Flyers' new GM believes in communication

Posted: May 09, 2014

IN 2001, not long after he hung up his skates, Ron Hextall was a professional scout for the Flyers.

It was his first foray into the front-office world of the NHL - before he was even named the Flyers' director of pro player personnel in 2003. He was serving under Paul Holmgren, the Flyers' assistant general manager to Bob Clarke.

One player's name came up in a scouting conversation for an important move and an awkward moment ensued.

Holmgren, nearly a decade older, was once Hextall's head coach. He was also the man responsible for helping Hextall through the ranks. The reverence was there.

"I've had a long relationship with him," Hextall said.

But there was one problem: Hextall did not agree with one of Holmgren's evaluations of that player. So, he spoke up.

"I said, 'Homer, I don't think it's a good move,' " Hextall recalled Wednesday. "I kind of felt bad, because I was young, just a year or so into it, and I'm thinking, 'Oh, boy.'

"He looked at me and said, 'You know, that's reasonable.' I was kind of like, 'I don't mean to . . . ,' but he said, 'You know what, if every mind thought the same, there's no reason to have everybody.' It was a great lesson for me at the time: You have to speak your mind. You have to tell your boss or people around you what you think. It's communication."

On Wednesday, the Flyers announced that Holmgren was moving from general manager to president, with Hextall being promoted from assistant GM.

Personnel matters such as trades are now Hextall's responsibility.

"Typically, in the end, it's going to be my decision," Hextall said. "But I'll be talking to scouts and personnel people and 'Homer' and other people. In the end, again, it's my decision. But if you're not using your resources and your people, you're probably not doing a better job."

One resource Hextall made clear he will tap as a new general manager is hockey analytics data - something seldom utilized under Holmgren.

Call it the Flyers' new "Hexcel Spreadsheet."

An "old-school" hockey mind, Holmgren was more a believer in what he could see with his own eyes, and not something numbers told him he already knew.

This shift in philosophy is only one reason Holmgren believes Hextall is a strong fit to succeed him; he commented on Hextall's "tremendous analytical mind." Hextall joked it was because he was a goaltender.

"I always say we are the smart guys," Hextall said. "The whole theory is goalies see the whole ice, sort of like a defenseman sees most of the ice. I don't know if there's anything to that or not. I haven't analyzed that."

Hextall has, however, become a big believer in the trends mined by data on things such as puck possession, shot attempts and zone entries. Analytics have been an enormous part of talent evaluation in baseball forever, and it has exploded in football and basketball, particularly with the use of high-tech cameras.

Hockey has lagged behind, partly because it is a sport with fewer repeated sequences or actions other than faceoffs. It is a free-flowing sport and oftentimes completely random. The primitive data, slowly gaining steam and application, is increasingly pertinent.

"Analytics is where we're going," Hextall said. "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 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."

Under Holmgren, the Flyers are the only NHL team to use a Catapult training system, with hardware placed in the shoulder pads of each player at practice to determine workload, heart rate, distance traveled and impact from hits. They haven't quite found a way to utilize all of the copious amounts of data, except to better predict when players might need a day off from practice to avoid overuse injuries. It seemed to work, since the Flyers did noticeably cut back on groin and hamstring strains this season.

If it were up to Hextall, though, the Flyers would work to find a new way to develop the next "big thing" in hockey analytics, such as how to better project the prototypical defenseman for the faster NHL. Or, how to better chart the impact of a player's stick and positioning in a game, rather than just blocked shots or turnovers. Hextall acknowledged the Flyers need to add speed, but he wants to find the right combination.

"We've got to be really careful getting too small," Hextall said. "It's not really a small man's game. It's a quick game, it's a fast game, it's a puck-moving game. If you look at the best defensemen in the game, they're not small puck movers. You've got to have good feet, you've got to have big bodies, and hockey sense is a big part of the game. The average fan doesn't necessarily see it, but I like really smart players, competitive players, obviously fast players."

Naturally, many of Hextall's concerns for the current Flyers are rooted in numbers quite obvious for advanced stat nerds. He is hoping any improvement, "a little 2 or 3 percent we can do better," will put his team in a position to get off to a better start in October.

"I think our 5-on-5 play has got to be better," Hextall said. "There's a lot of little things you can do, but when you're looking to get better, you can't always get better from outside. Sometimes, you've got to look inside and put it on the players."


On Twitter: @DNFlyers

Blog: ph.ly/FrequentFlyers

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