RON HEXTALL is understandably coy when he talks about the subject of analytics in the organization he operates.
Analytics have garnered a lot of interest over the last few seasons league-wide, as teams and fans alike have found alternative ways to evaluate efficiency compared with the naked eye. But Hextall said this summer that teams have been using analytics for years, they just weren't open about it.
The Flyers hired Ian Anderson to the position of manager of hockey analytics last summer. Analytics are a subject Hextall is obviously intrigued with, and one that perhaps influenced his decision to bring on Dave Hakstol as the team's 19th coach to replace Craig Berube, who was into the numbers, as well. Hakstol, 47, acknowledged he was "still learning" hockey analytics during his introductory news conference in May, but it's a subject he had started to embrace for a few years at North Dakota.
Even before Hakstol's arrival, with Hextall aiming to retool his roster since taking over the GM role in May 2014, the analytical approach was apparent. And though the salary cap makes it difficult to make it a quick fix, Hextall has been working with what's available, specifically when it comes to the defense - the GM's long-term project.
It started around the deadline when the Flyers traded Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn.
Top defenseman Mark Streit had been playing with Nicklas Grossmann a lot midway through the season, but the lumbering Grossmann bogged down Streit - the Flyers' highest-paid defenseman. With Grossmann at his side, Streit played to a 45.1 Corsi-For percentage. Corsi, one of the main analytical stats in hockey, captures the plus-minus of shots directed while even strength, no matter the result of the shot. A player with a positive Corsi means he's on the ice for more shots directed at the opponent's net compared with his own.
Grossmann was one of the worst on the Flyers last season in that regard, bringing down nearly everyone with whom he was paired.
On the surface, when looking at Grossman's conventional statistics from last season, nothing really catches the eye. His plus-minus was a team-best plus-8. But dig a little deeper and you find a horrific year by further metrics.
Everyone loves a solid, stay-at-home defenseman. Grossmann is that. He rarely was caught out of position and didn't kill the Flyers in his own zone. But, to succeed at being the player he was trying to be, he needed to be better possessing the puck. After all, at a basic level, the main duty of a defenseman is to get the puck out of his zone. And Grossmann, quite simply, lacked the speed and puck-controlling ability to be effective in that aspect.
Grossmann ranked eighth among Flyers defensemen with at least 33 games played with a defensive-zone exit success rate of 62.2 percent, according to stats from the blog Pattison Ave.
The problem for the Flyers: He was being paid as a top-four guy.
No player on last season's roster had a worse career Wins Above Replacement number (-4.62) than Grossmann. The Flyers were basically paying someone a big salary who was giving them little to no value, analytically speaking.
In the offseason, Hextall's hands were largely tied because of a lack of salary room. So he rid himself of Grossman's $3.5 million salary, dealing him and the contract of Chris Pronger to Arizona, which needed to climb above the salary floor, for forward Sam Gagner.
Grossmann and current Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald ranked toward the bottom of the team's blue line corps when it came to advanced stats last season. Not surprising, neither was brought to Philadelphia by Hextall. But Hextall was able to move only one of them in the offseason. MacDonald, who said last season he didn't pay much attention to analytical stats that had him ranked poorly, is signed through 2020 with a cap hit of $5 million per season. Hextall will need to work his magic again next offseason, or at least try to tackle it with an analytical approach.
Even before getting rid of Grossmann, which likely was always in his plans, Hextall added defenseman Evgeny Medvedev, a veteran of Russia's KHL. Advanced stats for his time in the KHL aren't available, but Medvedev appears to have the puck-moving ability and speed that Grossmann does not. And the Flyers are paying him $500,000 less.
It's not a quick fix, just playing by the advanced numbers. Hextall won't just rely on advanced metrics to make decisions. But in working this current roster rebuild, he'll do whatever it takes to make the right decisions in terms of numbers, both monetary and analytical.
Because it's always been a numbers game.