Hextall: Developing prospects a 'huge priority'

Hextall: Developing prospects a 'huge priority'
May 8, 2014, 12:00 pm
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Ron Hextall on Wednesday became the seventh general manager in Flyers history. (AP)

Nicklas Hjalmarsson. Brent Seabrook. Duncan Keith.

The Chicago Blackhawks drafted and developed all three of those defensemen this decade. Hjalmarsson and Seabrook were on their NHL roster within two years. It took Keith three years to make it.

Did the Blackhawks rush their development at the pro level? Probably. Did they roll the dice allowing them to learn on the job? Absolutely.

Yet look at the dividends paid: Two Stanley Cups.

As Ron Hextall faces his new job as general manager of the Flyers, he does so with this one piece of essential, albeit embarrassing, knowledge: Since the current decade began, the Flyers are the only NHL club without a single drafted/developed defenseman on their roster playing for them.

That has to change and change quickly, especially given the current crop of talent in the Flyers' organization in Robert Hagg, Shayne Gostisbehere and Samuel Morin.

Is that a priority for Hextall?

“Yeah, it is,” Hextall said on Wednesday. “We got Kjell Samuelsson on our development team now and he’s worked with some of the young defensemen this year. We saw Morin and Gostisbehere a lot. Went to Sweden for Robert Hagg. It’s a huge priority.

“The one thing that hasn’t changed in my mind is build through the middle. Your goaltender, your defense, your centermen. You have to be strong there or you can’t win. ... You can’t win in the playoffs without defense and goaltending.”

That Chris Therien, who played a decade for the Flyers on the blue line, remains the organization’s lone drafted/developed blue liner of any pedigree or longevity is a reason why we’re coming up on 40 years without a Stanley Cup.

The Flyers have traded some good D-men away, too. Dennis Seidenberg, Joni Pitkanen and Luca Sbisa, who was the centerpiece of the trade for Chris Pronger, a trade that was well worth doing.

To their credit, the Flyers tried hard to get Shea Weber and Ryan Suter to fill the void of not being able to promote one of their own on defense. Yet they failed.

“The problem is, if something does come along, a No. 1 defenseman, you are giving up two or three young players or two or three draft picks,” Hextall said.

“You fill one hole and create three or four others. That’s the one thing -- trying to get all those holes filled at the same time. In cap world, you are always going to have a weakness. You want the weakness on the wing. That’s how I think.”

It remains unknown whether any of the Flyers' current defensive prospects will be on their NHL roster next fall. Club chairman Ed Snider said last week he wants the team to be more aggressive in pushing the developmental envelope.

Some people think Hagg, who been playing in Sweden, is the closest to playing right now. Others think it’s Gostisbehere, who was nothing short of sensational playing in Philadelphia during the NCAA Frozen Four.

The lack of defensive prospects in the eight years he was GM falls on Paul Holmgren. Things likely would have been much different had Pronger played through his contract instead of being forced onto long-term injury indefinitely with post-concussion syndrome.

Had Pronger played, there would be far less attention to the defense.

Holmgren admits that deal still sticks with him.

“We've talked about that, we talked about it [Tuesday],” Holmgren said. “ Not the 'what if,' but we gave up a lot to get Chris. In fact, I asked Ron. He was in Los Angeles when we made that trade. I said, 'What'd you think of that trade?'

“'Was it steep?' he said, 'Yeah, but that's the only way you were going to get him.' Then we talked about how nice it would've been to have him this year ... you try not to dwell on those things but every once and a while they come up.”

Ever since Pronger’s playing career ended in November 2011, the Flyers have been trying unsuccessfully to fill his void.

It’s impossible to replace a future Hall of Famer.

“Probably the only way you're going to get that guy [impact defenseman] is to draft for him,” Holmgren said. “Who knows, maybe we have him. Maybe Sam Morin or Robert Hagg, or Gostisbehere. Maybe he's going to be in this draft. Who knows?”

The Flyers are very shallow in their overall organizational chart in terms of draft picks playing for them right now with the Phantoms. Again, it’s unacceptable.

Holmgren had a conversation with Hextall this season during an AHL game.

“I can remember watching a Phantoms game with him earlier in the year and he said, 'How many draft picks do we have playing in this game?’” Holmgren recalled.

“Honest question, right? I think I said, 'Four?' [Nick] Cousins was there and we were counting free-agent guys that we brought in, not young guys or older guys that we brought in from other organizations.

“I think we had four or five. He just mentioned that, and the team that we were playing against that night had 12. So we've got to get better at that. He mentioned it today that we have to keep our draft picks and we've got to do a better job in that regard and he's right, we do.”

For years, the Flyers traded away second-round draft picks like they were free lollipops. Which is why Andreas Nodl was the last one of any consequence who actually played for them.

The Flyers' draft record in the second round is nothing to be proud of since so many of them have been cast aside.

“The other thing that we have to get better at is development,” Holmgren said. “[Hextall] has gone out of his way to help with that development side. In the limited amount of time he's been here, he has hired a guy to work with the forwards that we drafted in our organization, not playing for the Phantoms, but in our organization.

“He gets on the ice with them and does work, and when time allows Kjell Samuelsson works with our defensemen. He's been out seeing Gostisbehere, Sammy Morin. It's not that we weren't doing these things prior to that, but just not to the level we are now. Instead of having one player up top, now we have two. There’s been some changes that have been ideas of his and I guess a result of the forcefulness of him getting those ideas across.”

This is one part of “culture change,” as some say, which has to change under Hextall.

He says it will.

We’ll see.

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