Hextall Won't "Reinvent" History When It Comes to Prospects & NHL-readiness >


by Michael DeNicola

Monday, September 14th, 2015 --

Ever since the Flyers began rebuilding their defensive prospect pool in 2012, we've had quite a future to look forward to on the blueline. And who could blame us for our excitement? Fast-forward to today, there are hockey embryos like Shayne Gostisbehere, Sam Morin, Robert Hagg, Travis Sanheim and Ivan Provorov who are the pulse of our pipeline. They've been talked about throughout Philadelphia's sports market, as well as internationally ranked as one of the highest in star potential. 

We salivate at the thought of one, two or even three of these kids getting a crack at the NHL roster sooner than later. Their performances in their respective leagues have been so great, just thinking about it is like shoveling a metric ton of coal into our fire-breathing expectations. 

The fans were given a taste of Gostisbehere last regular season when he got the call-up in late October. His tour only consisted of two games and zero points before he was back in the AHL, but that was the first time we'd actually seen this iceberg poke its head up from the surface. 

All the talk, all the hype, it had actually become something tangible. 

Between Ghost getting called up, Morin being one of the final cuts last preseason, Sanheim's unbelievable leap in progression, and Ivan Provorov's touted NHL-readiness, I've been left with the feeling that we're going to see a certain number of these kids penetrate the Flyers 2015-16 starting lineup. Yes, even with so many existing one-way contracts on our blueline. 

Then comes GM Ron Hextall and his ever-so-logical & patient ways...

In a CSNPhilly article published last week, there is an embedded video of Breakfast on Broad's interview with Ol' Hexy. In the video's fourth installment, right around the 8-minute mark, Hextall starts getting into a prospect's development. He says that he and his staff "know where our prospects are" in terms of NHL-readiness. Ron then stresses the importance of not rushing prospects to an NHL role. 

It's nothing we haven't really heard before. Until he begins chiseling away at how he grades a player's readiness...

"The hard part for us is, you can't look at a player in preseason and say 'He played great!' 

"He's playing against 10 NHL players who are looking to get ready for the season; not necessarily have mid-season form … The level of play, quite frankly, is not up to the regular season. So, to evaluate at that point, it's hard. So you always have to be cognizant of the fact that they're not playing at the level they'd play at on opening night."

Hextall goes on to say a prospect's readiness is really based on how well he's progressed from prior testing, prior evaluations from previous development and training camps. And even then it's a judgement call—to expand on that, Hextall stresses the importance of "maintaining" a certain level of performance at the NHL level. This is a difficult frequency for a young player to achieve.

"You see a lot of kids come in [to the season] for a couple of weeks, or a month, they're playing at a high level… and all of a sudden there's a drop. And then what do you do with the kid? Do you keep him? Do you send him back to Junior? … When our young players come up, I want them to come up and be there for ten or fifteen years. Not come up, down, up, down. It's just not good for development. It's history, it's not something that's been reinvented."

When I try to apply the message Hextall is conveying here, Sam Morin comes to mind. In preseason last Fall, the 6'7" behemoth was one of the final cuts before the regular season got underway. Leading up to that point, Morin had been playing pretty well for the most part. And I admittedly half-expected to see him get a nine NHL game trial. Instead, Hextall decided to slide Morin back to Rimouski (QMJHL) five days before opening night.

It was for the best. 

By Hextall's standards, Sam's role this October will be defined by measuring the levels of progress he's made between last camp and this year's camp. But because there's no professional benchmark to Morin's playing history, odds are against him to make the NHL roster this October. 

Sam is not eligible to return to the QMJHL, so 2015-16 will be his first pro season (AHL, NHL) regardless what the final decision is. 

I see Hextall making guys like Sanheim and Provorov walk the same line as Morin did these past two years. I'm NOT comparing skill between the three; I'm saying it'd take a monumental occurrence to sway Hextall away from his calculated system. 

Sanheim has one eligible year left of Junior hockey; Provorov has two and not a second of experience in an NHL camp. Never mind where these two players will be playing in 2016-17... I don't see either of them wearing a Flyers sweater on October 8th. Flyers management has too much invested in their young defensemen, and in the grand scheme of things... Sanheim and Provorov are not needed this season. Again, using the set principle, there's too much risk overshadowing the potential reward. 

One fan may argue that it'd benefit our organization if guys like Sanheim and/or Provorov get a jump on their NHL careers sooner than later. Perhaps they may, but what if a decision like that doesn't evolve the way we hope? 

For every one dominant NHL Defenseman who spent little or no time developing in lower leagues, there are tens... no, hundreds of failed experiments; prospects who were rushed to the NHL level with incredibly high expectations, and to no fault of their own... it had become too overwhelming. It had become too much. It was disastrous. It had ultimately ruined 'what coulda been.'

No matter how many positive examples you can name, make no mistake... they are the rare exception.

Like Hextall said, "It's history, it's not something that's been reinvented."

When really considering the man-hours that were poured into scouting, grading, accruing and developing these defensive prospects, it's crazy to imagine most of that is going to be pushed to the center of a poker table so soon. 

It's one thing to hear an objective person tell you to temper your expectation. It is totally another thing to actually see it, read it, and hear it from the mouth of our General Manager. 

My mind wonders back to Shayne Gostisbehere. He has one year of pro experience, but does he really though? His pro resume includes 25-minutes of NHL ice time, and only five AHL games before suffering a season ending injury. If I'm reading Hextall's formula correctly, there's not a whole lot there for comparison's sake in an evaluation.

I personally don't expect Shayne to be dressed in a Flyers uniform on October 8th, either. 

Guys like Robert Hagg and Brandon Manning? There is a lot more there to measure and compare. Most would think this sounds ridiculous, but of all our D prospects, I believe Robert Hagg has the best chance to crack the Flyers lineup sooner than the rest. Given he's made significant ground on his consistency issue, Hagg leads the pack in terms of pro experience. There's more of a proven history to compare against his performance in camp.

But at the end of the day I'd be surprised to see one of these defensive prospects make the roster outta the chute. Given the context of our system and the people in it, we're close... but not there just yet. I do believe we'll see a guy like Hagg, Gostisbehere or Morin recalled before Christmas. And by the trade deadline, one of those skaters could possibly force Ron to move a defensive contract or two.

We're on the brink of something special and exciting. And although Hextall's interview sobered my anticipation just a tad, I have really grown to appreciate the developmental science he's managed to this point. Even if it means suspending the realization on the supposition of so many fans.... including my own.

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