Ron Hextall and Paul Holmgren worked together well. They saw plenty of things similarly, had little trouble reaching compromises and never had any disagreements that turned into confrontations.
But at Wednesday’s press conference at which Hextall’s promotion was announced (see story), the Flyers’ new GM hinted at one big difference between him and his predecessor.
Holmgren, over the eight years of his tenure as GM, was never afraid to make a big trade or hefty signing. He coveted the league’s top players, and was willing to take risks to acquire the likes of Chris Pronger and Ilya Bryzgalov.
Hextall, by contrast, has a plan to build from the ground up.
“I like young players and I like draft picks,” Hextall said. “My vision is to build this team and to continue to make this team better through the draft. That doesn’t mean we won’t make trades. At some point if it’s a good enough player, and we’ve got to trade a young player, we may look at that. But it’s not a vision of mine to trade young players for older players. It would have to be a really, really strong deal for us.”
The way Hextall views things, the best and most-balanced teams are those that can hold onto their picks, draft well and develop their own players. Those are also the teams that fare best in a league with a salary cap.
It’s no secret the Flyers have traded away players in the past that, in an ideal world, they would have preferred to keep. They would fill one vacancy but create another by trading to fulfill a more-pressing need.
That’s the challenge that Hextall will aim to overcome by developing players from within, as opposed to acquiring players brought up in other teams' systems.
“The problem is that if something does come along [via a trade like] a No. 1 defenseman, you’re giving up two or three young players, two or three draft picks,” he said. “You fill one hole and then you create three or four others. And that’s the whole thing, trying to get all those holes filled at the same time.”
The Flyers, for years, have struggled with that balance -- like so many other NHL teams. But Hextall believes the Flyers are already headed in his preferred direction and have already put effort into compiling a strong farm system. It's been a subtle shift in direction over the past few seasons, certainly evidenced by their last two drafts.
On Wednesday, Hextall mentioned three young defensemen in the Flyers' organization -- Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hagg and Samuel Morin -- as the solid starting point to a more fortified farm system.
“I’ve got a vision here already,” Hextall said. “You see our young defensemen -- I don’t think it’s going to be next year, but in two or three years, you can kind of look at our defense and say, 'OK this guy will be here and this guy will be here and this guy will be here.' You’ve always got to be in the present, but you’ve always got to have a vision toward the future.”
The most difficult part of it all, he admitted, isn't putting together a strong group of prospects. Instead, it's refraining from rushing them through the ranks. That, too, will be a focus of his tenure as GM.
“I think the hard part is wanting to put young players in the lineup,” Hextall said. “Here’s how I view it: A young player’s got to earn his way onto the team. Not me saying, 'OK, Player X is on the team and he’s got to play his way off.' He’s got to earn his way onto the team. If a player doesn’t come into training camp and really show you something, he probably needs more time.
"Tell me one young player in the history of hockey that’s been hurt by spending some time in the minors. I can tell you there are hundreds and hundreds that have been hurt by being put in an NHL lineup too soon.”
During his time with the Los Angeles Kings, during which he helped build a Stanley Cup-winner from scratch, Hextall learned to place an emphasis on development. When he first returned to the Flyers last summer to become the team's assistant general manager, he made a point of getting acquainted with the Flyers' current crop of prospects. He wanted to be as familiar as possible with the entire organization, because -- even before he learned he'd become GM -- he wanted to do what he could to help the Flyers finally bring home the Cup.
And even if he's eventually successful, as happened in L.A., his philosophy won't change.
“Even when you’re competing at a high level you’ve got to continue to develop,” Hextall said. “... Development is not going to go away. I don’t care if we’re a top-five contender in the league, we’re going to continue development.
“It’s going to continue to be a priority. So are draft picks.”