After Ron Hextall firing, Philadelphia Flyers’ overhaul is just beginning
Can’t recall a switcheroo quite like the Flyers just made, first ditching general manager Ron Hextall on Monday, then following 48 hours later with the dismissal of assistant GM Chris Pryor, the ex-New Hampshire defenseman, and assistant coach Gord Murphy, the onetime Bruins defenseman (1991-93).
Still on the job when we went to press: coach Dave Hakstol. Had Hextall stepped up last weekend and turfed Hakstol, as even Gritty the Flyers mascot anticipated, then he might still be holding the GM chair. It was reminiscent of speculation here in the spring of 2015 when Peter Chiarelli was given the heave-ho and Claude Julien remained behind the bench — until new GM Don Sweeney finally had enough 137 games later.
All in all, it’s a one-of-a-kind hybrid overhaul, one that now has Flyers president Paul Holmgren and his boss, Spectacor CEO Dave Scott, sifting through candidates to replace Hextall — the guy who came in and mopped up the salary cap mess that Holmgren created during his choppy tour in the GM’s seat.
Scott has implored Holmgren to look outside the organization, which thus far has bubbled up the names Ron Francis, Steve Yzerman, and Chuck Fletcher, with Fletcher, ex- of Harvard and former Wild GM, considered the front-runner.
“I want to spend to the cap,” Scott told the Philly media. “I want to have the best team we can have here.”
Sure, spending often helps, but it’s not necessarily a predictor of success, particularly in the NHL’s hard-cap system that makes it difficult, if not managerial suicide, to bury pricy contract mistakes. Overpaid help generally remains on the roster, often sucking the marrow from more talented and cheaper rank-and-file members, and then it’s only a matter of time before the suits begin to bang the table for better results. Read: GM in crosshairs.
In Hextall’s case, he made a number of franchise improvements, including constructing a more cap-efficient roster and replenishing a depleted talent pipeline. Not easy feats. Sweeney, Chiarelli’s successor, has done much the same with the Bruins, though he inherited a far better core roster than Hextall was handed on Broad Street. Hextall didn’t have the equal of Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, and Tuukka Rask as stabilizing forces to begin his franchise reorganization.
However, Hextall did not pull off a signature trade (admittedly much harder in today’s NHL), and he also would not sacrifice prospects to make such a trade (is that so bad?).
His No. 1 failing: not finding a patch for the black hole in the Flyer net, a tradition in Philly that predates both the invention of the cheesesteak and the creation of the Mummers Parade. The fact that Hextall was once a goalie, in fact a Flyers goalie, only added to the tragicomedy.
Had he turfed Hakstol, perhaps Hextall would have saved his skin. But the economics, in the form of empty seats inside Wells Fargo Center, were bearing down at Comcast Spectacor HQs — true here in the spring of 2006 when the Bruins dismissed Mike O’Connell as GM and eventually hired Chiarelli after making Ray Shero their primary target.
Nothing speaks louder that a shrinking season-ticket base and the look of empty arena seats. Particularly in a time when the computerized secondary ticket market dumps $150 loge tickets for $35 a pop on game day and those season ticket-holders are left to feel like they have “SUCKER” nameplates across the backs of their official team jackets ($250 a pop, all sizes, in the souvenir shop).
Philly is a unique market. Decades later, a sizable portion of the fan base still embraces the Broad Street Bullies ethos, eagerly hoping that a river of blood returns and rebrands the franchise in the image of Dave Schultz and Bobby Clarke. Delusional. In today’s 31-team NHL, maybe half the working help has never been in a fight and much of the other half views it as an all-but-useless novelty item.
The new GM, who will have the call on whether Hakstol remains in place, will be charged with winning over the remaining Bully-heads. How to do that? Wins, of course. More speed. More skill.
And above all, finding a bona fide goaltender, like, say, that Sergei Bobrovsky fellow, now a pending UFA in Columbus, where the Flyers traded him six years ago for three draft picks that proved to be a pocketful of lint. Post-Bobrovsky, the Flyers moved on to their Ilya Bryzgalov-Steve Mason-Ray Emery era of goaltending — a chain collision of stoppers that ultimately claimed Hextall in the pileup.
New GM Botterill a quick learner
Not much has gone right in the burgeoning Pegula empire in Buffalo, but a November power surge (10 straight wins) has reengaged the all-but-ready-to-surrender Sabres crowd.
The rollicking ride came to end with Thursday night’s 5-4 loss at Tampa Bay, but consider the streak:
■ Total 10 wins by a cumulative 36-24.
■ Nine of the 10 wins were by one goal.
■ Seven of the wins came in overtime.
■ Three of the OTs were settled via the shootout (narrowing that cumulative score to 33-24).
A plucky, resilient bunch. And this time, unlike occasional perks and flops of recent years, this looks sustainable.
The secret to it all? One heck of a summer by rookie GM Jason Botterill, 42, hired away from Pittsburgh’s front office in May 2017. Fresh off the disappointment of yet another playoff DNQ this past spring, Botterill made three big moves in a five-week span over the summer that righted the franchise.
No. 1: On July 1, signed free agent Carter Hutton, ex- of UMass Lowell, to be the franchise goaltender. Risky. Hutton, 33 later this month, had never been anyone’s franchise goalie. Also, never drafted. He played three seasons in the minors prior to getting a real shot in Nashville in 2013-14 alongside Pekka Rinne and Marek Mazenec. Headed into weekend play, Hutton was 12-7-1, and backed up by Linus Ullmark (5-0-1). Right now, he’s looking like the Sabres’ Tim Thomas, who was the same age when the Bruins gave him his big chance in 2005-06.
No. 2: Also on July 1, wheeled center/faceoff workhorse Ryan O’Reilly to the Blues for three players, including ex-UConn star Tage Thompson, and two draft picks, including a first-rounder in 2019. Strong player, O’Reilly put up real numbers on weak Buffalo teams in his three years after arriving from Colorado. But they were three more DNQs for a franchise that had to change direction. Better places to utilize his $7.5 million cap hit. Thompson, in and out of the lineup in the first quarter, is beginning to show some pop.
No. 3: Acquired 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeff Skinner from the Hurricanes for a prospect (Cliff Pu) and three draft picks (second, third, and sixth rounds). Coach Phil Housley then paired Skinner (career-high 63 points twice) with franchise stud Jack Eichel and the two have been lights out — be it with Jason Pominville or Sam Reinhart riding opposite Skinner’s left wing. Skinner (cap hit: $5.725 million) was aching for a change of scenery. As of Friday morning, he had 19 goals, tied with David Pastrnak for second in the league, behind only Patrik Laine (21). Skinner could end up with 50 goals and head to the free market and one gigunda payday on July 1.
Botterill also had the luxury (if losing can be so depicted) of choosing first in the June draft, barely a week prior to July 1. As expected, he opted for Rasmus Dahlin, the Swede pegged two years ago as the game’s next franchise defenseman. Thus far, he’s lived up to the hype (26 games/14 points), and his presence also has restored veteran Zach Bogosian’s profile on the back line.
How different things might have been for Boston University had Rick Middleton taken up their early ’70s scholarship offer for a free ride on Comm. Ave.
The Terriers, then still under the bench direction of Jack Kelley, won NCAA titles in 1971 and ’72. Middleton, his No. 16 hoisted to the Garden rafters Thursday night, possibly would have arrived in time for the second of those titles. He certainly would have been gone by the time the Terriers won again with Jack Parker as their coach in ’78 (the spring Nifty went to his second Cup Final with the Bruins after being wheeled to Boston by the Rangers).
A handful of NCAA teams, including Michigan and Michigan Tech, wooed Middleton at the start of the ’70s. But he opted instead to go the major junior route, in part because playing for OHA Ottawa allowed him to live at home in suburban Toronto and commute. Maybe BU should have offered to make him a day student?
“Teams weren’t really taking players from college,” said Middleton, asked if he was torn over the decision at the time. “Not that I really thought that I was going to make it to the NHL either, but . . . and, hey, it turned out OK for me.”
Given the same factors today, Middleton, who will celebrate his 65th birthday on Tuesday, would have chosen a different path.
“I’d go to college . . . are you kidding me?” he said. “First, with the price of college today, along with the fact that so many more college players are being taken into the NHL now. And if you don’t make it, you have something to fall back on. I was lucky. Honest to God, I don’t know what I’d be doing today if I hadn’t made it.”
To Nifty’s point: The Bruins Thursday night vs. the Islanders went with a roster that included six ex-NCAA Division 1 players among their 12 forwards and four of six defensemen who also went the college route.
Don Cherry, when not being his flamboyant TV self, typically spends three nights a week during the hockey season dotting from one rink to another near his home in the Mississauga, Ontario. He joins his son Tim, who scouts teen prospects (midgets), rating them prior to their eligibility for the OHL draft.
“I love it,” said the former Bruins coach, who typically goes to games after 9 p.m, when the stands are occupied by only friends and family of the kids on the ice. “I get to see the NHL superstars.”
Anyone in mind at the moment? Cherry figures the current crop contains one elite forward, a Sidney Crosby-like talent, and a couple of potential franchise defensemen.
“But I never give their names,” said Cherry. “If I do that, then it only puts more pressure on them, or they get all caught up in it and their games turn into a mess.”
Cherry remained mum on the subject, but the phenom forward is likely Shane Wright, a 14-year-old from Burlington, Ontario. He is a righthanded shot and already 6 feet, 168 pounds. A lot can happen, but Wright should be among the top handful of picks in the 2022 NHL Draft.
Cherry, who has made millions as a Canadian TV icon, was still coaching in Boston when his TV career began.
“Not a lot of people know that . . . they all think it started later,” said Cherry, who credits then-Bruins GM Harry Sinden for allowing him to commentate for Canadian TV while he was still coaching in Boston. “There was a game in Philly, and we were off that day, and Harry gave me the OK to go down there and work the game. So I’m coaching Boston and doing TV at the same time. Imagine that, eh?”
Cherry’s coaching tour in Boston came to an end in 1979, just prior to the Bruins selecting Ray Bourque in Round 1 of the June draft. Cherry went on to coach his final NHL season with the Colorado Rockies.
“The worst year of my life,” recalled Cherry, who was in the Garden Thursday night as part of the ceremony to honor Middleton. “We had a pretty good team. That was the sad part about it. We had a general manager, Ray Miron, and he wouldn’t get us a goalie. We had Hardy Astrom. As I say, the only problem with Hardy was pucks. We lost and we lost because of our goaltender. That was the worst year I ever put in — no wonder I went into TV.”
The Flames last Sunday potted three shorthanded goals, one shy of the league record that the Winnipeg Jets ground out on April 7, 1995, a 7-4 win that included shorties from Keith Tkachuk (2), Nelson Emerson, and Darryl Shannon. All that was only six days after Alexei Zhamnov knocked home a career-high five goals in a 7-7 tie vs. the Kings. It was that Zhamnov the Bruins were hoping for when they signed him as a free agent in the summer of 2005 for three years/$12 million under then-GM Mike O’Connell. A combination of injury and indifference ended Zhamnov’s tour in Boston after 24 games and a line of 1-9—10 . . . Ex-Bruin Marc Savard was set to return to game action Saturday night, making his debut for the Bruins alumni squad in a game in Norwood, Ontario, near his home in Peterborough. Middleton contacted Savard a couple of weeks ago, in hopes that he might consider coaching the oldie Black and Goldies. “He gets back to me and says, ‘No, I’d rather play.’ So great, he must be feeling pretty good, right?” Savard, now 41, last played in 2010-11, just ahead of the Bruins’ successful Cup run, unable to continue playing because of severe, lingering concussion issues, due in large part to a predatory crackdown by the Penguins’ Matt Cooke . . . Good bet we’ll see 33 (Zdeno Chara) and 37 (Patrice Bergeron) lifted to the Garden rafters not long after they retire. Team president Cam Neely also would be wise to continue the CV of center Bill Cowley. Like Middleton, Cowley (born 1912), spent a dozen seasons in Boston and finished as a point-per-game player (549 games/549 points). He also played a key role in the Bruins winning the Cup in ’39 and ’41 . . . Kevin Stevens, two years sober, is just back from Belfast, Northern Ireland, after watching son Luke (6-4 Yale left winger), participate in this year’s Friendship Four tourney. Kevin, with monumental aid from his sister, Kelli Wilson, has recovered and reconstructed his life after a decades-long fall into booze and opioid addiction. The Penguins recently hired him back as a college scout. The ex-Boston College star is also hosting a weekly radio show centered around addiction and recovery. For more details, check out his website: powerforward25.com.