Hextall aims to fix Flyers' late-round draft woes

Hextall aims to fix Flyers' late-round draft woes

June 30, 2014, 9:00 am
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Some people have labeled it a culture change.

Others say it’s an attitude adjustment.

Whatever you call it, there is no denying that when Ron Hextall assumed the general manager role of the Flyers and looked into the mirror of the organization’s soul, he shuddered at what he saw.

The dismal numbers speak for themselves.

Between the 2000 draft and 2013, the Flyers have produced just four NHL players from the fifth round back. Some years, it was seven rounds deep, others nine rounds.

Only one of them, winger Zac Rinaldo, is on their roster. He was a sixth-round pick in 2008. Two others are playing elsewhere -- defenseman Dennis Seidenberg (sixth, 2001) with Boston and forward Patrick Maroon (sixth, 2007) with Anaheim.

Goalie Roman Cechmanek (sixth, 2000) played two seasons here and is now out of hockey.

One later pick who has a shot is defenseman Oliver Lauridsen (seventh, 2009), who’s played just 15 NHL games.

Over this entire span -- not including this weekend’s past draft -- the Flyers drafted 54 players between the fifth and seventh rounds (some years, nine rounds).

“We've got to have kids coming,” Hextall said. “We've got to have kids coming. It’s more than having draft picks. You've got to hit on them. We’ve done a great job on first-rounders for years, but there is room for a little bit of growth on the later rounds. We've got to get some kids coming in the later rounds.”

Hextall’s point of emphasis with his amateur scouts going into last weekend's draft was the need for better identifying the right type of players in the later rounds, then getting them onto the roster.

Not just players with specific skill sets, but players with the mental acumen to attain higher levels of success. He wants winners.

That’s why the club took a chance on a couple of smaller players in the later rounds -- left wing Radel Fazleev, who is just 5-foot-11, and defenseman Jesper Pettersson, who is a mere 5-foot-7.

For all the success the Flyers have had over the years with first-round picks, they have failed miserably deep in the draft.

Their last late-round pick of any ilk who played for them was goalie Antero Niittymaki in 1998 (sixth round).

Hextall realizes this a contributing factor as to why the Flyers haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1975.

No team can win a championship without a strong base of homegrown talent blended into free agents and traded-for players. It’s a three-part recipe for success, and the Flyers have been operating without part one for decades now.

This year’s Stanley Cup champions, the Los Angeles Kings, had 11 homegrown draft picks, eight of which were directly tied to Hextall in the seven years he served as Dean Lombardi’s assistant GM, responsible for the organization’s minor league and junior prospects.

Late-round picks in hockey are crapshoots. It’s not unusual to strike out. Yet it’s also not unusual to find nuggets: Troy Brouwer (seventh round, 2007); Dustin Byfuglein (eighth, 2003); Kris Versteeg (fifth, 2004); Mark Fayne (fifth, 2005); Jonathan Ericsson (ninth, 2002); John-Michael Liles (fifth, 2000); Patric Hornqvist (seventh, 2005); Pekka Rinne (eighth, 2004); Matt Moulson (ninth, 2003); Max Talbot (eighth, 2002) etc., etc.

The Flyers' problems are magnified because they’re not getting any depth support from the early rounds, either. For instance, in the second or third rounds, they have zero players playing for them since the 2000 draft.

That increases their depth issues because there is no middle-round support at the NHL level. Many of their second-round picks have been traded away, again, increasing the pressure on later-round picks to pan out.

“It doesn’t mean we've got to hit them all,” Hextall said. “You've got to hit those late rounds once in [a while]. That is one of the things I’ve been banging on the table. Guys, you've got to hit on these late rounds. We have to.

“Taylor Leier [seventh round, 2012] and a couple guys like that look like they have a shot to play from the middle rounds, but we’ve got to continue -- continue to hit not only on first pick, but later picks, as well. If you look right now, we've got a couple there.”

Hextall says this year’s crop represents prospects who his scouts feel have mental toughness to win. Pettersson, for instance, is a kid who Hextall says simply won’t give up on the ice against far bigger forwards.

“It is important to stress the importance to turn over every stone and find every great young player and know what they are about and their character,” he said.

“If you look at the history of the draft, the kids who don’t play are kids who are not hungry to play. It doesn’t always come in physical play … it’s the will to win and it comes in skill players.

“That’s been my stress to my scouts, whether it is pros or amateurs, the will to win is huge. The gap between best team in the league and worst team is not very big. A lot of times, it’s whoever wants to win and sacrifice and pay the price. That comes in skill players, not just your grinders and fourth line guys.”

Hextall had the same discussion with his predecessor, Paul Holmgren, after the two of them changed jobs in May.

“I think you pick and choose times throughout the Flyers' history where they have … you know Rick Tocchet [sixth round, 1983] was a great pick, Pelle Eklund [eighth, 1983] was a great pick, you could argue Hexy [sixth, 1982] is a tremendous pick later in the draft,” said Holmgren, himself a sixth-round pick in 1975.

“You know that’s where your area guys have got to really hone in on a guy they like and then step up, be excited about that guy … and then that’s part of their job. We’ve made some changes to our scouting staff over the last couple of years and that’s kind of a work in progress, too. I’m happy with the work they’ve done the last couple of years.”

This is just a start.

The Flyers remain light years behind many NHL clubs in organizational support, and it’s not going to be a quick turnaround unless the club aggressively pushes the prospects they have now harder than they have in the past.

With Buffalo announcing it will give defenseman Christian Ehrhoff a compliance buyout (see story), look for the Flyers to make a play for him in free agency. Of course, the Flyers have no money (over the salary cap) and still need to lose Vinny Lecavalier's contract.

Looking for Flyers tickets? Buy them through the Wanamaker Entertainment Group.

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