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.'"

Phantoms set to showcase future Flyers in AHL playoffs

Phantoms set to showcase future Flyers in AHL playoffs

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- The Delaware Valley may be experiencing playoff withdrawal, but it's definitely getting a taste of it in the Lehigh Valley.

The Phantoms have returned to the AHL postseason for the first time since 2009, the franchise's final season at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.

"Everywhere you go, people are talking about it," head coach Scott Gordon said Wednesday. "It's great for our organization, great for our players. I think every player benefits from playing in the playoffs on a bigger stage and against tougher competition."

The Phantoms will host their first-round best-of-five series against the Hershey Bears, last season's Calder Cup finalist, who finished four points behind Lehigh Valley in the standings. The two regional rivals squared off a whopping 12 times during the regular season, with the Phantoms winning the series, 7-4-1. The new series starts Friday with puck drop at 7:05 p.m.

"They're a big rival," defenseman Sam Morin said. "It's going to be a good series. We learned to hate each other, that's for sure. I think they have a really good team and we have a really good team. It's gonna be fun."

More impressive was the Phantoms' one-year turnaround that saw Gordon's team go from 12th place in the Atlantic Division to second place with 101 points, marking a 26-point improvement.

"It's a resilient group," captain Colin McDonald said. "I think we learned a lot from last year. It was a tough year. We had a lot of young guys last year. I thought they made the commitment from Day 1 of summer to put themselves in position to try and make the playoffs."

With Anthony Stolarz lost for the season, the Phantoms now will be leaning heavily on goaltender Alex Lyon, who led Lehigh Valley in starts, wins, goals against and save percentage in his first season coming from Yale University. 

"It was a totally interesting, bizarre roller coaster of a year," Lyon said. "I feel like it's been a good test for me as an individual and I've definitely grown."

Other notes
Gordon said he expects 20-year-old defenseman Philippe Myers to join the team sometime during the playoffs, but he wasn't sure when exactly. Myers just completed his season with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the QMJHL. The Flyers signed him as a free agent in 2015.

The Phantoms currently have 12 Flyers draft picks on their roster, including Carter Hart, who's with the team following the conclusion of his junior season. Hart was the Flyers' second-round pick, and the first goaltender taken in the 2016 NHL entry draft.

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."