Flyers' selling job

ANDREW THAYER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Flyers GM Ron Hextall talked about the team and the upcoming draft yesterday.
ANDREW THAYER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Flyers GM Ron Hextall talked about the team and the upcoming draft yesterday.
Posted: June 26, 2014

RON HEXTALL made his first statement as the new Flyers general manager this week and this is what the trade of Scott Hartnell said:

This thing is a bigger crow's nest than a novice's fishing reel, and it's going to take me a while to get out all the knots.

Oh, he talked again yesterday about R.J. Umberger adding a little speed and versatility to a lineup that keeps losing, not adding, goal-scorers. He even said he wasn't wary of picking up a 32-year-old player who had fallen even more out of favor in Columbus than Hartnell had here because "R.J. has always been a team guy, always been a good guy, has always worked hard.''

But clearly, Monday's swap spared the Blue Jackets of using their buyout exemption on a player who had asked to be traded. And it enabled the Flyers to shed a player whose up-and-down play had become emblematic of the team's personality.

"Our team, we have to get more consistent,'' coach Craig Berube said to me last month, shortly after the Rangers eliminated the Flyers. " . . . We can't have some of those periods like we've had . . . Now, we can get outplayed in a period and a team can outshoot you, but it's the way it happens. . . We need to be mentally stronger.''

There is something here that the Flyers and Hartnell are not telling us, but it's easy to speculate. Those inside the organization have complained for years that Hartnell plays himself into shape every training camp, that his best season came with fitness nut Jaromir Jagr pulling him into the weight room from the start. And when the future Hall of Famer was not re-signed, Hartnell went back to his old ways.

Berube said it to me best when we talked about the best way to improve this team following the first-round ouster.

"We made it clear that everybody has to come into camp in shape,'' he said then. "It can't be average, it can't be just above average. It has to be exceptional. And they all know that . . . We need to get to another level defensively and that's just everybody being accountable every moment they're on the ice. A lot has to do with just pressure and skating and work.

"We have to change people. Because they've done it a certain way for a long while. You've got to change 'em, you've got to get on 'em more. But they've got to want to make it happen.''

Hextall said yesterday that he did not shop Hartnell, but did not dispute the player's claim that he was not wanted. Implied in Hextall's words is that he believes Umberger will move them in Berube's desired direction. But most of what he said pointed to a longer view, of a shorter contract that will expire in 2017 (Hartnell's goes through 2019), near the time when the Flyers will need to re-up some of their younger players or lose them to free agency.

"I know it's kind of a far vision but it's a reality,'' he said. "Two or three years from now, [Sean] Couturier, [Brayden] Schenn and [Braydon] Coburn, you go down the list. [Steve] Mason in three. It goes on and on.''

This is as close to rebuilding as the Flyers will ever get. A general manager actually planning out the future for more than 12 months at a time, a GM who witnessed in LA what can happen if you don't keep applying Band-Aids and mend your team instead. Maybe it was just coincidence, maybe not, but Hextall did not mention once over 40 minutes of interviews the idea of winning the Stanley Cup next season - which could be some sort of Flyers record.

Here's as close as he came:

"We have some good young players in our organization. Some on our big team, some not there yet. We're excited about our future. But we're not losing sight of right now, either. We want to be a good team. We want to win games this year and be as good as we can be.''

The Kings missed the playoffs for six straight seasons from 2003 to 2009, although Hextall was part of the front office that took over after a 2006 housecleaning. Stars were purged, a core group rose through savvy drafts, and then, with cap space as a weapon, deals were swung that brought Justin Williams, Mike Richards and later, Jeff Carter, to the team.

Now they are the most-talked about model franchise, their team speed cited as the primary factor in winning two Stanley Cups over the last three seasons. The Flyers, as constructed, seem light years away from such a reputation even after Monday's trade, but Hextall says there's a gap there between perception and reality.

"I know out west there we were called a slow team,'' Hextall said of his days as the Kings assistant GM. "And all of a sudden Darryl [Sutter] came in with a more aggressive system and all of a sudden, bang, it became a much faster team.''

That's been Berube's contention since his hire last October, and the Flyers did pull out of the mud enough to reach the postseason, and stretch a Stanley Cup finalist to seven games. Whether another level can be attained will be determined not by who's brought in this summer, but who and how many buy in.

And Hartnell's trade, perhaps, is the summer's first hard sell.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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