Ron Hextall: Flyers have ‘come a long ways' toward contending for Stanley Cup

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VOORHEES, N.J. -- Over the past eight NHL seasons, only four teams have won a Stanley Cup — Boston, Pittsburgh (2), Los Angeles (2) and Chicago (3).

Ron Hextall has been watching.

He has one ring already from his days as an assistant general manager with the Kings in 2012.

“The one thing I’ve learned over the years is you have to be very careful being a copycat,” the Flyers' GM said Thursday. “When you start chasing everybody, you go away from your foundation and the very next year a team that plays a totally different style wins a Cup.

“So you’ve got to be careful there. You’ve got to believe what you believe in, stick to your foundation and make little adjustments rather than flip from black to white. Pitt’s got a good team.”

The Penguins and Flyers were the two hottest NHL clubs from February to the finish line. Pittsburgh was hotter and played dominantly into the playoffs behind rookie goalie, Matt Murray.

Under Pens GM Jim Rutherford, the club was top-heavy with huge contracts — Evgeni Malkin ($9.5 million), Sidney Crosby ($8.7 mm), Kris Letang ($7.25 mm), Phil Kessel ($6.8 mm) and Marc-Andre Fleury ($5.75 mm).

“People question whether you can win with three or four guys as high on the cap as they have and they win,” Hextall said of Rutherford’s gamble. “They kind of went against conventional wisdom there, and they won.

“So, no real blueprint where you say this is the only way to win. You look at Chicago, you look at L.A., back to Chicago, Pittsburgh, there’s differences. Probably Chicago and Pitt are closer than L.A. and Pitt, but they’ve both won.

“Again there’s no blueprint necessarily to say this is the perfect team. Pitt didn’t win last year but they added some speed and stuff, but they had some pretty good pieces in place.”

Rutherford’s shrewd moves to acquire Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and others, plus the coaching change to Mike Sullivan in December and the guts to promote a half-dozen rookies represented an extraordinary leap of faith to win a Cup.

Somehow, it worked in Pittsburgh.

Here in Philadelphia, Hextall remains in the midst of an on-going transformation of his club. Unlike the Penguins, who underwent a dramatic makeover once Rutherford took over for interim GM Jason Botterill, the Flyers are not reshaping their roster in dramatic fashion.

“The time was right for [Pittsburgh],” Hextall said. “Their top two guys are in their late 20s and it’s time for them to win. They did a good job, their coaches. Their players were committed and they did a good job.

“Obviously, they made some good acquisitions there during the year and I think they had some kids step up. [Bryan] Rust and [Tom] Kuhnhackl and [Conor] Sheary, those guys added a lot. They don’t only add what they add on the ice but they give you some enthusiasm.

“They were good role players for them. They did a good job no doubt. Those kids might have added as much. Matt Murray – those guys have added a lot. Those are system kids. Jimmy [Rutherford] made some good acquisitions there for sure.”

Claude Giroux is in his late 20s, but the Flyers lack enough supporting pieces around him to be considered in Pittsburgh’s category.

Wheras the Penguins had several impact rookies on their club this past season, the Flyers had just one – defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, a notable Calder Trophy finalist. The Flyers could have two impact rookies next season in defenseman Ivan Provorov and forward Travis Konecny if they make the roster.

Hextall had an interesting observation on Murray.

“We saw him in the minors,” Hextall said. “He spent a year-and-three-fourths in the minors and came in to be a No. 1 guy. That’s kind of what you want. If he comes right up as a 20-year-old, he’s sitting on the bench and what good is that?

“Goes into the minors and plays really well for a year and a half or three-fourths and steps right in at the end of the year. It’s a helluva job. He was ready. His growth was right. Junior, American League for a year-and-three-fourths and now he played like a No. 1 guy instead of rotting on the bench.”

What Hextall is hinting at is his rationale for keeping goalie Anthony Stolarz with the Phantoms at least one more season. He’ll let Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth fight it out in training camp for the No. 1, while Stolarz remains in the AHL — just like Murray — for more grooming to be ready to assume a No. 1 role when he's promoted.

As for Hextall’s plan to get the Flyers into that select group of elite clubs that are Cup contenders …

“I’m excited about where we’re at, but in saying that, it’s a process,” Hextall said. “It doesn’t happen quickly, it takes time.”

Hextall’s philosophy is much like Bob Clarke’s, but with exceptions in terms of order. Clarke’s priorities were centers, defense, goaltending.

“I still believe goaltending, defense, centers,” Hextall said. “Build through the middle. In terms of how far away we are … talk is cheap. We need to keep building here and find ways to get better and allow our success to tell us when our time has come.

“I can sit here and say we are this far away from being a top team but we’ve got a lot of work to do to become a top team. I know that. We had some success last year, but we lost out in the first round. We made the playoffs — OK, that’s fine and dandy. But that’s not what we’re here to do. We have a lot of work to do no doubt about it.”

It begins anew Friday in Buffalo, New York, with the NHL draft. Hextall said the emphasis will be to add bigger, skilled forwards. He also wants to add a top six winger via free agency.

Asked whether he might try to do that by orchestrating a trade with a team for a potential free agent ahead of July 1, Hextall said that would work for him but wasn’t likely to occur.

He also did not dismiss the possibility of using one of his bargaining chips — he is deep with defensive prospects — but only if the player coming back is a major acquisition.

“Are we better than we were last year? As a team, as an organization, our depth chart, damn right we’re a lot better,” Hextall said.

“Now is that going to show up in the NHL in October? We’ll see. But I know our kids got better. Plant your garden … you know what shoots are coming up now. They’re not full, the flowers aren’t there. But we’ve come a long ways in this organization in the past year.”

The journey to become a Cup contender remains ongoing.

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