Looking back on Ron Hextall’s most notable moves as Flyers GM
This one’s going to take some getting used to.
Two weeks after the surprise resignation of general manager Jim Rutherford, the Pittsburgh Penguins announced the hiring of Ron Hextall as his replacement.
“If you’d have told me two years ago I’d be sitting here as general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, I would’ve started laughing,” Hextall, a longtime Philadelphia Flyers legend and former Philly executive, told reporters during his introductory virtual press conference Tuesday. “But here we are. I’m very excited about it.”
Known for being a builder, Hextall was at the helm of an on-again, off-again playoff team during his tenure at the helm of Philadelphia from May 2014 to November 2018, charged with replenishing the franchise’s prospect pool and reviving the team around an existing core.
Sound familiar? Perhaps the Flyers’ and Penguins’ mutual dislike for one another is far from the only thing these two teams have in common.
Back-to-back first-round exits just two years after back-to-back Stanley Cup victories paints an interesting picture of a Penguins team at a bit of a fork in the road, with a depleted prospect pool and much of its draft capital spent in win-now moves.
While Tuesday’s press conference made it clear the Penguins are still looking to win — and when you’ve got Sidney Crosby on your team, that’s always a possibility — there are still plenty of questions about how Hextall and incoming president of hockey operations, Brian Burke, will now navigate the franchise while holding the key that is the league’s biggest star.
Unlike his predecessor, who boldly waded into trade talks and gave us some blockbusters in Pittsburgh, Hextall hasn’t been known for his player-for-player trades, nor was he very active on the UFA front. His best work has come through drafting and developing.
Hextall was fired before he could fully see his Flyers blossom into the Metropolitan powerhouse we saw head into the post-season last year, and they look like they’re poised for more of the same going forward thanks to the pieces Hextall put in place. The GM’s patient approach to building up the team may have ultimately cost him his job, but his investments are starting to pay off.
In an effort to explore what might lay ahead for the Penguins, here’s a look at some of Hextall’s most notable moves as GM of Philadelphia and what we can learn about his management style from them.
Building through the draft
Hextall inherited a depleted prospect system, and by the time of his departure, that pool was brimming with talent thanks to his ability to both collect picks and use them well. It became tradition each June that Hextall would be involved in at least one trade involving draft picks changing hands. Hextall headed up five drafts for the Flyers, and each one brought in at least one player who would go on to be a key part of Philly’s current core — including last year’s leading scorer, a pair of strong rearguards, and the No. 1 netminder of the future:
2014: D Travis Sanheim (Rd 1, 17th overall), F Oskar Lindblom (Rd 5, 138th overall)
2015: D Ivan Provorov (Rd 1, 7th overall), F Travis Konecny (Rd 1, 24th overall)
2016: G Carter Hart (Rd 2, 48th overall)
2017: F Nolan Patrick (Rd 1, 2nd overall)
2018: F Joel Farabee (Rd 1, 14th overall)
Some of those picks, of course, came at a cost. Hextall dealt Brayden Schenn to St. Louis for Jori Lehtera and two first-rounders in 2017. Trading away a player in his prime — and one locked into a team-friendly deal — in favour of bringing in more picks extended the Flyers’ rebuild at a time when some believed they could start the push for contention. Hextall used the 2017 pick on Morgan Frost, who has shown plenty of promise but hasn’t quite broken into the league yet, while that 2018 pick brought Farabee — a budding star.
Hextall’s patient approach with many of these players was, in some cases, just as important as his making the picks in the first place. Many others are still developing in the Flyers’ system.
Clearing cap space
In the first three years of his Flyers tenure, Hextall was able to move out big contracts and clear cap space with a trio of trades:
2014: One of his first transactions as GM was a tough one for many Flyers faithful to swallow, as fan favourite Scott Hartnell was sent to Columbus for RJ Umberger. Though a cap-clearing move in the long term (Umberger was under contract for three more years at $4.6 million per, compared to Hartnell’s $4.75M for five) it was also a sign that Hextall wasn’t afraid to make a tough call that he believed was right — and it ultimately paid off in cap flexibility when it mattered most.
2015: In one of the more famous cap-clearing moves, Hextall traded Chris Pronger’s rights (and his almost-$5M cap hit) along with Nicklas Grossman to Arizona in exchange for Sam Gagner and a fourth-round pick.
2016: Dealt Vincent Lecavalier ($4.5M) and Luke Schenn ($3.6M) to Los Angeles for Jordan Weal and a third-round pick. Even retaining half of both players’ hits, Hextall was able to clear up a combined $4.05 million.
Locking up key players
While many of the Flyers’ core guys were already part of the Flyers organization when Hextall took the reins, it was he who ensured they’d stay put in Philly long-term.
Re-signing Couturier in 2015: His best deal was signed on July 28, 2015, when he came to terms with forward Sean Couturier on a six-year, $4.33-million deal that ate up some key UFA years. A fair price at the time for a budding forward, the contract is now one of the biggest bargains in the league. The reigning Selke Trophy winner still has one more season remaining on the deal beyond this year. His skill and the price tag attached have both played crucial roles in the Flyers being able to stick together and contend.
Locking up Voracek in 2015: Just two days later, Hextall handed a massive eight-year deal to Jakub Voracek following a remarkable breakout season worth $8.25 million through 2023-24. Voracek has hit 80-plus points just once since, with that deal starting to look a little heavy.
A fair deal for Gostisbehere in 2016: Signing defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere in 2016 to a six-year deal with a $4.5-million cap hit looked like a total coup at the time and in the few years after as the rearguard really hit his stride. Despite Gostisbehere struggling at times, it’s still a reasonable contract for the offensive defenceman.
A rare UFA signing in 2018: When it came to his approach in free agency, Hextall didn’t take a lot of big swings at free agents. One of his parting gifts, however, was his biggest free agent signing: Hometown kid and then-UFA James van Riemsdyk (five years, $35-million, $7-million cap hit). With so many of the young prospects he’d drafted and developed just coming into the league Hextall had the cap flexibility to make a big swing and signal the start of real contention. Hextall was fired the following November during a Flyers slump, with all signs pointing to his patient approach for which he’s been praised as a contributing factor in his departure. With van Riemsdyk currently riding a seven-game point streak (4G, 13pts in that span) while leading the team in scoring, that deal is looking pretty good right now.