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Hextall on making drastic changes: No tanks

GM Ron Hextall says he's 'not going to trade young players for older players to try and get incrementally better right now.'

TELL ME if this sounds familiar. One star young prospect has sat out most of this season with a knee injury. Another was shipped out before the season began to get more seasoning, especially through international play. Still another player, the team's bonafide star and leader, is managing his recent injury ever-so-carefully, even at the risk of losses that will inch his team closer to a top pick in an upcoming draft that is top heavy in talent, and further from a playoff spot that is already highly improbable, if not impossible.

If the Flyers' situation these days sounds a lot like the Sixers' situation these days, know that there is one distinct difference:

The Flyers are not trying to tank.

Or if they are, they're sure being quite coy about it. Yesterday, for example, I asked their first-year general manager, Ron Hextall, whether he might use a potential hot streak as an opportunity to revamp his team more immediately than long-term. It was awkwardly phrased, I admit, but I meant that members of the Flyers' disappointing veteran defensive core with those unwieldy contracts might become more attractive trade candidates should the team's play improve. Hextall interpreted it in the more time-honored tradition of the Flyers - that he would be compelled to deal his youth for more seasoned veterans.

"My plan and my thoughts with this franchise moving forward are no different from what they were last summer," he said. "We're on the same path and we're going to continue to go down that path. Is it going to be altered if we continue to go the way we are? Probably a little bit. But we're certainly, if we win 10 games in a row, not going to trade young players for older players to try and get incrementally better right now."

To which I say . . . Phew!

Because the worst thing that can happen to all those Cup-starved Flyers fans out there is a January run that reinforces that flawed belief that this team was a bounce or two away from being a Cup finalist a year ago. I'll say it again: I've never seen a more lopsided seven-game series than last season's playoff bout with the Rangers.

We should have learned two things then. One, that Steve Mason is a goalie worthy of building a team around. And two, time to start building a real Cup-worthy team.

So in came Hextall with his blunt assessment of the team as constructed, even before he traded away Scott Hartnell for what amounts to one fewer season of contract liability - otherwise known as R.J. Umberger. Hexy said then that there were the elite teams, and then there were teams like the Flyers, and the idea of winning a Stanley Cup as constructed was akin to trying to win the top draft pick with the least number of pingpong balls.

It was a start, albeit a small one, but Hextall's most significant handprint thus far has been the iron will to do nothing - no trades of youth for veterans, no rushing prospects into the league for the sake of a short-term fix, no knee-jerk firing of a coach who just a little more than a year ago was heralded as precisely the potion this fragile team needed.

Alas, they are still fragile, something they admit with equal doses of determination and disgust.

"It's small things that are accumulating, and they're becoming bigger things," Wayne Simmonds said after practice yesterday. " . . . If you make a lot of little mistakes, they compound and then you start thinking about them more and more. I think that has to do with some of our starts. You have something bad happen and you're like, 'Oh no, here we go again.

"That shouldn't be the case. We're professional athletes here. We should have the mental capacity to make a mistake and be able to rebound from it."

That they don't suggests a few things, most notably that there is a lack of confidence in each other - and, specifically, that leaky defensive core. Hextall spoke yesterday about poor puck support, about how "we don't give our teammate the easy pass. We're trying to pass through legs and over sticks."

That game of hot potato is the very essence of fragility - if I don't have the puck, I can't make a mistake. And as head coach Craig Berube conceded, it dissolves any thought of aggressive pursuit of the puck - which has marked so many of their bad losses, including the recent ones in Carolina and New Jersey.

It also suggests a team in need of renovation and repair, a team that, in the long run, might benefit from a lack of that midwinter hot streak that almost seems inevitable even for the least of the league's have-nots.

The Flyers should not be among the leasts, Hextall said. He saw them as a playoff contender when the season started. Now he sounds ready to sift through the rubble, salvaging the few valuable pieces, figuring out what he can get, if anything, for the remaining scraps.

"Have we played up to the expectations individually or collectively?" Hextall asked out loud.

"The answer is no."