was available for Homer when Paul needed it. The frequency of such times varied. What never varied was that Clarkie was always willing to advocate for Paul's desired course of action to Ed Snider. In turn, Snider would make sure whatever resources were needed were available.
When Paul stepped into the team president role -- no figurehead role, mind you, as he was Hexy's direct boss along with the boss of every department -- he had every intention of doing for Ron what Clarke had done for him, especially since Clarkie isn't around nearly as much as he used to be. Bob is mostly in Florida nowadays. Hextall would have been wise to utilize that resource. He chose not to, because he felt he had things worked out.
I know Paul a little bit better one-to-one than I know Hexy -- roughly equal to my relationship with Sarge --but I know people who are very close with Paul. He did not fire Hexy because Ron made his inner circle consist almost solely of himself, Chris Pryor and, once he returned to the Flyers as personal adviser to the GM, longtime mentor and friend Dean Lombardi. Homer himself likes and respects both Sarge and Dean. However, when Paul felt ultimately compelled to speak as Ron's boss in saying there were changes needed, Ron elected to push back and dig in his heels. Had Paul been treated as a resource rather than an adversary, there would have been compromise found, and Ron probably would have remained GM for a long time to come, regardless of his choice of head coach or assistants.
At the end, Hexy got a very hard lesson in organizational hierarchies. The fact of the matter is that Ron needlessly alienated various others in the organization through micromanagement (Team bus time change from the hotel to the rink? Better run it through Hexy first, even if he's away. What food choices could be served at this team function? Hexy had better approve it first so that it didn't go against the organizational fitness program that was of the utmost importance to him). Ron strictly controlled all forms of access and even pushed away members of the Alumni (despite being one of the most prominent alums himself, and Homer being an Alumni Association board member and ardent supporter).
If Ron had operated by the "hire good people and let them do their jobs" principle rather than being so controlling, he'd still be the GM. Even if he hadn't, he could have continued to manage by that style provided the team was winning. With the team being so streaky year after year, he needed to have more allies than he ended up having.
There weren't internally a whole lot of tears for Hexy being shed this week after his dismissal, although many can see both sides of the coin. It's a real shame. It didn't have to be that way. I am sure the entire Hextall family is devastated and it's hard not to at least feel for them. There's always a human element to any organization, including a sports team.
Lastly, Hexy deserves to be able to give his side of things when he feels ready to do so. There are three sides to every story: Side A, Side B and the truth somewhere in between.