As I begin my interview with Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall, I’m politely trying to frame my questions with the caveat that his team has some injuries right now. Hextall, however, is a straight shooter.
“Do we ever,” he said.
And while it’s not ideal to have to play a 29-year-old journeyman on the back end when defense is one of your brightest positions, let’s think about how much worse the situation would be if Hextall and his scouting staff hadn’t done such good work since he took over in 2014.
Leading the way right now is Ivan Provorov, the second-year blueliner who plays like a veteran. Provorov is logging 24:41 of ice time per game and has lived up to billing since he was drafted seventh overall by the team in 2015.
“His hockey sense is elite,” Hextall said. “But the most impressive thing is his commitment. It’s 24/7 and he doesn’t let off.”
Hextall went on to say that while Provorov will get mad after a loss or a subpar performance, the young Russian also has the ability to leave those emotions behind when it’s time to suit up again – an admirable trait, to be sure.
What I find so fascinating about the Flyers right now is how many young blueliners they have at their disposal. Sure, they’re not all up in the NHL right now, but many of them have already earned the team’s trust by playing in the AHL with Lehigh Valley, a career step Hextall sees a lot of value in.
When training camp began, Philadelphia basically had two roster spots open on defense. And though the team was open to a veteran seizing one of those jobs, it didn’t happen. Instead, both spots went to prospects, in Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim.
With Shayne Gostisbehere felled by an upper-body injury recently, another spot opened up and towering Samuel Morin would've snagged some games had he not also hit the shelf with an injury, hence the NHL debut of 29-year-old Will O’Neill. The team also has first-year pro Philippe Myers marinating in the AHL, providing a great deal of internal competition. Myers was another great find by the club, getting signed as a free agent after he went undrafted in 2015. There’s also former NCAA standout Mark Friedman to consider.
Add it all up – and consider that Gostisbehere is only 24 – and you have quite the future in Philadelphia. Up front, the moving of Claude Giroux to left wing from center seems to have paid big dividends, especially with the way Sean Couturier has played as the new top pivot. But Hextall sees a franchise still on its way up.
“We like where our team is at, but I wouldn’t consider us Stanley Cup contenders yet,” he said. “But I like the steps our young guys have taken. We should be better in January than we are now.”
What I do appreciate is how Hextall is building his pipeline. The defense looks to be set for the next decade and he has done everything possible to address the future in net (a longtime pain in Philly, if you hadn’t heard), drafting a number of high-end goalies lately. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit was that Hextall told me that the Flyers go into drafts with a particular mix of positions in mind. It doesn’t always work out, but they’ve consistently had more than seven picks per draft during his tenure, which allows them to grab at least one netminder every year. The one thing they failed to procure in 2017? A right-shot defenseman.
The Flyers are getting younger and that is by design. How long it takes to get to the top is the variable in the equation.