Lately, anyone who follows Philadelphia sports - the four major pro franchises, that is - has to feel like the last person in line at the DMV. You've taken your number. You're waiting your turn. And you're just hoping that the process, however long it takes, turns out to be less aggravating than the last time you went through it.
That's all we're doing now, it seems. We're waiting for the Eagles, the Phillies, the Sixers, and the Flyers to become more competitive, more interesting. No, scratch that. We're actually waiting on particular players who are young, a bit mysterious, and supposed to be the driving forces behind each team's renaissance. (If it feels like you're always waiting for these rebirths, well, that's what one championship in 33 years does to you. It stretches your patience like warm taffy, understandably.)
With the Eagles, it's Carson Wentz, the prospective franchise quarterback. With the Phillies, it's a group of prospects, including shortstop J.P. Crawford, outfielder Nick Williams and pitcher Jake Thompson. (Thompson at least whetted everyone's thirst by coming up from triple-A this weekend.) With the Sixers, it's Ben Simmons (a relatively short wait) and Joel Embiid (a Wegmans checkout line on a late Sunday morning).
The common thread connecting each of those situations is the understanding or expectation that it will take a while for those players to have a significant impact on their respective teams. No one anticipates that Wentz, once he goes under center, will immediately transform the Eagles into a Super Bowl contender. The Phillies will need a lot of players to develop at roughly the same time to return to postseason contention. And Simmons should make the Sixers a better team, but even if they won three times as many games this season with him as they did last season without him, they'd still go 30-52 and, in all likelihood, miss the playoffs.
Which brings us to the Flyers and their general manager, Ron Hextall. They have two players - defenseman Ivan Provorov and right wing Travis Konecny, each of whom is just 19 years old - who could, and probably should, already be assured of roster spots this season. Konecny had 101 points, including 30 goals, in 60 games last season in the Ontario Hockey League, and Provorov had 73 points in 62 games in the Western Hockey League. It is not too great a stretch to suggest that, if they were to join the Flyers, Provorov would become their top defenseman and Konecny a top-six forward immediately.
It seems pointless, and arguably counterproductive, to have Provorov and Konecny spend another season in junior. If they can help the Flyers now, if they might improve a team that, for all its shortcomings, did sneak into the playoffs last season, why risk stifling their growth by keeping them at a level of competition that they've already dominated?
"I'm not sure I believe in that," Hextall said in a recent phone interview. "When you have character people and you send a player down to be the best player in junior hockey, I think that's a pretty big challenge. I'm not one who believes that players stagnate in their development. I always use this example, but the best player in the National Hockey League, once he becomes the best player, should go to another league because he's going to stagnate? I don't believe that. I think there's always another level for a player. You can be a better player than you were the previous season."
Talk to people around the Flyers and the NHL, and they'll tell you that the only thing standing between Provorov and Konecny and the NHL, at least at the moment, might be Hextall's stubbornness. He's a congregant in the Church of the Old School, a believer in the intrinsic value of having a player pay his dues and ride the rickety buses to and from the rink for as long as possible before jumping to the big time.
"I've said over and over," he said. "If you look at the history of the league, the biggest danger is putting a player in the National Hockey League too early rather than sending a guy back to junior who the public believes is too good for junior or is going to stagnate in his development."
In Hextall's mind, then, there's nothing to lose and everything to gain by having Provorov and Konecny wait a while to debut with the Flyers. He's the man in charge. It's his decision to make, his pace to set. But if those two are indeed ready, it will take a steel spine and some fast-talking for him to justify holding them back. Besides, it would be nice just to get this lousy line moving, right?