Meltzer's Musings: Managing the GM Transition, Comparing Philosophies
How Will Hextall Differ from Holmgren?
The Philadelphia Flyers' decision to elevate Ron Hextall from assistant general manager to the GM chair and to name Paul Holmgren the new club president was an inevitable move for months. The only question was when it would happen.
Today, the Flyers made the dual job-title changes official. Hextall, who spent seven years as the Los Angeles Kings' assistant general manager to Dean Lombardi before taking a (temporary) lateral step to return to Philadelphia, was a hot commodity among other NHL teams who were in search of a new general manager.
Ultimately, the Flyers decided that since Hextall was the clear-cut candidate to succeed Holmgren, they were better off to promote him rather than risk another organization making Hextall an offer he couldn't refuse. Holmgren claimed at today's press conference that he was not only on board with Hextall talking over sooner rather than later but had actually initiated the dialogue with Ed Snider in January after several discussions with Hextall.
Hextall said that he first wanted to be sure that Holmgren did not feel like he was being forced out as general manager, and he would have turned down the promotion otherwise.
Said Hextall, "I wouldn’t have taken this job if Paul Holmgren didn’t want to move to the position he’s moving to. I absolutely wouldn’t. I would have refused. You can ask Homer, at one point when we talked about it, he said ‘stop asking me that. I want to go where I’m going… I’m very comfortable.’ Again, I’ve had a long relationship with Homer, but I’m not the type of person to kind of get in somewhere without the people around me that I care about and I’ve worked with being very comfortable."
In Holmgren's new capacity as club president, he will some involvement both on the hockey operations and business ends of the organization, hoping to unify their respective strategies.
"I'm sure I'm not going to be making big decisions on the business side but with my hockey background maybe through sitting with Shawn, Mr. Snider, and Dave Scott maybe there is something they don't know about the hockey side that could turn a light on on the business side, or vice versa," said Holmgren. "It's the business of hockey. Let's face it, it’s a business and we've all got to get better at it."
On the hockey operations side, Holmgren will assist Hextall with the transition form assistant to head GM. He will not, for example, attend the NHL Draft Combine or otherwise involved in typical general manager functions. Holmgren will be available in an advisory capacity while also filling Hextall in on conversations he had with other teams' general managers over the last year.
"I've been involved up until this point [in draft preparations] but so has Ron, as much as I have been," said Holmgren. :Chris Pryor is the guy who is in charge of our scouting, he's around a lot and talks with both Ron and I. There is work to do. The Memorial Cup is coming up, the combine is coming up, I'm sure Ron will make it to that. I probably won't. Then obviously we have the draft."
Hextall's philosophy of team building is not all that different than Holmgren's. Both men believe in building strength down the middle -- with centers being the most important cogs of the forward corps. Hextall is also a believer in having a mix of players who fill different roles on defense. The GM cautioned that the team needs to avoid going "too small" while still trying to bolster speed.
"I think the one thing that hasn’t changed in my mind about building a team is build through the middle – your goaltender, your defense and your centermen. You have to be strong there or you can’t win," said Hextall.
"If you look at the history of the teams that have won, typically there’s a one-two punch in the middle at center, going back to [Steve] Yzerman-[Sergei] Fedorov, [Peter] Forsberg- [Joe] Sakic, [Anze] Kopitar-[Mike] Richards, all kinds of examples of the one-two. Then on defense you’ve got to be strong. You can’t win in the playoffs without defense and goaltending. What are my priorities in terms of building a team? That’s it. Right through the middle.”
As with his predecessor, Hextall will have to strike a balance between trying to emphasize building through the draft and player development while also handling the demands of trying to win now.
Hextall said several times that two of his top priorities as general manager will be to retain as many of the team's own draft picks as possible and to develop talent from within the organization.
"I think I’ve been back eight or nine months, and Homer and I have talked about draft picks, and how we’ve got to keep our draft picks and draft well. Not only do you have to keep them, you’ve got to make them count. We’ve got to continue to try to keep our picks and make good picks. They’re part of this development," said Hextall.
"We’re going to strengthen that part of it and hopefully develop a lot of players. It’s important in a cap world to develop players from within. I think home-grown players, players who have a tattoo of the Flyers on their shoulder... it’s important. So we’re going to try to build from within and keep the pieces that we draft, and hopefully develop them into real good players."
For the Flyers, the career-ending injury suffered by Chris Pronger in late 2011 was a huge setback to the organization on many fronts. Not only did it cost the team its franchise defenseman and hasten an as-yet-incomplete succession plan on the top end of the Philadelphia blueline but the original acquisition of Pronger came at a hefty trading cost.
Speaking about whether a franchise defenseman is the hardest and costliest commodity to acquire from outside the organization, Holmgren partially agreed.
"You could argue that. That's one of things, but [sometimes] it has been a franchise goalie, a franchise centerman...there's a lot of different things that you need to be a good team and I believe that we have a lot of good pieces in place. Are there areas where we need to get better? Sure, but I think most teams would say the same thing. Nobody around here is allergic to hard work and we're going to continue to get better and win," said Holmgren.
Hextall answered the same query more directly, alluding to the fact that even in the rare cases where a franchise defenseman is available, the cost (in trade return and/or salary cap cost) can open holes elsewhere in the organization. Likewise, given the salary marketplace, constantly trading for veteran defenseman or signing them via unrestricted free agency to build the blueline corps means investing a disproportionate share of the salary cap to six players.
"The problem is if something does come along, a number one defensemen, you’re giving up two or three young players, two or three draft picks," said Hextall. "You fill one hole and you create three or four others. That’s the whole thing – trying to get all those holes filled at the same time. In a cap world, you’re always going to have a weakness. So you want the weakness on the wing or wherever, that to me, that’s how I think. If you’re going to have a weakness, that’s where it should be."
Hextall said that an ongoing goal will be draft and develop high-quality young players from within. However, he also said that he does not believe roster spots should simply be handed to young players to lose and they must outplay the veterans to displace them on the roster. He added that no player has ever been hurt by being "too ready" for the NHL but plenty have had their development ruined by being rushed.
As the Flyers head into their first offseason with Hextall at the helm of hockey decisions, the new GM was asked about his plan to navigate the salary cap heading into next season.
Without divulging specifics, Hextall said the team may look to shed a few salaries in order to tweak the mix of players in the lineup.
"There’s a little bit of manipulation in every area where we’ve got to look at everything. Maybe we can shave a little bit off here and get a little bit lesser player, but open some space up. Again, someone else has got to be willing to deal. We’ll look at everything and we’ll analyze, and we’ll do everything we can to make the team stronger moving forward," said Hextall.
The Flyers will not immediately name a new assistant general manager to take Hextall's place. That decision may come at a future time and the candidate would be selected by Hextall.