After six months and 88 games, the Philadelphia Flyers season is over.
I spent most of that time looking at the decisions coach Dave Hakstol and general manager Ron Hextall made each week as the team clinched a playoff spot. With the season now over, I’m taking a step back from the weekly approach and widening the frame to look at the moves that Hextall and Hakstol made that defined the season.
Hextall’s review is up first. Next week, I’ll feature Hakstol.
Trading Brayden Schenn for Jori Lehtera, 2 1sts
We start this year’s timeline on June 23, 2017 at the NHL Draft. In one of his biggest deals as general manager, Hextall traded top-six winger Brayden Schenn to the St. Louis Blues for two first-round picks and Jori Lehtera.
That night, the Flyers selected Morgan Frost 27th overall and just learned this past weekend that they own the 14th selection at this year’s draft with the second pick. But from October to December, the media outside Philly lamented the trade, often not acknowledging the fact that Lehtera was not the only asset the Flyers acquired.
Schenn burst out of the gates with the Blues, playing on a line with Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, and finished with 70 points, easily a career high. Meanwhile, Lehtera was a frequent healthy scratch and ineffective even when playing.
The Flyers certainly wouldn’t have scoffed at having that production, but it’s unlikely Schenn would have had that type of year in Philadelphia. For one, the King draft pick wouldn’t have played with that type of talent or at center.
But even adding his production at wing, it’s unlikely the Flyers would have done much more this season. They’d likely finish second or third in the Metro and play the Penguins in the first round. Schenn wouldn’t have changed the outcome much.
Meanwhile, Frost lit up the OHL, scoring 112 points in 67 games. When Frost and the prospect used with this year’s draft pick make it to the NHL, the Flyers will be in a much better position to contend than they ever would have been with Schenn before his contract expired.
Signing Brian Elliott, Walking Away from Steve Mason
Hextall’s biggest move in free agency last summer came in the crease. The former Flyer netminder himself, signed Brian Elliott to a two-year contract, effectively ending any chance of Steve Mason returning.
At first, I wasn’t a huge fan of this move. Elliott had an inconsistent 2016-17 season with the Calgary Flames and a terrible four-game postseason. Mason, meanwhile, took more flack in Philly than he deserved.
However, the current Winnipeg Jet didn’t have a great 2016-17 either, so I understood the swap.
At this point, I think it’s fair to say that Hextall made the right call — even with Elliott’s poor playoff play. Mason was injured often in Winnipeg, appearing in just 13 games and sporting a .906 save percentage.
In Philadelphia, Elliott’s play was somewhat overshadowed due to a good portion of his best play coming during the 10-game losing streak. In the first three games of that stretch, the former Blue let in a combined four goals, but the team didn’t earn a win in any of them.
Luckily for Elliott, some of the team issues corrected itself in December and January before requiring core muscle surgery in February. He finished the season with 23 wins and a .909 SV%.
But the core muscle injury had a lasting effect after Elliott returned for the last two regular season games and the first round of the playoffs. If he was never injured, it’s possible the Flyers season could have went a little longer.
Some of the other goalies that moved teams last summer include Mason, Antti Raanta, Mike Smith and Scott Darling. When you consider what the teams paid for those goalies and the results, it’s easy to say Hextall came out as a winner.
Demoting Oskar Lindblom & Sam Morin
Really the decision to demote both of these prospects fell on both coach Dave Hakstol and Hextall, but I put it in Hextall’s column because he was the one that made the actual moves and backed them up.
For a stretch in the preseason, it looked like both would make the team. Morin surprised by making offensive contributions and Lindblom was placed on the first power play unit.
But as training camp and the preseason moved on, it looked less and less likely. Lindblom was removed from the man advantage unit and placed down the lineup, while Morin continued to play games — not a great sign for someone looking to lock up a spot.
Lindblom ended up being sent down on Oct. 1 with Hextall hinting that he felt the Swedish forward needed to acclimate to the North American game.
That turned out just fine. Lindblom returned to the Flyers in the middle of February and quickly played his way up the lineup. Unfortunately the 21 year old ran out of fuel as the season came to an end and ended up as a healthy scratch during the postseason.
Morin ended up sticking with the team until Oct. 11 as he and Travis Sanheim dueled for the last spot on the blue line.
As a left-handed defenseman, Morin was a surplus on the Philly defense and the team wanted him playing somewhere instead of sitting in the pressbox. The plan, at the time, was to get him back in the NHL when an injury or poor play occured.
As it turned out, Morin would be the one dealing with injuries. The 22 year old played just 15 games in the AHL and two with the Flyers in late November.
It’s easy to fault Hextall and the Flyers for not having Morin spend more time in the NHL, but things could have gone much different had he stayed healthy.
Not Firing Hakstol During 10-Game Losing Streak
Flyers fans could probably point out a host of different times when it seemed reasonable for Hextall to fire Hakstol. But there was no better point than when the team was in the midst of the ten-game losing streak.
After the ninth loss, though, Hextall faced the media and confirmed that he would not be firing his coach then or even after the season. Both comments came true (we’ll focus on the latter promise later).
At the time, it was a frustrating comment to hear. Watching a team lose nine games (and then 10) with no change on the coaching staff or in the players seemed insane.
But maybe Hextall knew what he was doing. The players seemed to be waiting for something to fall and Hextall informed them that it wasn’t going to happen.
The team lost one more, and then ended the losing streak with a 5-2 win over the Flames. The Flyers followed that up with five more wins, starting the run that ended with a playoff berth.
Petr Mrazek Trade
Hextall made two trades in-season. One was strictly a prospect for a pick trade (Cooper Marody to the Oilers for a 2019 third-round pick), but the other did play a part in the team’s season.
About a week before the trade deadline and with both Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth injured, Hextall added to his goalie depth by acquiring Petr Mrazek from the Detroit Red Wings for a conditional fourth that became a third when all was said and done.
Mrazek, though, had an underwhelming showing in Philadelphia. He started out strong winning three straight, but lost the next six of seven, losing some starts to rookie Alex Lyon in the process.
Despite that, Mrazek won seven games of a necessary five and the Flyers made the playoffs, triggering the condition on the deal that upgraded the fourth-rounder to a third.
It’s easy to say that Mrazek wasn’t a good acquisition, but it’s unlikely that the team would have gotten a better performance from any of the other goalies that were on the market.
The fact is that a single loss would have meant missing the playoffs, so each of Mrazek’s wins were valuable. The price was too high and the Czech native was a disappointment, but without him, the Flyers may have missed the postseason.
Sticking With Hakstol
Flyers fans would love for Hakstol to be included in this year’s review of Hextall, but for the opposite reason — and they have a point.
Almost daily, Hakstol makes bad lineup choices, is outcoached by the opposition and regularly fails to read the atmosphere of a game.
And yet, you can’t say that Hakstol has failed at all.
Each prospect that he’s been handed has grown, the team has made the playoffs twice out of three years — both in surprising fashion — and veterans like Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek rebounded this season. So how can Hextall fire Hakstol right now?
At this moment, Hakstol is probably an average coach in the NHL. For this team, that’s okay mainly because the team, itself, is average. Playoffs and prospect development are adequate goals right now.
But in the coming years and even next season, improvement is expected — and that’s where Hakstol’s issues can come back to bite him. With his lineup and matchup choices that we saw so much against the Penguins, it won’t be easy for the team to go deep in the playoffs.
Although the 2017-18 Flyers season can be counted as a success, the leash has shortened for Hakstol. Improvement needs to come and if it doesn’t, Hakstol will be one of the first to pay for it — even if he’s Hextall’s man.