Anthony and Russ recap the Stanley Cup Final, Alex Ovechkin’s first Stanley Cup victory, and potential Flyers’ draft targets. The guys are then joined by Flyers general manager Ron Hextall to discuss old rivalries, the differences in hockey eras, how to measure analytics vs. the human element to a player, the importance of a player’s character, the development of Flyers prospects and their playoff run with the Phantoms, the goaltending logjam, how to build a team in the modern NHL, the team’s identity, and when to make a big splash via free agency or a trade. After the interview, Anthony and Russ break down their biggest takeaways from the interview and project the Flyers’ off-season.
Full transcript of the interview after the jump:
“Anthony: And now we are very pleased to have on the “Snow the Goalie” podcast, Russ, a guy who would never have allowed anyone to snow him when he was a goalie. And that’s Flyers general manager Ron Hextall. Ron, thanks for joining us here on the podcast. We really do appreciate you taking the time to come out today.
Ron: Thank you. A pleasure being here. I hope you’re not implying I’m not a goalie though by any…
Anthony: No, no, that’s just the name of the podcast and…
Ron: Fair enough.
Anthony: I just know that you would never… You gotta remember, Ron, you’re my era like I grew up with hockey and you were a player then, whereas these guys are a lot younger. They don’t remember you and they just knew you as the general manager.
Russ: I’m the problem.
Anthony: We solicited some questions from the fans and the ones that we thought that were the most reasonable that we would ask you today here in this. But I wanted to start off with a little bit of an anecdote. It’s really kind of funny because somebody asked me on Twitter about Chris Chelios and he said, “When’s the last time Ron talked to Chris Chelios?” I remembered back when you first came back after your stint in LA. We were at a game in Detroit and while I was up in the press box and I saw you, like just having a general conversation with Chris in the press box and I was like, the little kid inside of me died. So what I want you to do is… I was hoping you could just kind of explain how these on-ice rivalries just kind of die away after time so that the fans [can understand]. I mean it’s great for us to think that they live on for years and years and years. If I just thought it would be kind of fun for you to kind of tell people that from the beginning.
Ron: Yeah, I’ve actually heard that numerous times that apparently somebody got us on camera. They’re in Detroit, they walked by us. There’s no avoiding anybody. So we ran into each other. And you know, guys that play like that play that hard against you, now that your career’s over, you actually respect those guys more than you do other guys that didn’t play that hard. So I’ve got an immense amount of respect for Chris Chelios and you run into people and you say hi. And like I said, there’s an awful lot of respect there.
Anthony: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. See and now the fans can understand that, Russ. Right?
Russ: So I mean that sounds like one that kind of, I guess, smoothed over over time. Are there still some – you don’t have to name names we don’t want to put you on the spot like that – but are there any rivalries that you had on the ice that have still carried over and having exactly dissipated with time?
Ron: I don’t know. I don’t know if they carry over. I guess if we got back out on the ice, maybe you know, who knows, but not going there anymore. So I don’t see any of those rekindling themselves. But I mean, it was a little different then like, we didn’t have contact with the other players. I mean, I’d never met Chelios so it wasn’t like nowadays where there’s meetings and there’s this and there’s that. You didn’t meet guys back then, you didn’t know that Chris Chelios was a great guy off the ice. You just knew him on the ice like the fans did. And quite honestly I didn’t like him. And I’m sure he didn’t like me and that’s just the way it was, there’s some of that nowadays, but it’s certainly not to the degree it used to be.
Anthony: Well that’s kind of a great thing that you say that because it kind of leads into my next question. The era is so different hockey today than it was back then. There’s so much information that’s available to the public nowadays. And I think it’s my estimation that fans think they’re a little bit smarter than they really are when it comes to the sport. So what I want, you know, I find myself a lot of times on social media trying to defend decisions that hockey teams make. Not necessarily just the Flyers, but just hockey teams in general when they make certain decisions. Can you just give a brief overview as to how important it is to have a balance between the data you can collect from a game and what you know about the players as people and humans? Because if there has to be a balance there. Correct?
Ron: Oh, of course. I mean there’s, there’s a lot of pieces that you, we all use to make decisions to move forward with a franchise to try to add to our team. And part of it is personality. Certain players fit into a locker room. You can’t quantify necessarily how much effect one player has on a locker room for better, for worse. And that plays into the decision that that goes on. Whether you’re re-signing someone or not re-signing them or trading them or trying to sign a long term and keep them for a long time. Like there’s a lot of things that play into. It’s not just what happens on the ice, obviously that’s the bulk of it. Good player on the ice. Typically you’re going to keep him, a player that’s so-so on the ice. If you can upgrade, you’re going to upgrade. But the personality thing, I’m particularly when you’re looking at role players, how does a role play or fit in with the team? How, how happy is he in his role? Does you work hard everyday to support everybody else on the team? Is he part of the fabric of the team or as you look and elsewhere thinking, “Oh I want to go to another team and a play 14 minutes instead of eight minutes.” Like there’s a lot of things play into decisions and you know, we’ve all got analytics and we’ve all got information that we gather from all of our players just from being around and watching them perform on the ice. So there’s a lot that goes into decisions that people probably just look and they see the player and they go, okay, well they’re, they’re moving that player. They’re re-signing that player or they sign that player. What are they doing? Well, there’s a lot more to it than certainly meets the eye.
Russ: So you’ve been involved with multiple organizations as both a player and as somebody in the front office. So when you talk about a player’s character about what you’re looking for off the ice, let’s go with maybe the most two recent examples. So when you were at the Kings and now with the Flyers, do you find that a lot of the personality characteristics or the things that you’re looking to fill in the locker room are similar between the Kings and the Flyers? Or is there something specifically about looking for a member of the orange and black that’s different? Some kind of differentiating factor.
Ron: I mean character is huge, because I always tell our scouts, the person ends up dictating whether a player meets his potential; that’s reality. If you’ve got a good human being that’s a character guy that really cares about playing hockey, chances are he’s going to reach his potential. Right? If you’ve got a guy that gets distracted, he’s got all these other things going on in his life and hockey’s important, but maybe not quite as important, he’s not going to hit his ceiling. So these are the things you have got to find out. And when we’re doing research on free agents and different things like that, we’re trying to figure out the whole package, not just, okay, the player goes out there and scores, you know, he’s a 15 goal scorer and typically gets 40 points. Okay, that’s what he is. Well, let’s look at all the other stuff. Now, how’s he going to fit in with our group? Is he going to complement our group? Is he going to be happy in a role? Is he gonna help other players push other players, you know, choose to be a part of a team? Choosing to be a part of a team is a huge deal. Look at Vegas, the great example, right? They were the best team in the National Hockey League this year. No question about it. Were they the best talent? Fair to say that they probably weren’t no disrespect, but they were the best team. That’s why they went to the Stanley Cup Final, so that whole buying in the team thing, hockey is… Obviously we all have families first, but after that it’s hockey. That’s what we want. We want guys that are here to play hockey, to be pros, to represent our organization and the be the best they can be on a nightly basis.
Russ: When when you’re evaluating players for free agency or in in trades, do you find that other front offices or are willing to come forth and and really give a good character assessment of a guy? Is that something that teams like to kind of keep close to the vest if they’re looking to bring back that player? Is that something that you kinda have to do through back channels, through players, other relationships?
Ron: There’s different avenues that you go through to try and do as much research as you can and everybody does the same thing. The hockey world’s a small world and things get around in a hurry. If you got a guy that’s not real dedicated to the sport and doesn’t work real hard and doesn’t have himself in real good shape, typically it gets around pretty quickly.
Anthony: Since we last heard from your publicly, you’ve got to spend a lot of time with the Phantoms on their road to the Eastern Conference finals in the AHL. We have a lot of questions about the Phantoms, but what did you see with the team, and did anyone really stand out to you with their play, especially if they’re players who could be given a little bit of a longer look camp in a couple months?
Ron: Yeah, no, we had lots of players stand out. But I think the team that, the thing that stands out the most for me as a team, they were a good team. We talk about buying. We just did a minute ago that the buy-in was absolutely terrific. You know, I think Toronto’s up three to two right now. They win the Calder Cup, you know, our guys lost to Toronto, albeit it was four-zip but three of the games were by one goal, and if game two, which we probably should have won… We can go on and on with it, but the bottom line is there if Toronto, in fact wins the Calder Cup, you look and you go, “Our guys played them in the semifinals, got beat by a very good team. We had a young team.” There’s a lot of our prospects that showed a lot of growth or, I mean everybody talks about Alex Lyon, but there’s many more besides Alex Lyon that showed a lot of growth this year. Obviously, you know, Phil Myers, I forget how many minutes he played in that five overtime game, sixty-six I think, he showed a lot of growth. Nic Aube-Kubel showed a lot of growth. Vorobyev showed a lot of growth. So there was Travis Sanheim, when he was there. He’s up here. He was there. He went down there, it did him the world of good. He came back, he was very good player at the end. He went down and played very well for them, so that six weeks of playoff hockey for that whole group is… it’s gold, it’s a type of experience. It’s not the NHL playoffs, but it does give you a bit, a little bit of a sniff of six weeks of American League playoff hockey. It’s tough. It’s tougher than the regular season. You’re playing the same team. There is hatred. Like that experience for our guys was terrific and again, there’s a lot of different individuals that grew down there.
Anthony: That’s great. You mentioned Alex Lyon makes me think of for once this organization has goaltending depth. We haven’t really seen that in Philadelphia in a long, long time. So when you look at coming into next season, you got two guys signed under contract at the NHL level in Elliott and Neuvirth. You got Lyon who showed that he could play a little bit at this level. Had a great series down there. You got Stolarz coming back off of injury. You got Carter Hart coming and it seems like a little bit of a logjam, right? Is there something that maybe you probably have to do some massaging that might have to work out there?
Ron: Yeah. Well, we’ll see what comes along there. We like our group. I mean Brian Elliott did a very good job for us last year until he got hurt two thirds of the way through the year. Neuvy had some really good games for us. I know Neuvy can be more, more consistent. We expect him to be more consistent. Last year, that was certainly the message. At the end of the year, you know, the kids have all shown growth. Stolie had a little bit of a speed bump obviously, and his injuries, but sometimes that makes you a better goalie, better shape, appreciating the game, working harder, working at your game. So we expect some growth from Stolie. Alex obviously grew a lot last year. It’s funny, part way through the year… Alex is a very consistent goalie. When you look at his strengths, you say he’s very consistent. He’s a very level-headed kid. He doesn’t get too high. He doesn’t get too low and his game reflects it. Last year he had a six game streak where I think it was five of the six games, he didn’t play very well and it was kinda like, “Wow.” You know again, typically his strength and he went through a little bit of a downturn there and I talked to him a little bit about it and he said, you know, “I’ve never been through anything like that before.” So credit to him that he’s never been through it, but also a learning experience for him as a pro to say, “Okay, next time when I go into this little funk I’m going to change this, this and this.” He has a very honest assessment of himself. And you mentioned Carter, obviously Carter’s a top prospect for us and had a very good year out west.
Russ: As a goalie yourself, do you ever find yourself in more of a big brother role? I don’t want to say father – you’re quite young still – but is that something… Do you kind of find yourself a little bit gravitating more towards kind of helping young goaltenders kind of find their way between the AHL and the NHL or is it something where, you know, you’re like a parent where all the kids are equal and you don’t want to…
Ron: Certainly the kids are all equal. But we’ve got Kim Dillabaugh, Brady Robinson are our goalie guys. They do certainly all of the technical work and a lot of the talking after games and stuff, there’s them. In LA, I did a little bit more when I was an assistant. It’s a little bit different when you’re the GM. I certainly don’t want to force anything on the goalies or the players. If they want to come and talk to me, my office is certainly open and once in a while we’ll have a conversation, but it’s certainly not a focus.
Anthony: In the recent past, you’ve not been afraid to give rookies a chance at camp to make the team. But when you assess prospects’ chances to make the roster out of camp, how much stock goes into previous performance, whether it’s in junior or in the AHL or whatever versus what you see in rookie camp? Like what’s the balance there?
Ron: There’s certainly a balance. I mean, if a guy comes in and he was a terrible player in American League last year and he comes and lights it up for two weeks, like, we all know inevitably what’s going to happen here. Chances are that guy’s not going to get much of a look because he didn’t earn it last year. Is he going to get a preseason game? He may or may not. So it’s the whole picture. It’s how well he did last year. It’s how comfortable we feel with him being ready to not only play at a high level for training camp, but for six, seven, eight, nine months. That’s the whole thing. It’s the hardest part of our job is to try to assess, okay, is this guy just a little hot streak here or is he that good? Well, if he was real good in the American League last year, he’s coming up here, he’s really good in training camp, he’s in great shape. You know, there’s other aspects of that that we know that he’s kind of got hurdles that he’s been through. You make an assessment, say, “Okay, this kid can last,” because otherwise go the American League for three months, two months, come up here midway through the year. Who knows? But we can send them down an American League to find out how he does for three months. But the bottom line is, is you’re going to make our team better. If you’re going to make our team better, chances are he’s going to be here unless there’s circumstances that we just feel it’s too risky to keep.
Anthony: We talked about that. You talked about in the end of season press conference about a couple of things that you want to try and improve in the off season. One of them being the penalty kill. Do you look at that as something that needs to be improved from within? Or is that something that you might say, “When we go, when get to July 1, that’s something we’re going to be maybe hunting for out there and in free agency.”
Ron: You got to be careful because you get a roster size at 23 spots in your roster and you got to count your players and you don’t want to box kids out that may be ready for the next step. So it’s a juggling act, you know, you might look at acquisitions. Can we move a player for player to get a little better penalty kill or maybe not as much five-on-five production? We’ll look at all that. I truly believe we can improve from within the last 20, 21, 22, 23 games our penalty kill was much better. So I feel like we can improve from within. Our young defenseman are going to be a year older so they should be better. There’s going to be guys on the back end that are in that situation probably that weren’t in it as much last year. So there’s upside there. So again, we’ll look outside if something makes sense and if not, we’ll improve from within.
Anthony: Do you think your team has an identity right now? Is there an identity that you look at with this team, or is it still building it?
Speaker 2: We’re still building it. To me, our identity has always been: grit, tough muscle, intimidate. It’s a little harder to create that clear identity nowadays because we can’t have three guys that beat people up on our team. But our identity under my watch is not going to change in terms of we want to outwork and out-will teams and are we there? No, we’re not there, but that’s where we want to be and that’s our identity. That’s a 2018 version of the 70’s. I mean, the game’s evolved and we have to all evolve with it. There’s certain areas where we’d like to get better. We’d like to get grittier, we’d like to get, you know, everybody wants to get faster and more skilled and everything else, but we’d like to kind of add all those things and we feel like with our pipeline now we have some of those assets coming.
Anthony: Is there room in, in hockey, not necessarily just for the Flyers, but is there a room in the sport still for physical play? Not necessarily fighting per say, but you know, checking. I mean it almost seems like we see it in the playoffs, but the regular season it kind of drops off a little bit.
Ron: Everything gets ramped up in the playoffs. I think that competitiveness gets ramped up. I think that physical play gets ramped up, so you’ve got to be really careful not building your team for the regular season. It’s got to last for two months in the playoffs and again, it’s not easy. You got to have some breaks here. Certainly you got to try to hopefully stay as healthy as possible. But you do have to have… I like to use the word “will” because it, it kind of encompasses everything where you’re at least willing to go to the net in heavy traffic and score it a dirty goal that you might win a series for you or a game for you. Getting in on the forecheck. You still have to bring those elements and it’s still a hard game. It’s not a game where you got to stand up maybe and go toe to toe with a guy anymore, but it’s still a hard game. It’s fast game. It is a physical game and it may only be once every five games you get hit real hard, but you got to have your head up when that one’s coming because obviously you can hurt.
Russ: Is it frustrating like as as somebody who’s not on the ice any longer that you still are going to have the natural instincts of of a player, but is it frustrating to know that it seems like the style of play changes so much as you build towards the postseason and the way that you know, it gets more physical? Does it make it harder to build a team when it seems like in order to find success and to get the highest spot in the table, you kind of have to build a team of certain way versus like when it gets to the postseason? It feels like maybe the way that you kind of designed the third and the fourth line, to maybe be a better skating group might not be the way that the most advantageous as you get to the postseason where physicality is kind of more of a premium?
Ron: Yeah. You gotta be careful there and just looking at things through a vacuum where where we’ve got to look at things, “Okay we’ve got to make the playoffs but then we want to go on and run.” So yes, you know, once we get deeper into the playoffs it is going to get more physical. There’s not going to be as many penalties called and you can get away with more. So you sort of have to do that balancing act of, you know, building it for the regular season. But you know, really in the end you want to build it for the playoffs where you can sustain it for two months and again, the physical play does come into play.
Anthony: Ron, I have one final question before we wrap this thing up and it has really nothing to do with the team in and of itself, but just it’s a big news and big thing in sports these days is that now sports gambling is legalized. Do new policies now have to be put in place throughout the league or even specifically with the Philadelphia Flyers on how to address that or how to combat that because it’s so available to anyone and everyone even within the organization? Is there, is there something there?
Ron: I can’t say right now. I know enough about it to answer that question. What I can say is [that] our athletes and our people are really good people. So in terms of from the hockey side, from our side, I don’t believe this is going to change anything in terms of the public. Again, I don’t know enough about it to really to really make an educated comment on.
Russ: Okay, real quick. So when you were with LA, there came a moment in time where it, it must’ve felt right to go out and try to make a big acquisition in a trade and that obviously netted you Mike Richards and eventually Jeff Carter and you go on to win the Stanley Cup. Is there a certain tipping point in a season or as you’re kind of looking at both the short and the long term window for this team where it starts to feel right, where you have to start kind of assessing whether between salary cap implications and just having to part with potential young players or draft picks or whatever to make a big splash? Is there a certain tipping point? Is it just a feeling?
Ron: Well, first of all, that that, that evaluation is nonstop. Okay. Can we add one player takes us to this level that’s a nonstop evaluation that happens on a certain and a weekly basis. Now in saying that, that doesn’t mean you’re going to have to go out and make the big splash. Sometimes you can just say, “Okay, we got this coming here, he’s going to fill this box, we’ve got this coming and he’s going to fill that box. So you gotta be really careful where you say, “Okay, we need to fill this box,” but yet in a year we got a player coming that’s going to fill that box. Now what are we going to do with the player that’s coming now? So it’s a real juggling act where you’re looking at term, any asset you acquire, term is important. Do you want a guy for five years? You want a guy for, for one year to bridge where we’re going here or you know, player actually assigned to a three year deal because you feel like in two years this kid’s come and then he can, you know, essentially take that box? And again you mentioned the salary cap. That’s a big part of it. So it’s a juggling act. It’s not easy. You try and evaluate as much as you can and be correct as many times as possible.
Anthony: Great. That’ll be all for us. Flyers general manager Ron Hextall, thanks once again for coming onto the Snow the Goalie podcast. Best of luck this summer and we’ll see you soon.
Ron: All right guys, it’s been a pleasure.”
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