The strangest part of Ron Hextall’s tenure as the Flyers’ general manager was this: He told people what he was going to do. Then he did it. Then people were surprised and perturbed when he kept doing it. Out in Pittsburgh, where Hextall was hired Tuesday as the Penguins’ GM, they’re wondering how he’ll get along with new president of hockey operations Brian Burke and what his short- and long-term plans will be for a franchise that over the last 14 years has made the postseason 14 times and won three Stanley Cups. Here, there was no wondering while Hextall was running the show. At least, there shouldn’t have been.
Go back to April 15, 2015. The Flyers had just completed a season, Hextall’s first as their GM, in which they won just 33 games and finished in sixth place in the eight-team Metropolitan Division. Their 84 points remain their second-lowest total over an 82-game season in the last quarter-century. They were not a good team. And someone asked Hextall whether the Flyers could compete for the Stanley Cup the following year, as if that were just what was supposed to happen, what the Flyers were just supposed to do, no matter how much of a pipe dream it might have been.
“You go into every season trying to compete for the Stanley Cup,” he said then. “To win a Stanley Cup, you have to make the playoffs. Our goal next year is to make the playoffs. I’ve said this and I’ll say it now and say it again: If we can do something with our personnel to be better in October, we will do it, without question, assuming it’s not sacrificing our future. We’re not going to trade young players. We’re not going to trade picks, as a rule. But if we can do something — free agent, trade, something along those lines — we will absolutely do it. My job right now is to keep our future going, keep our picks, draft well but also make our team better in October.”
No Flyers executive had ever spoken this way before. Hextall had paid the most tacit of lip service to the organization’s all-consuming philosophy since 1975: paying any and all costs to win a championship every year. But he had made his real mission clear. The Flyers had hollowed themselves out, making poor draft picks, trading away good ones, and it was long past time for a painful reckoning. They weren’t going to set off on irresponsible chases after glory anymore. They were going to take their time, rebuild step by step, and everyone was going to have to get used to it.
Come November 2018, Dave Scott, Paul Holmgren, and the rest of the Flyers’ power people at the time decided that they wouldn’t take the slow-and-steady approach anymore. More, they couldn’t abide Hextall’s recalcitrance in sticking with his plan, in believing that the Flyers weren’t quite ready yet to dive deep into the win-now pool again. He was too stubborn, too unwilling to listen to them, and his relationships with the longtime members of the organization had turned prickly. Never mind that perhaps tuning out his predecessors was the price of doing his job, of correcting their mistakes. Was Hextall too hard to get along with? Were there communication problems? “That was certainly a two-way street,’' he told The Athletic in August.
In so many ways, Hextall was the Flyers’ answer to Sam Hinkie — an executive who saw what had to be done, who didn’t succumb to the impatience intrinsic to this sports market, who probably was destined to be exiled before the team he helped build was ready to win big. Hinkie drafted Joel Embiid and set the Sixers up to draft Ben Simmons, and only now is Embiid an MVP candidate, and only now have the Sixers positioned themselves as the best team in the Eastern Conference. Yet Hextall’s influence on the Flyers is as profound or more. Twelve players on the roster — from the team’s leading scorer to its top four defensemen to its two goaltenders — were Hextall draftees or signees. That doesn’t mean that Chuck Fletcher and Alain Vigneault haven’t contributed greatly to the Flyers’ resurgence, but it does mean they had some firm ground beneath their feet when they got here.
Now Hextall gets the chance, with the Penguins, that Hinkie never did in the NBA: the chance to show that he can turn a team around quickly. Evgeni Malkin is 34. Sidney Crosby is 33. The Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups, in 2016 and 2017, then won one playoff series in the next three years and are just 5-5-1 this season. They don’t need to be torn down. They need to be tweaked. They need, in the here and now, to catch up to Ron Hextall’s old team. He already has shaped the Flyers’ present and future. Now he gets to do it again, from another angle.