There is this convenient Flyers narrative that goes something like this: If Ron Hextall were still the general manager of the Flyers, Dave Hakstol would still be their coach and Carter Hart would have spent the season in Allentown.
And now, a few drops of reality. Hextall’s plan all along was to promote Hart by January, and if his short-term goaltending plans weren’t so long on hope and short on sight, that would have worked out just fine. Even with Hakstol – who reached the playoffs just a season before despite being saddled with the goalie carousel that marked his tenure here – as their coach.
The irony, of course, is that Hextall was ultimately undone by his miscalculations about the very position he played – goaltending. Like the Flyers GMs who came before him (Paul Holmgren, Bob Clarke), there seemed to be an underestimation of its importance, especially for a core group that just cannot seem to get over the hump.
Brian Elliott’s herculean effort two seasons ago bought Hexy another shot. His underestimation of the effect that effort had on the 33-year-old goaltender is still a head-scratcher of a mistake, especially given Hextall’s own history with groin injuries. And this time, it was one he could never recover from.
Flyers chairman Dave Scott, who had questioned Hextall’s plan prior to Elliott’s heroics the year before, did so again, and the answers he received, he said, “were not crisp.” And team president Holmgren – whose influence seemed to grow as that discontent grew -- found the man he had lured from the West Coast years before to have become “inflexible” in tweaking that rebuilding whether by trade or a premature promotion of the much-ballyhooed 19-year-old goalie.
The whole thing was reminiscent of the Sixers’ deep-sixing Sam Hinkie smack in the middle of The Process for similar reasons, leaving us to wonder even today if they would be more or less advanced at this point than the team that lost the seventh game of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Would Hinkie have seen what Danny Ainge saw in Jayson Tatum and not traded up to get Markelle Fultz? Would the Sixers have used the other first-round pick they surrendered in that deal to strengthen their bench?
Kawhi Leonard? Would he have been here and not there if Hinkie was in charge?
This is what the afterlife is for, answers to these and many other questions.
With the 2019 NHL amateur draft upon us, the pressing question now is this: Was Chuck Fletcher a smart hire, or like Bryan Colangelo, simply an apparent safe one? (Haha to that). Fletcher’s work in Minnesota was not unlike what Hextall was in the process of doing here: He dug the Wild out of cap hell in the beginning, rebuilt their farm system, and put them in position to be considered, at least for a while there, a Cup contender.
But as so many competent GMs discover, putting on the finishing touches is a talent shared by precious few. Fletcher’s own father, Cliff, reached Hockey’s Hall of Fame as a “builder” after his work with several NHL organizations. He was successful, respected, even revered, but only once was the Stanley Cup hoisted on his watch.
Similarly, nine seasons as Minnesota’s GM produced for his son the kind of balance sheet that drives investors crazy: big hits, big misses, missed opportunities.
Chuck Fletcher took over a team in shambles, rebuilt it through the draft, then drained that feeder pool with a series of go-for-it deadline deals that by and large did not pan out and pushed Minnesota back to the brink of the cap.
The Wild went to the playoffs six consecutive seasons in Fletcher’s tenure, but he won just two series in that time. He ran into some hot teams and an emerging dynasty in Chicago, and eventually the part of the future he mortgaged to acquire veteran pieces for stretch runs became an unwieldy present, when every one of the draft picks that remained needed to be spot on – or else.
Mostly, it was or else. In 2015 the Wild passed on Travis Konecny to draft Joel Eriksson Ek (and Brock Boeser too). A year before, they passed on Bruins star David Pastrnak to draft Alex Tuch.
The NHL draft is perennially full of such hits and misses and Fletcher would not have lasted that long had he not built the Wild into contenders via the draft to begin with.
And this would be a footnote to his resume if one of those nine seasons had ended with the Cup’s being raised by the team he assembled.
Instead, Fletcher gets a do-over. In hiring a seasoned coach and former head coaches as assistants, he has already sent notice that he might do things differently here than he did in Minnesota, where he consecutively hired two first-time NHL head coaches. Trading a fifth-round pick for unrestricted free agent Kevin Hayes was good risk and a cheap buy, especially when it still left you with nine draft picks.