"You have to be careful,’’ Ron Hextall said at one point during his say goodbye media session Friday. "Your expectations are too high, then you’re disappointed.’’
He was speaking of James van Riemsdyk, his prized free agent signing of last summer. But it could have been any number of things that marked his four-plus seasons as Flyers general manager:
Expecting his goalie situation to stabilize from a season ago, or two seasons ago;
Expecting each of his young players to take the next step;
Expecting his young defense to provide the support needed to cover for suspect goaltending;
Expecting a penalty kill that habitually finished on the bottom tier of the NHL in proficiency to improve despite leaning heavily on rookies and second-year players who had little experience doing that job on any level.
He didn’t see the irony, and at first glimpse, neither did I. The narrative around Hextall was of a man who measured everything, a self-proclaimed math nut, introducing analytics into this old-school organization soon after he arrived. Yet he entered this season as he had the others, hoping for this and hoping for that, hoping for the same integers as the year before to provide a more stable and improved presence in net, on the blueline, even behind the bench.
And when it didn’t, when the man who succeeded Ed Snider as the chairman of this team inquired about solutions, Hextall’s answers were, to quote Scott, "Not real crisp.’’
They weren’t real crisp Friday either. Hextall said he would spend the next few months analyzing what went wrong in his first go-round as, in his words, "The man in that seat.’’ Here is what he is likely to find, spoken so eloquently years ago by Mr. Mike Tyson on his way to unifying boxing’s heavyweight title.
"Everybody’s got a plan,’’ Tyson said. "until they get punched in the face.’’
When Hextall got punched in the nose, which was often with this "underachieving’’ team -- his words, not mine -- he wasn’t much for solutions. Last spring it was Petr Mrazek to the rescue, a move that cost him a draft pick in the third round. This season it was Cal Pickard off waivers, who was put back on them a day after Hextall was fired.
Hextall said there hasn’t been that much out there, but two of the teams that have beaten the Flyers this season might disagree. Signed to a three-year, $8.25 million contract over the summer, Buffalo’s Carter Hutton is 12-7-1 with a .917 save percentage entering Friday’s action. Phillip Grubaeur, who was outstanding for Washington during its Cup run of last season, went to Colorado with Brooks Orpik as part of a salary dump package that netted the Caps one second-round pick.
Orpik, 37, is in the final year of a contract that pays him $5 million annually. Colorado signed Grubauer, a restricted free agent, to a three-year, $10 million deal shortly after the trade. Backing up starter Semyon Varlamov -- another goalie Washington traded away – Grubauer is 6-1-2 with a .904 save percentage.
Hextall had the picks and prospects and cap room to beat this deal, even if it meant no JVR, or cutting Alex Lyon loose. Of course it was a risk, but as Hextall learned with his job, so was status quo.
The other disconnect here, one he still didn’t seem to get Friday, was with the fans that he played so passionately for. Former Eagles coach Joe Kuharich once famously said that if you listened too much to the fans you ended up sitting with them.
The same can be true if you continually ignore their concerns.
The building is shockingly empty these days. The deals on Stubhub are approaching Phillies status, at least before last season. This, against the backdrop of a $250 million Wells Fargo Center upgrade designed to "improve the fan experience.’’
Hard to do that if they’re sitting at home.
Scott left the business side of Comcast originally to oversee this upgrade, which will be mostly completed by the start of next season. What was happening down on the ice, this year and for chunks of this one, was, to him, toxic.
And yet Hextall seemed perplexed by Holmgren’s description of him as "unyielding’’ Friday, pushing back with repeated descriptions of that three-step plan that got him hired -- and fired.
Hextall even chuckled when he recalled a conversation with the Ed Snider, the Flyers founder and owner, shortly after he was hired.
Snider asked his new GM what he needed from him.
"Patience,’’ Hextall answered.
The final irony is he got that.
But he wore out his successor.
He spoke excitedly again Friday of that day he envisioned over the last four seasons, when players like Morgan Frost are pumping in goals, Carter Hart is stopping them, and Wade Allison and Joel Farabee are providing the "sandpaper’’ that he candidly admitted is mostly missing from the current team he has assembled.
He was asked if it was going to hurt when and if that day arrived.
"There’s a lot of good kids, not just good players, coming,’’ he said after pausing. "…There’s a bright future here. I hope they do well. I sincerely do. ‘’