Will Hextall bring new thinking to Flyers?

Former goaltender Ron Hextall is the new GM of the Philadelphia Flyers. (Ken White/Allsport, File)
Former goaltender Ron Hextall is the new GM of the Philadelphia Flyers. (Ken White/Allsport, File)
Posted: May 09, 2014

Among Ed Snider, Paul Holmgren, and Ron Hextall - the three men seated at a Wells Fargo Center dais Wednesday to announce Hextall's ascension to general manager and Holmgren's to team president - there were 101 aggregate years of affiliation with the Flyers. That's more than a century's worth of sameness, of immersion in an organization that, for all its strengths and stability, hasn't won a championship since 1975.

If nothing else, the news conference certainly had a moose-lodge feel to it. Chops were busted over whether Holmgren or Hextall cried first when Hextall left the Flyers' front office in 2006, whether Hextall did indeed have a Flyers tattoo stamped on his gluteus maximus, whether Snider still held a grudge over Hextall's six-week training-camp holdout in 1989.

The loose atmosphere, the camaraderie among the trio, was expected and understandable. One hundred and one years, after all.

The number that should matter most to Hextall's tenure as GM, though, and to the Flyers' fortunes next season and beyond is this one: seven. Seven is the number of years that Hextall was with the Los Angeles Kings as their vice president and assistant general manager, and for the Flyers, for a franchise in dire need of a fresh voice and perspective, Hextall's time away would always be time well-spent.

From Hextall's arrival until his departure last year, the Kings transformed themselves from an NHL embarrassment into one of the league's elite clubs, winning the Stanley Cup in 2012, finding themselves two victories away this postseason from their third consecutive berth in the Western Conference finals.

They did so in a manner opposite the one the Flyers have employed for much of their recent history. The Kings had bottomed out. Hextall joined them in the midst of a six-year playoff drought. The franchise had no choice but to rebuild from within and use the draft as its primary vessel back to respectability. It couldn't rely on the stunning free-agent signing or blockbuster trade that characterized Holmgren's eight years as Flyers GM.

"Quite honestly, we were a bad hockey team, and I hadn't been through a lot of that during my time in hockey, 22 years at the time," Hextall said. "It was an adjustment. The one thing you can never allow yourself to do is accept losing. That was hard, because I don't accept it. You always had to step back as a manager. You're not a player anymore. It's not emotional. You can't be emotionally involved. You've got to use your head to make deals, not necessarily your emotions. You have to sit back and build this thing, and you've got to build with your vision. I've got a vision here already."

Holmgren insisted that Hextall would have final say on all hockey-related decisions. If that's true, if Snider doesn't intercede with another command for immediate change born of his infamous impatience, then Hextall appears ready to hack away at the organization's stale ideas and approach as if they were Kent Nilsson's Achilles tendons.

Yes, his embracing of analytics, of a deliberate plan to establish and maintain competitive excellence, stands in stark contrast to his tempestuousness as a player. He joked Wednesday that he watches old clips of himself on YouTube sometimes - chasing down Chris Chelios, throwing fists with Felix Potvin, swinging his stick at Marty McSorley. "I look at that guy and I think, 'Man, he must be crazy,' " he said.

He's a different man now and, from the available evidence, is poised to be a different executive by Flyers standards. After the Flyers rehired Hextall in July to be Holmgren's assistant and prospective successor, the two of them were scouting the organization's AHL team, the Adirondack Phantoms, one night when Hextall leaned over and asked Holmgren a smart, observant question.

"How many draft picks do we have playing in this game?"

The answer, Holmgren recalled, was four or five. The Phantoms' opponent had a dozen of its picks playing. Hextall couldn't abide this disproportion, and he said he won't in the future. He has no intention of compromising the roster's core of young forwards or the organization's group of promising defensemen for the sake of a quick fix, and it's long past time for someone of power in the Flyers' front office to think and act this way. Everyone's been drinking from the same cup for so long, and maybe a favorite Flyers son finally will demand something different. Maybe, with Ron Hextall of all people, it's finally last call at the moose lodge.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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