Patience pays off…to a point. It’s often a good thing when an NHL general manager keeps a cool head, avoids rash roster overhauls and slowly crafts a sturdy organizational structure. But that approach only works for so long. Eventually, theoretical, projected success must become tangible success. That never came to pass for Ron Hextall. The Flyers had enough.
It wasn’t all bad for the past four-and-a-half years. Hextall didn’t burn the franchise to the ground during his tenure as GM. He was a master of future asset accumulation, picking eight first-rounders across five drafts. But captain Claude Giroux is 30. Jakub Voracek is 29. Wayne Simmonds is 30 and a pending UFA. Yes, the Flyers have some exciting young players joining the fray, but they couldn’t afford to waste their top veterans’ remaining prime years. Not when 2018-19 could’ve offered a nice opportunity to make noise in the Metropolitan Division given the Pittsburgh Penguins’ and New Jersey Devils’ struggles and the Washington Capitals’ hung-over October.
So the Flyers have their scapegoat. What were the most significant moves, good and bad, of Hextall’s stint as GM?
HEXTALL’S THREE BEST MOVES
1. (Tie) Sean Couturier’s and Shayne Gostisbehere’s contract extensions
The Andrew MacDonald contract was a nightmare, signed in April 2014, just weeks before Hextall took over from Paul Holmgren, the man who fired Hextall this week. The upside of Hextall’s ultra-conservative management style was that he didn’t dole out many massive long-term deals to mediocre veterans. His only major splash in that department was landing James van Riemsdyk this summer.
But, in hindsight, Hextall showed great foresight inking young core members Couturier and Gostisbehere to team-friendly extensions. Couturier hadn’t broken out as an offensive weapon by July 2015, but he was already a valuable two-way forward, so Hextall realized a six-year pact at a $4.33-million cap hit at the very worst wasn’t going to hurt the Flyers. Now that Couturier has become a front-line scoring center, his contract is one of the league’s top bargains.
Hextall inked Gostisbehere for six years at a $4.5-million AAV during the 2017 off-season after ‘Ghost Bear’ endured a down sophomore season. Gostisbehere then broke out for a monster 2017-18, with 65 points, and is easily worth $2 million more than his current cap hit now.
2. Drafting Ivan Provorov
It might seem like a simple pick looking back, as everyone loved Provorov on draft day, and he’s been everything we all hoped he’d be since then, but the 2015 class was a minefield in the top half of Round 1. Sure, it had Connor McDavid at No. 1, Jack Eichel at 2, Mitch Marner at 4, Zach Werenski at 8 Mikko Rantanen at 10…but also Dylan Strome at No. 3, Pavel Zacha at 7, Lawson Crouse at 11 and Denis Gurianov at 12. The Flyers easily could’ve swung and missed, but they recognized how special Provorov was.
3. Trading Braydon Coburn
Hextall had to wear a seller’s cap in Year 1 as Flyers GM and secured a nice haul for the hulking blueliner Coburn. Getting Radko Gudas alone was a win. Controversial as he is, he’s been a higher-impact player than Coburn since the trade. The two draft picks were gravy. Hextall took the first-rounder from that deal, 29th overall, plus the 61st selection and sent them to the Toronto Maple Leafs for the 24th overall pick, which he used to draft Travis Konecny. Boom.
HEXTALL’S THREE WORST MOVES
1. Signing Michal Neuvirth and Brian Elliott for two years apiece in 2017
The intentions were noble. Carter Hart is a top-two goaltending prospect on the planet, the Flyers were thrilled to snag him 48th overall in the 2016 draft, and he projects as their long-term starting solution, albeit there are no guarantees when it comes to goaltending. It thus made sense for Hextall not to block his crease for, say, six years with a big-ticket UFA goalie signing, like the Dallas Stars did with Ben Bishop in May 2017. Instead, Hextall handed Neuvirth a two-year extension with a $2.5-million AAV in March 2017, then scooped Elliott with a two-year pact at a $2.75-million AAV in July 2017.
The problem with this strategy: it only works if the stopgap goaltenders do their jobs. Neuvirth has battled one injury after another and has an .899 save percentage since the start of 2016-17. Hextall essentially paid Neuvirth for his outstanding 2015-16 regular season and playoffs. The Elliott signing came just months after Elliott got more or less run out of Calgary for imploding in the first round of the 2017 playoffs. It’s not like we’re shaking our heads at these signings in hindsight. They were puzzling the day they happened.
And, arguably, these two contracts cost Hextall his job. Hart is struggling in the AHL and not ready for a promotion. Neuvirth is hurt again, and Elliott has joined him on the IR after playing so-so hockey to start the season. Mediocre goaltending continues to hold this team back, and the Flyers might be further along in their development had they found the right seat warmer while they waited for Hart.
2. Trading for Petr Mrazek
Too little, too late, right? Mrazek was an enigma at best in his final season with the Red Wings. The Flyers made a last-gasp acquisition in hopes of transforming their crease. He impressed at first, winning three straight starts, then collapsed, allowing four or more goals six times in his final 14 appearances. He saw just 30 minutes of mop-up duty in the playoffs during a 7-0 blowout loss in which Elliott got the hook. The Mrazek trade had an air of desperation to it, foreshadowing the end of Hextall’s time as GM. Mrazek was an RFA, but the Flyers didn’t extend him a qualifying offer in the summer. That recouped a conditional third-rounder sent to Detroit in the deal, but Hextall did lose the fourth-rounder in exchange for, essentially, a downgrade in net.
3. Trading Brayden Schenn
This may be a controversial choice for one of Hextall’s “worst” moves, but the problem lies in what it represented. Yes, one of the picks acquired from the St. Louis Blues was used to draft Morgan Frost, who looks like a real steal at the end of 2017’s first round. But (a) We don’t know Frost is an impact NHLer yet, and (b) the Flyers already had picked Nolan Patrick in that draft and had a roster core including Giroux, Konecny, Couturier, Simmonds, Schenn, Provorov, Gostisbehere and so on. The defining legacy of Hextall’s tenure was playing things too conservatively and waiting too long before aggressively pursuing success. Dealing away an important piece like Schenn kicked the can too far down the road. Frost isn’t yet an NHLer, the Flyers sit outside the playoff picture, and Hextall is out of a job. Maybe Frost will absolutely be worth Schenn and more someday, but that will be no consolation to Hextall.