Flyers prospects buying into Ron Hextall's patience

Flyers prospects buying into Ron Hextall's patience

When Sam Morin and Robert Hagg returned from their respective NHL debuts with the Flyers, Phantoms coach Scott Gordon sensed something different right away, and it had nothing to do with their performance on the ice.

"The smiles were bigger," Gordon said Wednesday. "There's no questions about that. It's just one game but until you actually play that first game, I think as a player, you're waiting and you're hoping, and what if it doesn't happen? And when you get that first game, it's a load off your shoulders. I'm sure they were walking a little bit lighter."

For both guys, it was like a sample you receive walking through Costco. Next season, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall will likely have both defensemen buying in bulk as they take on a bigger load after Hextall said last week the team will go younger as they replace free agents Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz (see story)

But the timeline would test any young player's patience.

"Yeah, that's [Hextall's] philosophy and I agree with it 100 percent," Hagg said. "You need to be good down here (AHL) in order to have a chance at the NHL. You need to relax and realize you have young players down here and take our time to develop. When we're ready, we'll get a shot."

No other Flyers defensive prospect has as much AHL experience as the 22-year-old Hagg, who has logged 192 games. 

"You look at a guy like Robert, who's been here for three years -- it would be very easy to say, 'Jesus, it's just not going to happen here,'" Gordon said. "But he needed every bit of those three years to get to where he is now, and he's probably the most consistent defenseman out of our group. He doesn't have the amazing numbers offensively, but what he does in our defensive zone, on our penalty kill, how he gets up into the play, how he's improved his puck skills -- it's been a process."

Twenty-eight of the 30 first-round picks from the 2013 draft had already broken into the league by the time Morin (drafted 11th overall) made his debut.

"You see all those guys get their chance, but I'm not frustrated," Morin said. "I know my time's going to come. I didn't want to go to the NHL and not get better because I wasn't playing a lot. In juniors, I got a lot of ice time, here I've gotten a lot of ice time and I've gotten better every day and still getting better."

Now Hagg, Morin and 2014 first-round pick Travis Sanheim will be the defensive pillars in the Phantoms' first playoff appearance since 2009. The 6-foot-7 Morin, who's been compared endlessly to that of Hall of Famer Chris Pronger, feels there's room (in his game) to grow. 

"I'm still young," he said, "and when you see me in five years in the NHL, you're going to be like, 'That time in the AHL was worth it.'"

Doors open for Flyers' prospects as they close on Nick Schultz, Michael Del Zotto

Doors open for Flyers' prospects as they close on Nick Schultz, Michael Del Zotto

VOORHEES, N.J. -- Ron Hextall last month said the Flyers want to "get better every year, get younger every year."

They did not get better this season.

They did, however, take a step toward getting younger for next season when Nick Schultz and Michael Del Zotto left their exit interviews at Flyers Skate Zone.

To no surprise, the two blueliners strapped with expiring contracts were told on Tuesday they would not be re-signed this offseason.

Schultz turns 35 years old in August, while Del Zotto will be 27 in June. Both saw the writing on the wall with the Flyers' stable of defensive prospects not far from the NHL doorstep.

As the Flyers watch the playoffs for the third time in the last five seasons, Hextall will look to get younger, as promised.

"He thanked me for my time; I thanked him for the opportunity," Del Zotto said. "We both talked about which way the organization's going. I think it's no secret with what's happening here and we ended on that note."

Schultz, a veteran of 15 seasons (three with the Flyers) and contemplating retirement, had the same message.

"Obviously, I kind of know where I'm at -- contract's done and I know the young guys here in the system," Schultz said. "They are going to turn to those guys. Just kind of move on and move forward."

Del Zotto spent three seasons with the Flyers but was limited to 52 games in 2015-16 and 51 in 2016-17 because of injuries, which resulted in a shrunken role.

"It's unfortunate, a little emotional," he said. "I've been here for three years, have made some great friendships. Obviously, there was a little up and down and very frustrating at times. You understand the business and you learn that at a very young age. You see where this team's at -- a lot of young guys coming up on the back end."

This leaves two jobs for the taking on defense. Another could open, courtesy of the Vegas Golden Knights and the June expansion draft (i.e. Brandon Manning, Andrew MacDonald). The departures also loosen Hextall's pockets a bit. This season, Del Zotto carried a $3.875 million cap hit and Schultz $2.25 million.

So, who's in line for the vacancies?

We saw two auditions last week in the NHL debuts of 21-year-old Sam Morin and 22-year-old Robert Hagg. Both were drafted in 2013 and have developed at Hextall's preferred pace. Morin is 6-foot-7 and strong along the boards. Hagg possesses a sound two-way game with good size at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds. The pair owns a combined five seasons of experience at AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley.

"They're great players, they've got lots of talent down in the AHL," 20-year-old defenseman Ivan Provorov said. "They've got a great team. Hopefully they'll go deep in the playoffs. It'd be a good experience for them but it's definitely exciting -- we've got a great team here and lots of talent everywhere else, juniors and AHL."

Including Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers. Last summer, Hextall acclaimed Sanheim for his physical growth since being drafted in 2014. The 21-year-old is an offense-oriented defenseman who has put up 35 points (10 goals, 25 assists) in his first season with the Phantoms. Myers is only 20 years old and still playing at the junior ranks, but impressed greatly through training camp and preseason, when he stuck around longer than anticipated.

T.J. Brennan and Reece Willcox should be in the mix, as well, come fall.

What's prevalent is the Flyers will have options and competition for spots to join the likes of Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere, both budding in their own right.

"We've got [several] free agents this year, so we'll probably have a little bit of turnover," Wayne Simmonds said. "There's a lot of younger guys in Lehigh that are high on the radar and they're really good players. I'm expecting a lot of young kids to be coming up and things to change a little bit."

Schultz and Del Zotto were the start.

"When kids are younger now and growing up, they are training sooner and doing more at a young age," Schultz said. 

"Obviously there's a learning process playing in the NHL and playing a full 82-game season. It's a process, but it's something where those young guys are developing a lot quicker and are ready to play when they come in."

An NHL debut worth the wait for Flyers prospect Robert Hagg

An NHL debut worth the wait for Flyers prospect Robert Hagg

Game 82 was meaningless for the Flyers, but it meant the world to Robert Hagg.

With the emotions from playing his first NHL game starting to sink in, Hagg's voice grew somewhat shaky following Sunday night's 4-3 shootout loss to the Hurricanes (see game story).

The native of Sweden thought about the phone call to his family on Saturday after he received word that the Flyers were calling him up from AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley.

Nothing would top those emotions.

"It's a dream come true," Hagg said. "I've been dreaming about this since I was kid. Tears and laughs from both sides on the phone."

A joyful time for the 22-year-old defenseman, who had participated in four Flyers development camps and parts of four AHL seasons with the Phantoms before getting his shot.

In July, Hagg talked about an oblique injury he suffered during the 2015-16 season that resulted in missed playing time and a deteriorated confidence.

"When I came back, I couldn't put it together," he said then. "I don't know what happened. So I had to start all over."

This summer, feeling recuperated and rejuvenated, he set his sights on the Flyers.

"That was the goal for the year," he said Sunday. "I reached it."

In the wee hours of the season, no less.

"Now I know how it feels to be out there," Hagg said. "I know it's Game 82, and the game is probably not the way coaches want it to be played, but I had a lot fun out there.

"The speed is different, the guys are more skilled, stronger on the puck, so you have to be pretty alert."

Hagg played 21:19, doled out a team-high four hits and blocked three shots. He was easy to see, and not because he was wearing No. 48 -- a popular jersey number among fans thanks to Danny Briere. Hagg has good size at 6-foot-2 and a steadiness to his game. He was paired with Shayne Gostisbehere, but also took some shifts with Ivan Provorov.

It appeared to be an audition of sorts, albeit just one game.

"Solid play," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. "I thought it was solid, strong play. Confident player. I thought he defended pretty well. It didn't take him very long to settle into the hockey game. He defended well. He moved well. I thought he supports the play really well. He showed real good confidence. So overall, it was a nice start for him."

Hagg, a 2013 draft pick, became the third rookie to make an NHL debut this week for the Flyers, joining Sam Morin and Mike Vecchione. Maybe the Flyers can take some solace in that as they pack up for the offseason with no playoff berth for the third time in the last five seasons (see 10 observations).

"I think Hagger played great tonight," Wayne Simmonds said. "Big Sam got in the other night, he played great. Vex played pretty well the two games he played, too, so we know we're going to have a lot of young guys coming in and I think that'll be a good thing."

Flyers player development coach Kjell Samuelsson and Phantoms assistant coach Kerry Huffman have played an important role in the maturation of the organization's prospects. 

Given Hagg's road has been one of greater bumps and distance, he's grateful for both coaches helping him grow.

"Huge part of it," Hagg said. "Especially Kjell, I've been working with Kjell now for three years and he's been on me basically every day to do stuff, so they've been a huge part of it."

Hagg also credited his new NHL teammates with assists.

"They just told me to play my game, go out there and have fun and try to relax as much as I could," he said. "It's Game 82, last game of the year, told me no pressure at all. Try to calm me down. They did a good job, all the guys were really good with me."

He'll see many of them in training camp next fall. The Flyers are expected to have at least two jobs open on defense, and Hagg will be near the forefront of the conversation.

For now, though, he'll soak in this April night.

"It was awesome," he said. "It's a dream come true to become a player in the NHL, play one game -- right now, I want to go out and play many more, but I'll have to wait for next season to see how it goes."

With Hagg, waiting shouldn't be a problem.

Back to the Phantoms
On Monday morning, Hagg and goalie Anthony Stolarz were loaned back to the Phantoms. 

The Flyers have played out their string of games, while Lehigh Valley is on the verge of clinching an AHL playoff berth, so the move is far from a surprise. The Phantoms are second in the Atlantic Division and their magic number is down to one point to clinch a playoff berth with three games left to play.