Kevin Cooney column: Hextall appeared to be all in on overhaul, but Flyers likely weren’t

Ron Hextall out as Flyers GM. (file photo)

Fighting against a culture that he helped create – one that played a role in some way to his eventual downfall as Flyers’ general manager, Ron Hextall tried to be patient in an organization that should have “knee jerk” written into its proper name.

And in the end – on a Monday morning with only words on a press release speaking for the upstairs suits – his time was cut out quicker than a slash to Kent Nilsson’s ankles.

“We thank Ron for his many significant contributions, but it has become clear that we no longer share the same philosophical approach concerning the direction of the team,” Flyers president Paul Holmgren said in the statement. “In light of these differences, we feel it’s in the organization’s best interests to make a change, effective immediately. I have already begun a process to identify and select our next General Manager, which we hope to complete as soon as possible.”

As soon as possible. With the Flyers, it always feels like immediate satisfaction – not the prolonged sustainability of a contender – that comes first.

This isn’t to excuse Hextall completely for the pretty obvious flaws that are clear. He has held on to Dave Hakstol too long, hoping that the tumblers will all click at some point. He never did find the bridge to Carter Hart in net, going with veterans who were always hurt or never were effective enough anyway. This off-season was- to be kind- a disaster.

If there was a “Hakstol goes or you go” mandate from Holmgren, Dave Scott, Brian Roberts or Gritty that Hextall refused to execute, then the choice was made pretty clear. (It was a bad PR mistake to let this linger without the two voices – Holmgren and Scott – answering questions on this day.)

But the overall move fails to understand what position the franchise was in when Hextall arrived and it reinforces every belief that critics of this organization have possessed for years.

Think about this: It was deemed “bold” that Hextall wouldn’t trade young minor league players for established stars in order to dig the franchise out of the salary cap malaise that was created by Holmgren. (The irony of the fact that it was Holmgren attaching his name to the move to fire Hextall was not lost on anyone, for what it’s worth.)

After all, that was the way that the club always operated – the immediate moment was the most important thing because that was the way we always operated.

That “boldness” is the way that every successful sports franchise operates and has operated for the past 20 years. The idea that the Flyers – from the organization to the dancing idiot at the top of the second deck – felt that this was somehow “bold” underscores how far behind the curve the entire organization was in modern sports management techniques.

Hextall was one of the few who walked into Voorhees and saw a bigger picture than the April through June window that season’s Stanley Cup playoffs occupy.

And yet, it appeared that he was restrained in some way from going the entire distance on the rebuild at the start. Because the Flyers have become the worst thing in sports – a mediocre franchise stuck in the quicksand of thinking that making the playoffs short-term was better than a bigger belief that a little pain at the front end ends up paying off in a big way.

It is the same way it has been since the time the NHL lockout ended in 2005-06 with the exception of six weeks in 2010. Good enough to be barely relevant.

How else to explain why Jake Voracek, Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds are still in orange and black jerseys? If this was a true rebuild – one that the Blackhawks, Penguins and other Stanley Cup champions so often use to create their dynasties – those players would have been farmed out in 2015 when it became painfully clear that that core group would not be in place when the team’s farm system started to produce enough talent for the Flyers to become rock solid playoff contenders.

The big question is did Hextall feel some pressured mandate to rebuild on the fly – trying to make the playoffs and improve the system at the same time? Was he forced to avoid making those big moves in order to keep the masses handy? The problem with that model is it rarely, if ever, works.

With that model, you turn into the St. Louis Blues – good enough for a yearly trip to the playoffs, never close to being good enough to actually doing damage while you are there.

So, now what? Whenever Holmgren and Scott announce the new GM – who will then presumably fire Hakstol and hire his own coach – they will be stating the obvious that the Flyers have no interest in long-term projects anymore. That’s all well and good.

After all, that’s been the Flyers way all along. And as Ron Hextall found out on Monday, it is one tide you never go up against.

 

Wayne Fish
About Wayne Fish 456 Articles
Wayne Fish has been covering the Flyers since 1976, a stint which includes 18 Stanley Cup Finals, four Winter Olympics and numerous other international events.

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