PITTSBURGH – As they search for the eighth general manager in franchise history, the Flyers are caught between a proverbial rock and a hard place.
On one hand, they would like to replace the fired Ron Hextall as soon as possible. They are buried in the standings and need a GM in place quickly. There are trades to be discussed, a new assistant coach and assistant general manager to be named, and a decision to be made on the head coach.
There is also the need to re-open the dialogue between the club and the agent for dependable right winger Wayne Simmonds, who is on pace for 31 goals and is in the final season of his contract
At the same time, the Flyers don’t want to rush into things and select a general manager they may later regret.
The new general manager – Chuck Fletcher appears to be the favorite, with Bill Zito making a run, and Dave Nonis as a dark horse -- will have a lot on his plate. Fletcher and Zito are Ivy League grads, so we can assume they will make the most of the nearly $7 million (when injured goalie Brian Elliott returns) in cap space Hextall has left them ... or whoever gets the job.
Hiring a general manager in December is not optimal. Most GMs are named after the season, giving them time to scour the roster and the coaching staff and get a better feel for the organization’s strengths and weaknesses.
The fact this firing was done in-season is almost as stunning as it taking only 20 seconds to go down, according to Hextall. He was in his 24th season with the Flyers, including four-plus as the GM, and never got a warning that his job was in jeopardy.
You would think someone with almost a quarter-century of loyalty to an organization would have been given the courtesy that he had, say, a month to get the franchise moving – or else.
The Flyers’ upper management – Dave Scott and Paul Holmgren – want someone who is more aggressive in the trade market, someone who doesn’t take as long to mold the team into a Stanley Cup contender.
Scott, the CEO and chairman of the Flyers’ parent company, Comcast Spectacor, said the organization was excited to hire someone and “take the next step. I like to go fast when you have a situation like this, but you have to get it right. It’s got to be the right fit for the organization. You want [someone] bright and action-oriented, but they have to be a people person. I mean, the world is different today in how you talk to peers and subordinates. That’s really important to me.”
Hextall, 54, wasn’t perfect, and he erred by not bringing in another goalie in the offseason – a decision that backfired when his Nos. 1 and 2 goaltenders, both coming off hip surgery, were re-injured – and by not upgrading the penalty kill. And he hired a coach who has not been able to get consistency from his players.
But the Flyers, despite this year’s sad-sack record, are in a much better spot than when Hextall took over in 2014. The farm system was ranked near the bottom of the league when Hextall was hired and now is among the best. The NHL drafts that he and Chris Pryor (another firing casualty) oversaw were outstanding. And while Hextall didn’t make a signature trade, he made many masterful deals to unload high-priced veterans and dig out of the salary-cap misery he inherited from his boss, club president Holmgren.
On Friday, Hextall denied mostly veiled accusations he isolated himself from many in the organization, that he was a dictator who didn’t seek enough input from others, that he kept the Flyers’ brass at a distance. Hextall said he didn’t micromanage, but he did in lots of areas. For instance, he wouldn’t allow assistant coaches to talk to the media, apparently afraid their message might not match his or coach Dave Hakstol’s.
The Flyers want someone who is a better communicator with members of the organization, past and present.
Hextall, a former star goalie with the Flyers, kept the ex-players at a distance, which didn’t make Holmgren happy, said a key member of 1974 and 1975 Stanley Cup champions, who asked to remain anonymous.
There was obviously a disconnect between Hextall and his bosses, and the man who was the game’s most aggressive goalie of his era became a methodical, patient man as an executive.
Maybe that patience will pay off down the road and the new GM will reap the benefits of the prospects selected and nurtured under Hextall’s watch.