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.

10 Flyers-Devils observations: Travis Konecny impresses

10 Flyers-Devils observations: Travis Konecny impresses

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The Flyers on Wednesday night took to the PPL Center — home of the AHL affiliate Phantoms — to give fans an early glimpse of the organization’s young talent, much of which will play on a nightly basis in Lehigh Valley.

One player that may reach Philadelphia before he ever lands in Lehigh Valley did not disappoint as the evening’s main attraction.

In his quest to make the Flyers’ roster at 19 years old, heralded prospect Travis Konecny scored a goal and tallied an assist to lead the orange and black past the Devils, 2-0, in their fourth preseason game, improving to 2-2.

Let’s dive into the action with 10 observations from the game:

1. We start with who else? Konecny. Head coach Dave Hakstol paired the talented winger with Brayden Schenn and Michael Raffl, two of the few NHLers to suit up Wednesday. Konecny jumped all over the opportunity, deflecting an Andrew MacDonald shot for a goal 4:30 into the second period. Just shy of five minutes after, he delivered a pretty touch pass to Raffl in front for a 2-0 lead. Konecny just narrowly missed adding another goal and assist, as well, later in the stanza. You know when he’s on the ice because you’ll see bursts of unmatched speed. 

The 5-foot-10, 184-pounder is incredibly shifty with the puck and adept at avoiding contact. At times, he’ll get pushed around when a bigger body squares him up, but he makes up for it with his elusiveness. The 2015 first-round pick sure played the part of an NHL player ready to contribute to a team in need of playmaking.

2. Samuel Morin is a big boy. The 6-foot-7 defenseman really utilizes his tall frame and upper-body strength when battling along the boards. Obviously he needs to work on his skating and puck handling, but he has the size and makeup to compete.

3. Goalies Anthony Stolarz and Alex Lyon will duke it out for playing time in Lehigh Valley. It’s an impressive tandem. Both combined for the shutout. Stolarz, 6-foot-6, made eight saves in the opening period and 11 total over 29:23. He showed good quickness and instincts. Lyon, not so big at 6-foot-1, is sound and holds records for his time at Yale. He converted seven saves. It’s a duo worth keeping tabs on throughout the season.

4. Forward Colin McDonald will be a nice safety net for the Flyers if they ever need a body willing to bring nothing but physicality. He made loud, impactful hits and had a fight — albeit a short and weak one — early in the first period.

5. Defenseman Mark Alt lost a fight quickly in the second period. He may have lost his balance, but he went down hard. Alt appeared fine when he got up. However, he never returned to the game.

6. The Flyers killed two power plays on the night. The PK continued to show more aggressiveness and disruptiveness on the puck carrier, which wasn’t always the case last season. It’s a big reason the Flyers fell in such a big hole against the Capitals during the playoffs. So far this preseason, the Flyers are 16 for 17 on the penalty kill.

7. Along with Schenn, Raffl and MacDonald, other Flyers to play were Boyd Gordon and Chris VandeVelde, who handled themselves well, as expected. Defensive prospect Robert Hagg had an assist, as did Schenn and MacDonald.

8. Keith Kinkaid was in net for the Devils. He’s expected to be New Jersey’s backup netminder. The 27-year-old is 15-14-5 in his career with a 2.71 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. Not crazy stuff, but still a goalie with NHL experience. However …

9. The Devils visit the Rangers Thursday night, so they too deployed a fair share of prospects, resulting in Kinkaid without a ton of help.

10. The PPL Center is a beautiful venue and should be a hot-spot for Flyers fans throughout the 2016-17 season. The trip is doable, parking is accessible and cheap and the arena doesn’t sport a bad seat. The Phantoms should be fun with added experience and talent.

Radko Gudas shooting pucks, 'pretty close' to 100 percent

Radko Gudas shooting pucks, 'pretty close' to 100 percent

VOORHEES, N.J. — Injured Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas is getting closer to returning to game action.

Gudas, recovering from a fractured right wrist (his shooting hand), has been cleared to shoot pucks for the past couple of days and was shooting and hitting in practice Wednesday at Flyers Skate Zone. He has yet to play in a preseason game but said he’s “pretty close” to 100 percent.
 
“I can’t say it’s really 100 percent, but it’s getting there soon,” Gudas said following practice.
 
“There’s a lot of time for me to get in top, game-like shape. There’s not a chance I would miss the start of the season.”
 
Gudas said the most important aspect of the healing process is keeping his wrist stable by wearing a brace to limit too much movement.
 
“It’s better. I’m shooting on it in practice — feels better every day,” he said. “I’m working on a lot of it every day with the strength guys and the doctors here. We’re going day to day, I’m seeing myself sooner than later jumping on the ice.”
 
The second-year Flyer would like to play in preseason games before the start of the regular season but also understands the importance of not rushing to avoid costing him regular-season games.
 
“That’s the main part — feeling pain-free,” Gudas said. “Throughout the season, there’s not a lot of time off so we need to make sure everything is the best it can be before the season starts.
 
“Obviously it’s going to be the coaches’ decision when to put me in. I’m sure they’re talking with the staff for when would be the proper time.”
 
The 26-year-old Gudas signed a four-year contract extension in June after playing a career-high 76 games and recording 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 2015-16.
 
After practice, Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol did not have an update on Gudas or defenseman Nick Schultz, who was shaken up Tuesday night. The Flyers announced prior to Wednesday's preseason game that Schultz is out four to seven days with a lower-body injury.

As for Gudas himself ...
 
“Everybody wants to play at least a game or two before the season,” Gudas said. “I don’t think it needs to be said.
 
“[Hakstol] wants to have me ready and I want to be ready.”