This was Ron Hextall’s first summer offseason as the new Flyers general manager, after assuming the job from Paul Holmgren, now club president, last spring.
CSNPhilly.com sat down with Hextall recently to discuss the state of the franchise going into the 2014-15 season.
This is the first of a four-part interview with Hextall:
When you tally up the additions and subtractions, including the loss of Kimmo Timonen, is this team better, worse or about the same from last season’s group?
Hextall: We should be better. Obviously, Kimmo is the one part you look at and it’s hard to gauge. If you look at our young group of forwards, we should be better than we were last year up front. If we can maintain on defense and [Michael] Del Zotto comes in and gives us a bump, and Nick Schultz is built as a solid player. Losing Kimmo is a tough one on and off the ice. He’s such a pro. We’ll see it. I’ve said I really like our team. There certainly wasn’t a need for sweeping changes. I believe in the group.
Without Timonen, but with Del Zotto and Schultz, is your defense improved over last year?
Hextall: It’s fair to say, our D, you take Kimmo off the ice, yeah, we’re losing something. No doubt about it. But we need to get by that and we have to be a better group. Our defense has to be better than last year. Our forwards have to be better. We’re going to demand that. We’re not demanding something that is unrealistic. We added a young guy in Del Zotto who can move and skate the puck. Our forwards are young and they have to be better.
Del Zotto, like Gustafsson, skates the puck well, but under pressure he cracks a little.
Hextall: You’re watching a little part where he was struggling, and admittedly, didn’t play the type of hockey he is capable of playing. If you’re taking it on that, a couple years ago he had 41 points and it’s a little bit of a different story. If you see Player X playing and he is at the down point of his year, you might not think he’s a good player, he’s having a terrible year, my God, this guy can’t even play. He comes back the next year and you go, 'Wow, he’s a pretty good player.'
Michael has admitted he had a down year [with the Rangers and Predators]. We look at a young player like Michael Del Zotto coming into the NHL at his age. He has a lot of money. He’s got fame, he’s got people wanting to spend time with him and thinking he’s a big deal. Any 20-21-22- or 23-year-old, it’s pretty easy to get off the rails. I think that is what happened to him. I think in two years, he will look back and say, 'It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I regained my focus and what is important.'
Sounds a little like Steve Mason’s experience.
Hextall: Well, it’s so hard. These kids come in and get so much money and so much fame, you’re living in New York City and we expect them to be what we call, 'pros.' No. They’re in a process at 20-21-22 years old, figuring out what it is to be a pro.
Everyone at that stage of life, we didn't all have the fame and money and everything else. Sometimes we don't spend enough time teaching young people what is right and wrong and how not to get off track. That's why you see a lot of teams with development coaches. That's part of their job. Grab the kids when they are 18 years old and teach them what it is to be a pro and what the expectations are and expedite the process. ... You go from being a junior hockey player playing in front of 3,000 people and riding a bus to playing at Madison Square Garden or Wells Fargo in front of 19,000 people. You’re in the NHL, in front of Hockey Night in Canada. It’s ... national TV. It’s a big adjustment for any kid in any walk of life. It’s a lot tougher than people think. These young people have to grow up in a hurry.
Did you set out to accomplish all you had planned this offseason or did circumstances -- contracts, salary cap, injuries -- impede you from doing everything you wanted?
Hextall: You are always trying to make your team better. So I don’t look at it as if I did everything I would have liked to do. I don’t know if there will ever be a summer where you say, 'I didn’t do everything I [wanted] to do.' Your focus is trying to make the team better every day through different avenues. We had a productive summer. I like some of the things we did. You’re never satisfied.
If someone gave you a “wish list,” what would be No. 1 right now?
Hextall: I think you can improve in all areas. Up front, you’d like to have one more guy who makes plays. In the back end, you’d like to have that prototypical, No. 1 defenseman.
Sean Couturier could someday be a legit Selke candidate because of his defensive, shutdown ability. Yet a Selke candidate has to show some offense too, and he seems content with “defense first.” Do you feel you are getting enough offense out of a guy who had back-to-back 96-point seasons in junior? He’s capable of a lot more.
Hextall: I agree 100 percent. I’ve talked about that this summer. Our biggest upside is up front with Brayden [Schenn] and Sean. Sean, you love what he does, the unselfishness, the team first, loving the challenge of playing against the other team’s top line. That’s awesome stuff.
Typically, a young player learns the defensive part after the offensive part. Coots in juniors was equally good on offense as defense, but up here, obviously, his defensive game is ahead of his offensive game. There’s another level. A couple of levels for Coots and you’re damn right, we expect it. He needs to push harder north. It’s a little bit of a mentality, a little bit of an attitude, but there’s going to be expectations placed on him that haven’t been [there] up to this point. He’s a young player and rightfully so, there has not been expectations from him to produce at a high level, but he’s been in the league long enough now where he needs to push the bar, offensively.