Thursday, May 08, 2014

Hextall afforded a career-defining opportunity he must approach wisely

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

If nothing else, newly-anointed Flyers' GM Ron Hextall would like the hundreds of thousands of fans anxious for a Stanley Cup contender to know one thing:

"We should all be damn proud of this organization. The culture of winning is nothing to be embarrassed about."

Hextall, flush with Stanley Cup-level success as recently as two Junes ago as assistant GM with the Los Angeles Kings, is about to inherit that "culture of winning" which has passed through the hands of Bob Clarke and Paul Holmgren to the tune of 17 playoff appearances, 15 seasons with 40-or-more wins, nine seasons of 100-or-more points, six division titles and two Cup Finals appearances over the last 20 years.

He said all the right things on Day One, pressed into the spotlight only five days after speculation percolated that Paul Holmgren would eventually engineer his own exit in the near future after 7 1/2 years in the GM chair.

" (Fifteen) years ago when I was done playing, my next goal was to become a general manager.  I’ve been very fortunate to work under Bobby Clarke, Paul Holmgren, and Dean Lombardi out in Los Angeles – three very good people but also three very astute people who I took a lot of lessons from the last 15 years," the Manitoba native said at Wednesday's introductory press conference. "I’ve spent 15 years kind of learning the business from scouting to getting more of a managerial role… I think I know a lot of aspects of the game and I think I’m very ready for this position.  I feel very confident that I can do the job.  I think we have a very good staff.  I’ve got Homer to lean on and obviously Bob Clarke to lean on.

"I got my dream job.  I’ve got a special feeling about this organization and I am absolutely honored and thrilled today to be sitting here.  I’ll do the best job I can do, and I’ll work hard to reach the ultimate goal of bringing the Stanley Cup back to Philadelphia."

Dreams fulfilled are one thing, borne of hard work, luck and knowing the right people who can put you in the right situation. Always touted as a Flyer through and through from the first day he set foot on Spectrum ice for meaningful action, in October of 1986 against the two-time Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers, Hextall's calm Canadian-prairie-born demeanor belies the fiery passion as a player which throngs of fans wished a top-level executive here would possess.

Hextall himself acknowledged he watches YouTube videos and doesn't even recognize the "crazy" man he used to be while patrolling the crease a generation ago.

But still, there's something missing. A tug of war which always seemed to be one step forward and one step back as the front office continued to wrestle with the vanguard of business in various salary-cap eras, consistent winning years left up to the vagaries of chance in the playoff shuffle, constant spikes upward and downward and always working against expectations when new leaders of the club were anointed and then discarded in the name of trying to capture the elusive title.

As in the case of the Carolina Hurricanes bumping up franchise icon Ron Francis to the GM slot, Hextall is a new voice, but he's not necessarily a fresh one, having logged seven previous years with the franchise in a variety of roles, then a robust 10 months as Assistant General Manager before his promotion.

Just how much he'll be able to access his experience with the Kings, to integrate the lessons he's learned there and apply them to the traditional Flyers formula, will go a long way towards determining the immediate future of the Orange and Black.

That responsibility ultimately lies with Clarke, Holmgren and Ed Snider recognizing that Hextall is using them as reference points and not the other way around, with the triumverate dictating in any terms how Hextall is to govern for the organization's best interest. You'll excuse me, and anyone else who might be skeptical when Snider said, "the final say in regards to the hockey team is Ron.  He has full authority and autonomy."

Since the hallmark of the Flyers' winning formula has never been a conscious effort to rebuild, doing things the Kings way is pretty much off the table, despite Hextall's direct experience since going to the West Coast in 2006.

"I think the biggest thing was that we went in there and we kind of rebuilt the whole infrastructure of the organization – the scouting staff, our management team, and really revamped everything," Hextall admitted. "You build from drafting well. I don’t know if you want to call it an easier model or not, but when you’re real, real bad and you draft high, it’s a little bit easier to build a top team."

And since the Flyers haven't been that kind of club since the Russ Farwell era, Hextall will have to be a little bit more savvy to work with what's on his plate plus an increase in the salary cap to reshape the roster once more. That means blasting into the second decade of the 21st Century when evaluating talent. While it's not exactly using knowledge for the pure sake of knowledge, and instead using it as a way to prevent being caught short with a competitive advantage, Hextall is open to statistical analysis.

“No, 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.”

A crossroads Hextall might encounter, is if both the eyeball test and analytics tell him that, in order to put together a Stanley Cup threat, he'll have to rip out some of the roster by the roots, ask Snider to eat some money on buyouts, trade bodies for draft picks and then re-evaluate. What do the spinmeisters call it then? A radical reshaping? A conscious roster uncoupling?

Whether or not the Flyers have built a culture of winning, Hextall is confronted by the fact that every single team which has won a Cup since the 1990s -- Montreal excepted -- has endured at least five lean years where it has stockpiled high draft picks, developed talent and then made the right trades as it matured, before winning it all.

The Penguins were a joke before Mario Lemieux arrived, then spent his first four years out of the postseason then a fifth in six before putting it all together. They endured five more years of tribulations in the last decade and experienced the ultimate rebirth. The Rangers had to stockpile enough former Oilers to put an end to their 54-year drought. New Jersey was called a "Mickey Mouse" organization by none other than Wayne Gretzky shortly after moving from Colorado and was so bad it lost out on the chance to draft Lemieux. Before the Avalanche decamped from Quebec, the Nordiques were one of, if not the worst club in the NHL from 1987-92. Detroit lived under the Gordie Howe curse through most of the 70s and 80s. The North Stars were mediocre to bad for years before moving to Dallas and finally got over the hump with the right head coach and veterans to back all that young drafted largesse. Tampa Bay were the dregs from its fifth through 10th seasons. Carolina existed as the beloved but incompetent Whalers and then as the largely-ignored Hurricanes. Anaheim was born as a bad Disney joke. The Blackhawks were weighed down by "Dollar Bill" Wirtz for decades and became blessed after his passing. The Bruins were dead space on the Boston sports scene for the late 90s and early 2000s.

The other common theme among two decades' worth of Cup champions is patience: the patience to learn from losing and draft well, along with the patience to let things develop. Who is Ron Hextall and who are the Philadelphia Flyers to believe they are any different in the 39th Spring without another parade down Broad Street?

The learning curve will have to be steep and the growth fraught with some pain, if you believe what history has shown. If Hextall's initial offering on his managing philosophy is to be taken at face value, he may have to endure some hard lessons if he sticks to the basics of the Snider-Clarke-Holmgren mode of business.

“If you think winning a Stanley Cup is easy, I’ve got news for you. The one thing I mentioned earlier, Philadelphia’s not sitting there waiting for No. 1 picks year after year after year for five years. To maintain something for 25 or 30 years, which has been done here ... it’s a hard thing to do. They went to the finals in 2010 …  we lost in Game 7 in 1987, we lost in the finals in 1997," Hextall recalled.

“If you look at the track record, other than maybe not winning the big one, which again there’s 30 teams out there, and right now there’s a team, I won’t mention any names, there’s a team out there just collecting No. 1 picks right now. Yeah, they’re going to be a pretty good team in three or four years, but ask their fans if they’ve had a fun last seven or eight years."

It's not too hard to figure out that the shot fired was across the Oilers' bow. In their defense, by and large, the hockey-mad fans in Northern Alberta realize the glory days of five Stanley Cups are long gone, though frustration is growing as former players turned front-office personnel haven't been able to turn things around after more than a half decade. A Canadian town such as Edmonton and its fans can still enjoy the stellar play of young stars even as the losing continues, because the love of the game in the fabric of the nation fosters a bit more understanding.

Philly, though, is not as impatient as the organization might believe. Losing isn't an attendance and attention killer. Price points for years of winning that don't bear fruit with little variation keep the lower bowl half full in February against the Winnipeg Jets. In this city, if the team is purposely down-shifted in the interest of future gains, fans will show up and boo until given a chance to cheer, the perfect barometer of a plan well struck. It will be the children, nieces and nephews of those who did it in the early 90s.

Nonetheless, Hextall at the moment appears to fall in lockstep, wanting to have it both ways dealing with a team on the cusp, particularly with a locked-in group of forwards along with the sudden glut of picks and signees on the back line.

“Even when you’re competing at a high level you’ve got to continue to develop. I don’t care if we’re a top five contender in the league, we’re going to continue development," he said. "It’s going to continue to be a priority. So are draft picks. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to trade draft picks because inevitably we will. You look at young players, tell me one young player in the history of hockey that’s been hurt by spending some time in the minors. I can tell you, there are hundreds and hundreds that have been hurt by being put in an NHL lineup too soon. As much as a year, or six months, or three months seems like a long time – it’s not. It’s no different than sending your child to kindergarten. The gift of time, sometimes that’s just the best thing.”

In the Flyers' front office, time is indeed a gift. It's also a luxury and capricious, whose boundaries always seem to be simultaneously expanding and contracting depending upon the circumstances which lead to interesting end-of-year explanations.

Removed from further seasoning with another rival franchise before landing his desired gig, Hextall is now on the clock. Only time will tell if he is properly anchored -- with his 15 years of success both inside and outside the organization -- to withstand and reinvigorate an environment which has remained rooted to the ethos of the 1970s.

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