Ron Hextall did so, so many good things for the Philadelphia Flyers. He got them out of the salary cap hell they were put in by the man who fired him this morning. He took an organization that was bereft of young depth and built up an impressive cache of prospects by stockpiling draft picks and taking promising youthful players. He built a formidable defense corps and he was patient and methodical in a market where there was a history of using the quick fix.
But Hextall failed in two of the most important duties a GM must fulfill, and that’s why he was fired by team president Paul Holmgren. First, he did not provide any stability at the most important position on the team. And second, he did not hire the right coach. In fact, you could argue that this might have been one of the rare times in history when the coach was the person who deserved to be shown the door instead of the man making the personnel decisions.
That is not to say that Dave Hakstol will not be a very good coach in the NHL someday. But the reality is that when Hextall hired him out of the University of North Dakota where he coached Hextall’s son, he was not the right man for this time in this market with this team. The Flyers have never been a consistently good team under Hakstol, prone to wild swings in play and long winning and losing streaks. For whatever reason, Hakstol has never been able to get his young charges on the same page. And even with the goaltending giving up four goals on six shots in a loss Saturday night to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Flyers handled the puck like it was a hand grenade and there were breakdowns all over the ice. Some of that is on the coach.
Of course, the damage would have been mitigated had the Flyers been able to produce at least one goaltender who can (a) stay healthy, and (b) give them a save. Philadelphia has long become a market where goalies go to watch their careers die and you have to wonder if it all hasn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Flyers have not had a consistently good goaltender since, well, Ron Hextall. In the four-plus years Hextall has been GM, nine different goalies have appeared in the Flyers’ net and the best of them has been Steve Mason. That’s damning. Carter Hart, a junior phenom who is off to a rocky start as a pro with the Flyers’ farm team, is the goaltender of the future. But what the Flyers need more than anything is someone who can make a save in the present.
With this move, everyone in Philadelphia has been put on notice. There’s a good chance Hakstol and his coaching staff will be gone after this season barring a surge that powers a strong playoff run. Can Chuck Fletcher or Ron Francis cure what ails the Flyers? Well, it was Fletcher who picked Devan Dubnyk off the scrap heap in a desperation move and that has worked out brilliantly for the Minnesota Wild. Francis, on the other hand, signed Scott Darling in Carolina based on his strong resume as a backup in Chicago and that has been borderline disastrous.
There will be big changes in Philadelphia, but the Flyers are going to have to swing for the fences and get a goalie. Do they leverage some of their youth and try to trade for an established NHL goalie? Do they wait until the summer and throw all kinds of money at Sergei Bobrovsky, the man Holmgren traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for three draft picks six years ago?
This is the time for the Flyers to be bold. They have a rabid, devoted fan base that is growing tired of the same old thing and the only thing worse than being bad is being irrelevant. But what people in Philadelphia are really growing weary of is hearing how good this team is going to be someday. You can only sell the future for so long before you run out of currency. That’s pretty much what happened in Philadelphia.
The Flyers are four points out of third place in the surprisingly feeble Metropolitan Division with the worst goaltending in the NHL. They would not have made this move at mid-season if there were not some bold moves in mind. The first of those is getting someone in whom they have confidence to manage this hockey department. The second will be for that person to go out and find the Flyers a goaltender.