Hextall: Developing prospects a 'huge priority'

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Hextall: Developing prospects a 'huge priority'

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.

Are we there yet? Philly Sports Talk examines the state of the Flyers

Are we there yet? Philly Sports Talk examines the state of the Flyers

All week on Philly Sports Talk on CSN, we examine how our teams got to this point and where they are in the rebuilding process. 
 
Today, we finish up by taking a look at the Flyers.

 
How did we get here?
The Flyers' rebuild had begun when Ron Hextall returned to his old stomping grounds in the summer of 2013 as the team's new assistant general manager.
 
He took over GM duties after one season and the philosophical change was in place. Paul Holmgren was made president and Hextall's imprint, which had already started, was ready to become bigger.
 
What Hextall inherited was a cap-stricken team fresh off a first-round playoff loss, an organization that had tried to spend its way to immediate results instead of putting greater focus on the long game.
 
Some of the past decisions are well-documented: signing enigmatic goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million deal in 2011 after trading for him. With a buyout, the Flyers are still paying Bryzgalov through 2027. Signing veteran center Vinny Lecavalier to a five-year, $22.5 million contract in 2013. And signing imposing defenseman Chris Pronger to a seven-year, $34.55 million extension — nobody could foresee the unfortunate concussion issues that suddenly derailed Pronger's career, but it was nonetheless a hurdle for the Flyers moving forward.
 
Hextall has adeptly maneuvered through much of those rocky waters.
 
Now, the Flyers are a more cost-efficient (partly because they have to be in this salary cap world), draft-oriented organization planning for the future while not ignoring the present. This rebuild hasn't been a total demolition, but more of a retooling — a smart but tricky process, especially down the line.
 
Are the Flyers on the right path back to prosperity?
The youth is coming.
 
Hextall, oftentimes close to the vest, made that abundantly clear at his end-of-the-season press conference.
 
"Our young players, they've done enough," Hextall said in early April. "Our young players are going to get a long look. We don't plan on going out and signing veterans on the back end. Our kids, it's time to give them a shot, and we're going to do that."
 
But the really hard part is just beginning — results. Can the prospects catch up and meet the current core? The pressure for it to start has never been higher.
 
Help does appear to be on the way, though, for a team that regressed this season and missed the playoffs for the third time in the past five years.
 
Anthony Stolarz, Alex Lyon, Felix Sandstrom and Carter Hart give the Flyers future options in net.
 
Two promising prospects are expected to join Ivan Provorov, Shayne Gostisbehere and company on the blue line.
 
Oskar Lindblom, a dynamic 20-year-old winger, could crack the Flyers' group of forwards, which should have Jordan Weal and Valtteri Filppula for a full season.
 
Also, don't forget forward Mike Vecchione, a Hobey Baker finalist who signed with the Flyers out of Union College in late March.
 
Oh, and the No. 2 pick of the draft — likely a talented center — is in the Flyers' grasp.
 
The 2017-18 season will be a telling time for the Flyers. Patience has been required, but when will it be rewarded?
 
The clock is ticking.

NHL Notes: Penguins, Senators have chance at history in Game 7

NHL Notes: Penguins, Senators have chance at history in Game 7

PITTSBURGH -- Craig Anderson is a realist, the byproduct of 15 years playing the most demanding position in the NHL.

The Ottawa goaltender would like to chalk his 45-save masterpiece in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh up to his own brilliance. He knows that's not exactly the case.

"I think you need to be a little bit lucky to be good at times," Anderson said.

Ottawa has relied on a bit of both during its deepest playoff run in a decade and Anderson helped force Game 7 Thursday night. Yet here the Senators are, alive and still skating with a chance to eliminate the deeper, more experienced and more explosive Stanley Cup champions.

So much for the series being over after the Penguins destroyed Ottawa 7-0 in Game 5.

"I think, if you believe you're beaten, you're done already," Anderson said. "If you believe that you can win, there's always a chance."

All the Senators have to do to reach the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history is take down one of the league's marquee franchises on the road in a building where they were beaten by a touchdown last time out.

No pressure or anything. Really. The Senators weren't supposed to be here. Then again, in a way neither were the Penguins. No team has repeated in nearly two decades and at times during the season and even during the playoffs this group was too beat up. Too tired from last spring's Cup run. The bullseye on their backs too big.

Yet they've survived behind the brilliance of stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, coach Mike Sullivan's impeccable decisions and a resiliency that has them one game from being the first Cup champion to return to the finals since Detroit in 2009.

Those Red Wings, by the way, fell to the Penguins in seven games. There have been several Game 7s for Pittsburgh in the interim on both sides of the ledger, though the Penguins are 2-0 in Game 7s under Sullivan. They edged Tampa Bay in Game 7 of last year's East finals and clinically disposed of Presidents' Trophy winner Washington in Game 7 of the second round earlier this month (see full story).

Predators: Goalie Rinne on smothering run
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Knocking the smile off Pekka Rinne's face right now is nearly impossible.

The longest-tenured player with the Nashville Predators, the 34-year-old goaltender finally will play in his first Stanley Cup Final in his ninth full NHL season.

"As a player, I feel like I've had a fairly long career and never had this opportunity," Rinne said. "So very fortunate and really appreciate this opportunity. I guess as a player you just enjoy being in this position. Enjoy the chance that you get, and you put your body on the line every night and give everything you have."

Teammates call the 6-foot-5 Finn the backbone of the Predators, and he's probably the best goalie in the world at the moment. He handles the puck like an extra defenseman. He foils the dump-and-chase efforts of opponents. And, oh, is he good in front of the net, aggressive with forwards in the crease, seeing seemingly everything and occasionally making saves with a Dominik Hasek-like contortion.

Not only is Rinne a playoff-best 12-4, his .945 save percentage ranks third all-time for a single postseason behind a pair of Conn Smythe Trophy winners in Jean-Sebastien Giguere for Anaheim in 2003 and Jonathan Quick for Los Angeles in 2012, according to HockeyReference.com. Rinne's 1.70 goals-against average is 10th all-time for one postseason.

"What he does every night, you can't put into words," Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said (see full story).

Blues: Sydor returns to Blues as assistant
ST. LOUIS -- Darryl Sydor has returned to the St. Louis Blues as an assistant coach under mentor Mike Yeo.

Sydor agreed to a three-year deal Wednesday.

The 45-year-old Sydor finished his 18-year NHL playing career with the Blues in 2009-10, then broke into coaching as Yeo's assistant the next season with the American Hockey League's Houston Aeros. Sydor went with Yeo to Minnesota and spent five years with the Wild before working as an assistant last season with the Blues' then-Chicago affiliate in the AHL.

Sydor was a defenseman for Los Angeles, Dallas, Columbus, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, winning Stanley Cup titles with Dallas and Tampa Bay.

Coyotes: Cunningham hired as pro scout
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Coyotes have hired Craig Cunningham as a pro scout and say he will assist with player development.

General manager John Chayka announced the two-year contract Wednesday that allows Cunningham to remain in hockey.

Cunningham collapsed on the ice with a cardiac disturbance prior to a game Nov. 19 while playing for the American Hockey League's Tucson Roadrunners and required emergency life-saving care. He had part of his left leg amputated and saw his playing career end.

But the 26-year-old who was captain of the Roadrunners last season says he's excited to start the next chapter of his hockey career in the Coyotes' front office. Chayka called Cunningham a "smart, hard-working player with an incredible passion for the game" that he believes will translate to his new job.