This is the third segment of a four-part Q&A with Ron Hextall, who just completed his first summer offseason in Philadelphia as the Flyers’ general manager.
When I asked you in June if you felt your hands were tied in what you could do in free agency because of contracts and salary cap, you downplayed it. Now that it’s all over, how much were you hampered?
Hextall: I think I said on July 1 after seeing some of those deals, not having any space may have been a good thing [laughing]. When you don’t have space, you don’t have space. But part of not having space is that we have a pretty good hockey team. If we didn’t have a good team and didn’t have any space, then we have a problem. But when you have a good team and no space, I can live with that. I didn’t have a problem with July 1. I really didn’t. Would I have liked to have taken a shot at a couple guys? Yeah, but we couldn’t. We have to find other ways to get better. That was our focus. [Nick] Schultz was a good acquisition. [Michael] Del Zotto was a good acquisition. We’ll see about [Pierre-Edouard] Bellemare and guys like that. We did the things we can do within the parameters of what we had and we feel we got better. If our guys are all in better shape with another year under their belts … Mase [Steve Mason] took a step last year and he’s got to continue. I’m excited where we are at. Like I said, landing the one free agent? I’d rather lock our core in here than land a free agent and have to sign a really good player who’s been here for a while to a short-term deal. I’d rather get the core locked in and work around that rather than the opposite.
Since you mention Bellemare, is he a potential Michael Raffl in your mind?
Hextall: He’s going to have to come over here and show that. Our guys really liked him. Good size, he can skate, he’s a smart player. He can score. Yeah, I think he has a chance of being a really good player. In saying that, coming from the big ice to the smaller ice, it’s a big transition. We’ll see how he comes into camp and how quickly he transitions to smaller ice.
How frustrating was it not to resolve the [Vinny] Lecavalier situation?
Hextall: Vinny is on our team and he’s going to be on our team and that’s the reality. So, we’re gonna do everything we can to put Vinny in a position to be successful. Vinny has to come back and play better 200 feet of hockey than he did last year. He did some good things. No doubt about it. He scored 20 goals which in this day and age is nothing to scoff at. I think he had 37 points. Those are decent numbers. There are just areas of his game where he has to be better.
Does Lecavalier have to mentally accept he will not play center?
Hextall: I don’t know where that is going to shake out. I really don’t know where he’s going to play – center, left or right wing. I know he’s not going to play defense and he’s not going to play goal. But I can say the same thing about Brayden Schenn -- whether he will play the middle or the wing, we don’t have that resolved yet. That is going to be a work in progress. And we’re going to have to monitor where we have chemistry. The one thing from last year ... We had Simmer [Wayne Simmonds], Schenn and Vinny or Raffl or whoever else was on that line, there wasn’t great chemistry. We've got to find a way to get some chemistry there. Whether a player or two has to change on that line, we have to find some chemistry, some guys who fit together better.
When you toss in Timonen’s injury and Claude Giroux’s embarrassing moment [with the law], Lecavalier, the cap, etc., how challenging has this summer been and what have you learned from it?
Hextall: Things happen with people and they make mistakes. You have to adjust and be flexible in this game. Sometimes your thinking one day because of circumstance can’t be your thinking the next day. All of a sudden, we hear about Kimmo and think, "holy smokes." You think about him as a person and hope he’ll be OK and then you hope he can play and the third thing you look at is, "oh boy, if he can’t play, we got to make our club better." There was a guy out there who we liked [Del Zotto] and had been talking along the way. Not like all of a sudden it happened to Kimmo and let’s grab Del Zotto. We had been talking to him all along. You are always going to have challenges as a manager. Things don’t always go the way you want them to. We see that every year in pro sports. You have to have your foundation and beliefs. But you gotta adjust and be flexible.
Not getting that No. 1 pick in the draft so you could take [Aaron] Ekblad, was that tough to swallow this summer? [Florida general manager Dale] Tallon says that deal was almost done.
Hextall: You try as hard as you can in every area to make your team better. You know what? If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. You gotta stick with your beliefs. You’re trying to make a deal or sign a free agent, you got to get to a point where you are comfortable. If you are uncomfortable, it doesn’t happen. You might talk about 50 deals before you make a deal. Deals are hard to make.
We’re about to become 40 years removed from the last Stanley Cup won here. Can you sense the anger, impatience and frustration of the fans better as a GM than you could as a player?
Hextall: It wasn’t 40 years out when I was a player, which was a little different. Forty years without a Cup? But 40 pretty successful years when you look at it. Teams say we’ve been this long without a Cup, but this has been a successful franchise for 40 years. If I were a fan and it has not been a successful franchise where he had a chance to win a Cup and we had been to the Finals … We’ve done everything but win [that next] Cup. It’s a fine line between winning and losing. Do I feel the frustration more?
The city is starved for a Cup.
Hextall: Everybody wants a championship. It’s really what it is all about. That’s why I am in it. I am in it to win championships. You talk to our players and they’ll say the same thing: Here to win a championship. That’s the ultimate. The other things that come along with it, the lifestyle, the money, when you get done your career and look back and say, I had a great career, had fun, and I won a championship. That’s what it is all about. As frustrated as the fans are, we get frustrated, too. It’s human nature. This has been a successful franchise. Don’t lose sight of that. I won’t name anybody, but there are other franchises that have not won for a long time, never won and never been successful. That’s where if I were fan, I’d be frustrated. Not the Philadelphia Flyers … This organization is 100 percent committed to winning. If I am a fan, that is the important thing.
Where do you think this team or organization is right now to winning that next Cup?
Hextall: It’s a hard question. The thing I look at and my focus right now is to get us into that elite group. I will say I don’t think we’re with that elite group but that doesn’t mean we can’t win. You can fricking win. It comes down to will and everything else. The Rangers are a good example. Are they in that group right now where we say, "OK, these are the top few teams in the league that can win the Cup?" … We want to get into that elite group and I believe we are headed in that direction. It’s tough to put a time [table] on it.
Speaking of, where is your [L.A. Kings Cup] ring? You don’t wear it?
Hextall: No, I don’t.
Because you’re with the Flyers now?
Hextall: I never wore it when I was there [in Los Angeles]. I don’t know why.
Is it because you never won as a player and should have?
Hextall: If I won it as a player, I probably wouldn’t wear that ring, either.