VOORHEES – What went wrong?
Why did the Ron Hextall era ultimately end abruptly Monday, especially after it seemed the team was on the right track last April, finishing third in the Metro Division with 98 points and taking two-time Stanley Cup defending champ Pittsburgh to a sixth game in the opening round of the playoffs?
Some say the Flyers weren’t moving quick enough to a position of serious contention.
/>There were questionable trades: Scott Hartnell to Columbus for a down-and-out R.J. Umberger as a salary cap relief move; Brayden Schenn to St. Louis for draft picks.
/>Others point out the goaltending situation this season borders on a complete disaster. Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth entered the season coming off serious surgeries and the Flyers, who could only claim Calvin Pickard off waivers as a stopgap, are now working on their fifth goaltender, Anthony Stolarz.
/>The fact that Hextall’s only coaching hire was an untested commodity from the University of North Dakota might be considered groundbreaking in some respects, but the jury is still out on whether this experiment is a success.
/>Special teams have gone completely off the cliff this year yet penalty killing overseer Ian Laperriere remains on the job.
/>And while The Hockey News recently gave the Flyers a No. 2 ranking (Grade A) for its development system, there are some who wonder if a number of their prospects are progressing fast enough.
Hextall spent the better part of an hour on Monday morning at the Wingate Hotel defending his record.
“Quite honestly I’m proud of my 4 1/4 years here,’’ he said. “We worked hard. The scouting staff, the management team, the minor league coaches and all the players. We worked hard and I feel like we accomplished a lot.
“We created an analytics department, we created a sports science department, we had the gym built, we had the development area built, we accomplished a lot of things. And a lot of those things don’t show above the water. It’s like a duck, you’re paddling like crazy but you don’t really see the results. But I feel like some of the results are starting to show themselves with some of the young players. I’m proud of what we accomplished in terms of building a team and building a foundation. I feel they’re in a great place.’’
It remains to be seen what he could have done with the goaltending, especially taking a risk with the oft-injured Neuvirth.
Signing him for a two-year, $5-million contract at the start of the 2017-18 season might have seemed like a financially prudent move but some wonder about the wisdom of this rolling of the dice.
Was it too risky a move?
“Well, in hindsight, I guess you could say that,’’ Hextall admitted. “Michal’s upside is huge. You don’t get goalies with that kind of talent for that kind of money. I don’t know if people know how talented this guy is. I don’t want to put a number on it, but he’s right up there with the top few guys in the league in terms of ability.
“It was risky. And I knew that because of his injury history. So you say, risk and reward – and there was a lot of reward with Neuvy, solid play. With the number of injuries, we knew it was risky, but with the cap number at the time I felt it was a risk worth taking.’’
As for special teams, Hextall claims he did try to make repairs.
“We tried, we actually tried like hell in the summer to trade a certain player for a penalty killer,’’ Hextall said. “We almost signed Daniel Winnik (a free agent who last played for Minnesota).
“So I wish I would have been able to do something there to address that but we did feel that Corban Knight (now out four months with a broken collarbone), you guys haven’t seen him but he’s a pretty good penalty killer. He’s a really smart player. Right shot, really good faceoff guy. We felt like that was an upgrade.
“We felt like we did a little bit. I would have liked to do more.’’
Hextall believes his unconventional choice of tabbing Dave Hakstol out of North Dakota was a good move in hiring a coach in 2015.
“Dave Hakstol is one of the hardest-working people I know,’’ Hextall said. “He’s got a lot of respect around the league. You’d be shocked when I talk to my colleagues how much respect he has. He’s a good coach. Were we as successful as we wanted? No. I felt I left a lot of people down this year. There’s a lot of my staff that said to me they thought they let me down. I’m like, no one let me down. They worked their asses off and that’s all I expect.
“I thought Hak was really going to fit in well here because he’s so driven. His drive is off the charts. He wants to get better every day. Our coaches get home at 2 in the morning and it’s like, ‘OK, what time to we get in tomorrow?’ And they’d all be in at 8 o’clock. That staff, they worked hard. And like I said, I have ultimate respect for Hak and he’s got the ultimate respect around this league.’’
Hextall said he’s going to take some time off to be with his family before contemplating his next opportunity in the NHL.
As Flyers brass said on Monday, Hextall left this team in a better position than when he got here.
Apparently, though, the program just didn’t get the Flyers within sight of a Stanley Cup fast enough.