The Real Reason the Flyers Fired Ron Hextall
Paul Holmgren talked Ed Snider into bringing Ron Hextall back from Los Angeles as an assistant GM in 2013. A year later, Holmgren willingly stepped upstairs into the Flyer club presidency because a request by the Canucks to talk to Hextall about their open general manager position was only going to be the first in a line of such recruitments. Holmgren didn’t want to lose a rising front office star.
There was another factor in Hextall’s ascendancy to GM; Holmgren feeling compromised in his ability to function through a lingering chill from his counterparts over his signing of Shea Weber to a Group Two offer sheet. But Hextall was Holmgren’s project from beginning to its shocking end on Monday.
So it’s ironic that among the biggest reasons why it’s suddenly over was that Hextall never fully grasped what an asset he had in Holmgren, who was only at the head of a long list of people that the increasingly unilateral Hextall did not put to the best possible use.
There was no explanation from Holmgren or CEO Dave Scott st Tuesday morning's press conference for the timing of the firing. A source said it was unrelated to Saturday night's 6-0 shellacking in Toronto or that there was any final confrontation over a move Hextall wanted to make or refused to make. Scott did make references to some urgency to compete now, but the move was only secondarily related to the current underachievement of a wildly up-and-down team. This decision had a lot more to do with morale in the office than in the locker room.
Of course, morale in the stands–empty seats and the declining price of tickets on the secondary market–figured in, too, along with at least some sense that having announced it was time for the Flyers to contend, Hextall still was not operating like a GM of a contending team.
But this obviously wasn’t a disagreement over the coach. Otherwise, Dave Hakstol would have been fired too, although he’s probably gone anyway because a new GM always, always wants his own guy. It wasn’t pressure from Scott, a self-confessed hockey neophyte, or from Brian Roberts at Comcast’s very top. There has been belt tightening on the business side since Snider’s death in 2016, but every indication–the James van Riemsdyk signing being one of them-is that the hockey operation continues to pass the bean counters’ scrutiny.
Snider’s death created trepidation that the Flyers, the franchise with the endearing heart, would become just another cold subsidiary to a huge corporate entity; that the passion and humanity brought for 50 years by the founder and Chairman would be swallowed up by the bottom line. The huge irony is that it wasn’t Comcast that has since made the Flyers a cold place to work, but Hextall.
Loyal soldiers have lost their jobs or been forced to take pay cuts. Access to the GM- and by alums to the current players within long-established parameters – was limited and so was input from an inner Hextall circle that got smaller as these four-plus years have gone by. The Flyers, long known as one of the best places in the league to work, had become one of the worst.
To anyone who has known Hextall through the year, this was impossible to predict.
Hextall had been the best of teammates as a Flyer and the perfect lieutenant in LA and in Philadelphia. And he was the right guy with the right plan for what the Flyers needed in 2014.
Holmgren, who brought the organization back from a last-place overall finish to a semifinal in his first full season (2007-08) as GM and made gutsy and excellent trades of the flaming out fast Mike Richards and Jeff Carter¬-for three of the current team’s anchors-Jake Voracek, Sean Couturier and Wayne Simmonds–was five years removed from the Flyers’ last long playoff run when he became president. Having struggled with the cap, he was not in position to disagree with a new, more patient, direction, particularly with Snider convinced the team had to stop chasing a championship every year and get back to the roots that made Philadelphia a Cup winner in Year Seven. The dying Chairman never pressured Hextall to speed things up.
It is so hard to build a true contender without tearing it down and starting virtually over with high lottery picks that none of the last five Stanley Cup champions have done it, all enduring time as bottom feeders. But Hextall, thanks to Holmgren’s groundwork, almost had pulled it off until came this current goaltending disaster. Three have been injured and one is coming off an almost two-year absence–leaving the Flyers 10-11-2 on November 27, giving cause for media and fans to wail as if they are 3-18-2.
It being six years since the team’s last playoff round win, the diehards would by now be tired of Peter Laviolette or Craig Berube or even Scotty Bowman. So, despite the fact that Hakstol’s team improved 10 points last year and finished 14 higher than the one he inherited from Berube, the fan boards make red herrings of the penalty kill, the bad first periods, and a lot of things tied back to the same three-decade-long Flyer issue that has had little to do with coaching: Goaltending.
Holmgren, in the toughest of spots Tuesday morning for not wanting to bury Hextall, talked around almost everything but he did say he didn't necessarily fault the now ex-GM for having two incumbents coming off surgery and not prioritizing a better bridge to Carter Hart. The team president also said that that wouldn't be fair because he didn't know what were Hextall's options, which said everything about the wall that the GM erected. But considering Brian Elliott played well last year until he got hurt in March and had never suffered chronic problems until now, some of the criticism for not having a Plan Z is over the top.
The talented Neuvirth was set back by a little of this and some of that going back to his Washington and Buffalo days, but that was before hip ssues have made him completely unreliable as a backup. Hindsight says that was a bad signing, but still was Hextall supposed to take on another veteran for multiply years-it’s a leap of faith to presume there was one out there better than Elliott-to block a superior prospect like Hart from playing time with the big team?
Yet to be determined is whether Elliott is doomed to problems for this whole season, his last under contract, as it is with Neuvirth. The Flyers are all of five points out of a playoff spot. Just two games ago, praise was universal for their wire-to-wire 4-0 cooling of the red-hot Rangers. This coach accused of never finding answers to chronic problems rallied the troops to the fifth-best record in the league last season from December 4 on.
He also started four years ago with a defense, third and fourth lines and even part of the second that were not nearly of contending caliber. The team stars have stayed the same since then but everything else, including the anchors on the blueline, all have changed for the younger and surely the better.
Perhaps Holmgren watched Ivan Provorov, a rock in his first two years, struggling as team and his agent are far apart on a franchise defenseman’s first big contract and believed that Hextall again was being stubborn to a fault, But such is speculation on our part. We suspect his impatience with Hextall’s patience grew over fixes he could have made by surrendering assets, whether they be prospects or picks, and then climaxed in some kind of disagreement that came in the wake of the 6-0 debacle.
Radko Gudas being an exception (and five years of Van Riemsdyk pending), Hextall’s trades and signings for player assets---for Neuvirth, a clearly finished R.J. Umberger, Dale Weise, Boyd Gordon, Valteri Filppula, Jordan Weal, Sam Gagner—have been underwhelming. But a No. 1 pick acquired for Braydon Coburn was used for Travis Konecny and more good ones apparently are on the way.
Hextall has done the math. When your next turn in the draft is not for another 31 picks, one good first-round selection a year will take an organization 18-20 years to build a Cup team. So these second, third and fourth round selections and any extra ones in the first round that you can turn into a Konecny are huge. Prospect evaluators agree that players are coming that will deliver on Hextall’s philosophy.
Facing a crisis, he was forced to give up third and fourth rounders last season for Petr Mrazek. This bothered him then, so it probably bothered him doubly to less than a year later be faced again with surrendering picks or prospects when more good goaltending prospects than just Hart are on the way. But there was sentiment in the organization that Hextall was hoarding more prospects than the Flyers ever could ever fit in a lineup while the biological clocks of Claude Giroux, Voracek and free-agent-to-be Simmonds are ticking.
So a once-beautiful working relationship has blown up, largely because one of the ultimate Flyers, ironically, failed to embrace the concept of team in the front office. That’s a shame, because whether or not this season ends up lost, or Hakstol is allowed to remain coach into the final year of his contract, or how many assistants ultimately get fired, Hextall did an excellent job positioning this team going forward.