Flyers' grassroots movement

Posted: July 25, 2014

THE SOFT sell when Ron Hextall was promoted to the post of Flyers general manager in early May was that it was a natural evolution. Paul Holmgren repeated that he would not have lured Hextall away from Los Angeles the previous summer if he didn't anticipate this day; Hextall humbly contended that he would lean on Homer's counsel, and work alongside him.

And while yesterday's casual interview in his Skate Zone offices contained all those subtexts (and a cameo by a tanned and fit-looking Holmgren), it was clear the more he spoke that Hextall's management style may have been rooted here, but blossomed a continent away, as Dean Lombardi's assistant with the Los Angeles Kings.

"I think the biggest thing that I learned out there was how important it was to hire people," Hextall was saying. "And little ways to hire the right people. Because if you don't have the right people, you're not going to be successful. And when we went out there we pretty much redid the whole infrastructure of the organization."

A former GM with San Jose, Lombardi was a Flyers scout immediately before he became the general manager of the Kings in April 2006. One of the right people he hired, less than 2 months later, was Hextall, then director of the Flyers' pro scouting department.

"What you like about Hexy is he learned it from the grassroots up," Lombardi said after Hextall's promotion was announced. "This is a guy who had no problem getting in his truck and driving 4 hours to go to a minor league game or a junior game. So, he clearly paid his dues, and then he came out here, learned closer to the management style. So you couldn't have a guy who was better ready. He's kind of the [Dallas Stars GM] Jimmy Nill route, the former player who then learns the business as much as they can before they get in that seat, because the reality is nobody understands what it's like to be in that seat before they're in it. It's totally different from the outside perspective. But, that said, there's a method to training yourself to be ready for everything."

Considered to be Lombardi's obvious successor, Hextall shocked more than a few people with his return to Philadelphia last summer. Although he and Holmgren have repeatedly denied this, the wide speculation at the time was that he was here to improve their infrastructure, if not immediately, then on the immediate horizon.

So far, the changes have been minimal, subtle and mostly unannounced. Still, I asked him if his promotion made people around the organization nervous.

"I hope so," he said. "I've been told that. But if they're doing their job, what do they have to be nervous about?"

This: They're doing it the way they always did it, not the way Hextall wants it done.

"There's been a few people . . . " he said reluctantly. "There's an evaluation process. I'm not a knee-jerk guy. People who I don't think are doing the job I expect, I'd rather challenge them first. And not make moves just for the sake of making moves. I think sometimes you can move too quickly. But I do know a lot of these people. From before when I was here and from this past year. And I think we have a really good staff.

"Part of it is the eye. But part of it is the mental makeup. Part of scouting is to see how efficient a lot of players are. It's something not talked about in hockey very often. Efficiency . . . "

He was talking about goaltending, but the conversation quickly morphed into scouting overall. Hextall drove his truck around to those games when he scouted. He also built relationships.

"You have the technical part that you scout," he said. "But the other part is the mental part. If you know a guy's coach, maybe you can find that out."

Former Phillies general manager Pat Gillick was said to keep the phone number of every high school and college coach he ever met, I told Hextall. A rival GM once remarked that Gillick used his telephone as if it was a weapon.

"Oh, our scouts are going to have a lot of phone numbers, I can tell you that much," Hextall said. "That's part of the job. It's not just evaluating on the ice anymore. There's more to it than that. Get all the information you can get . . . So you can put the big puzzle together."

A word of caution, though: The big puzzle took years to completete in Los Angeles and took time for Lombardi to build San Jose from laughingstock to tough out. By Hextall's own assessment, the Flyers sit a rung below a half-dozen "elite" teams, and have serious cap constraints through this coming season and into the next. Promising players await on the horizon, but any quick look at the former Flyers contending for the Cup year in and year out reminds us that promising players have hardly been this team's problem.

Patience?

That's a whole 'nother story.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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