Who’s next? Gritty?
Three years ago, for a six-week period, Philadelphia was Innovation City. All four major pro sports teams were led by slick, numbers-driven general managers with new-age philosophies and only loose ties to antiquated methodologies of building franchises and winning championships.
Now, after the astonishing firing of Flyers general manager Ron Hextall on Monday, only one remains.
Matt Klentak better keep his resume updated.
Clearly, no matter how smart and forward-thinking the top guy is, Philly clearly lacks the patience for lengthy reconstructions. Less than two months after the Phillies hired Klentak on Oct. 16, 2015, Sam Hinkie became the first casualty. The NBA pressured the Sixers to hire NBA godfather Jerry Colangelo to sanitize the franchise’s soiled image, which effectively ended Hinkie’s reign. Chip Kelly, serving as coach/GM, was fired just 18 days later. Now, Hextall, the most unfair dismissal of all.
Beginning in 1986, Hextall has been a Flyer twice on the ice and twice upstairs. He knows Philly. Does he believe the city lacks the patience to reap the fruits of slow-burning genius?
“That’s a great question,” Hextall said Friday. “That’s a hard question to answer. You kind of get snippets of the fan base here. They were kind of getting anxious.”
He fully expected passionate Flyers fans to get anxious -- they haven’t won a Stanley Cup in 43 seasons and they have’t won a playoff series in six -- but he didn’t expect that anxiety to cost him his job. Not after what he’d experienced in L.A. Hextall joined the Kings in 2006 as assistant GM and saw the Kings miss the playoffs the first three seasons then lose in the first round the next two. The Kings then won two of the next three Stanley Cups.
“In years four and five in L.A., people started to get anxious,” Hextall said. “After year six, they forgot about years four and five. And I thought we were starting to get somewhere here, too.”
They weren’t getting there fast enough. Not for Philly. Not for Flyers president Paul Holmgren, who, as GM in 2013, hired Hextall as assistant GM with the intent of promoting him as his replacement. That happened a year later. Now 24 games into his fifth season Hextall’s vision suddenly diverges so drastically from Holmgren’s that Homer couldn’t stand it any more, so he called Hextall into his office for a meeting, Hextall said. It took Homer 20 seconds to tell him he was done.
Why? The Flyers had lost five of six games, had given up 17 goals in their last three losses, had a porous defense and still had no answers at goalie. The stands at the Wells Fargo Center had wide swaths of empty seats, and many of the patrons had, fatally, descended past antipathy and into indifference.
Hextall said Friday that he was working on moves that would send a message, but he also said several times that he was unwilling to trade young, cheap assets for an expensive player in his mid-30s who might cripple their salary cap in the future.
And that’s the crux of the unfairness. Holmgren promoted Hextall from assistant GM in 2014, after eight seasons of his own win-now failures. Hextall ascended with a mandate from owner Ed Snider, notorious for his impatience, to build for the future, with youth and with patience. Snider died two years ago. It would be fascinating to witness how patient he might have been.
Could Snider have waited six years, like the Kings? Hextall reckoned Friday that the Flyers are at least one season away from contending for a Stanley Cup, maybe two.
He’ll have to watch it on TV. Maybe he can hang out with Hinkie. They can work on their “emotional intelligence” quotients, the key metric by which Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie now measures his hires. Don’t laugh. Doug Pederson and Howie Roseman won a Super Bowl.
Hinkie’s EIQ was un-chartable. He was completely unaware -- and, worse, unconcerned -- with the corrosive effects of his lose-at-all-costs strategy. He crystallized his disconnect with the realities of management in a 13-page manifesto he sent to his bosses when he finally resigned, in April of 2016.
Kelly not only ignored veterans' complaints, he also was so socially inept that two Eagles players and an assistant coach -- all of whom were black -- accused him of racism after they left the team.
Hextall wasn’t nearly as interpersonally challenged as that odd pair. However, he has been painted as a chilly, head-in-the-sand workaholic who neither nurtured subordinates nor revered Flyers alumni. In the Flyers' world, that’s enough.
Significantly, all three also failed to connect with the fans. Smart, driven and mathematically based, they presented clinical, impassive personalities; poor matches for a town that still embraces Buddy Ryan.
Klentak would do well to learn from the stories of Hinkie, Kelly, and Hextall. He’s a Massachusetts kid with an Ivy League degree, neither of which are necessarily assets in Philadelphia. Like his three former peers, he dragged his franchise into the 21st century, introducing an analytics and sports science program that optimizes everything from what they eat (organic, grass-fed, locally-sourced, anti-inflammatory) to how they rest and recover (lots).
But if Klentak wants to survive he must be smarter about selling his product and selling himself. Phillies fans don’t like being talked down to and ignored. Intentionally or not, he has done plenty of that to date. Consider: The Phillies were much more successful for most of the season than the Flyers have been, and they had a lot more empty seats this season than the Flyers have had. As the Phillies nose-dived in September, Klentak, fairly or not, absorbed much of the blame.
Klentak is entering the fourth season of his tenure. Neither Kelly nor Hinkie lasted three. Klentak hasn’t done much to guarantee his future. Uninspired performances from Klentak’s main free-agent additions for 2018, Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana, have added pressure as Klentak courts Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Patrick Corbin this fall. Signing one or more of them shouldn’t afford Klentak any measure of security if the team struggles. Not here, anyway.
Hextall signed James van Riemsdyk to a five-year, $35 million deal, the first big-name, big-money deal of the rebuild. Hextall believed he would, at least, see that deal through to its end. With a slew of young talent on the Flyers' roster and with a passel of prospects in the pipeline, led by blue-chip goalie Carter Hart, that only seemed logical.
It only seemed fair.