Hextall’s Defense Plan: Build from Within


Over the course of the Philadelphia Flyers' franchise history, most of the best defensemen the team has ever had have been players acquired from outside the organization: Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Mark Howe leads the list, followed by the likes of Eric Desjardins, Kimmo Timonen and for all-too-brief periods of time Bob "the Count" Dailey and Chris Pronger before the two suffered respective career-ending injuries.

All of these players enjoyed varying measures of success in their careers before they came to Philadelphia. In terms of the top homegrown defensemen — players drafted and developed from within the organization — the list starts with five-time NHL All-Star Jimmy Watson and includes the likes of Tom Bladon and Behn Wilson. Chris Therien would qualify as the top candidate over the last two decades.

However, a funny thing has happened in the Philadelphia Flyers' farm system over the last three years: A franchise that has often struggled to draft and develop their own NHL-level defensemen has made a concerted effort to stock up on defense prospects in the last four NHL Drafts.

While it may still take a few years to pay dividends at the NHL level, the Flyers have steadily increased the odds that at least a couple of the current prospects in the pipeline will someday blossom into above-average NHL defensemen.

One of the biggest root causes of the Flyers' salary cap issues has been the lack of young homegrown defensemen on entry-level or bridge contracts. On a leaguewide basis, salaries for veteran blueliners who have reached unrestricted free agent eligibility (or at least are close to it and signed multi-year extensions to pre-empt UFA years) have skyrocketed.

Quite simply, the more UFA-aged veteran defensemen that a team has, the more disproportionate the percentage of a club's total salary cap figure will be devoted to the blueline. In September 2014, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall noted that teams around the league tend to horde defensemen, which creates shortages and drives up market prices for the ones who opt for unrestricted free agency.

Left unsaid was the fact that the Flyers have been as guilty as any team in the NHL of re-signing their own would-be unrestricted free agent defensemen to pre-emptive long-term deals at full — or nearly full — value to what they would have received on the open market as unrestricted free agents (UFA).

Take the case of Andrew MacDonald, for example. Shortly after the Flyers traded  second-round and third-round draft picks to acquire the impending UFA from the New York Islanders, the team pre-empted his UFA eligibility by signing him to a six-year, $30 million contract extension that kicked in for the 2014-15 season.

The deal was signed while Paul Holmgren (now the organization's president) was still the Flyers' general manager and Hextall was being groomed to take over the post. After being named GM, Hextall said he was comfortable with MacDonald's contract.  

"Both sides comprised a bit on the deal," said Hextall. "They wanted a little more, we wanted a little less. In the end, those are usually the fair deals." 

Many immediately disagreed with that assessment. However, a pro scout for another NHL team defended the Flyers' decision.

"The UFA market is crazy, especially for defensemen," he said. "MacDonald would definitely have gotten some offers like the one Philly gave him [to re-sign early]. Probably even a little higher. Is it overpayment? Yes. But that's just the reality."

The pre-emptive MacDonald deal wasn't all that much more outrageous than Matt Niskanen parlaying a career year into a seven-year, $5.75 million cap hit contract as an unrestricted free agent. The Brooks Orpik ($5.5 million for five years) and Deryk Engelland (a career sixth defenseman getting $2.9 million for three years) deals on July 1 were even more reflective of the staggering open market prices that exist. 

One year later, the Flyers may have some buyer's remorse. MacDonald struggled with injuries and inconsistency in his first year under the new contract and his contract has become a detriment in terms of limiting trading options.

The same NHL scout said he views the NHL hierarchy of defensemen as a pyramid. MacDonald, in his view, is still capable of being a middle-of-the-pyramid player. 

At the top of the pyramid are the very rare franchise defensemen who are perennial Norris Trophy candidates. In their entire franchise history, the Flyers have only had two such players: Howe and, all too briefly, Pronger.

The next, slightly wider tier, are All-Star caliber defensemen. Timonen played to this level for much of his career before showing gradual signs of decline. Ditto Desjardins and Jim Watson.

The pyramid widens further in the middle. These defensemen do certain things well enough to be above-average in those facets of the game but also have one or more significant flaws in their games. 

Moving down to an even fourth wider tier, there are third-pairing specialists who do one thing well and are perhaps passable in another area. However, these players should not be relied upon for more than about 12 to 14 situation-based minutes of ice time per game.

At the very wide base of the pyramid, there is a cadre of defensemen who are barely serviceable as more than NHL fill-ins or AHL regulars. They may be able to eke out about 10 carefully handpicked minutes of ice time per game or to fill in for an injured teammate for a few games but these are not players in whom coaches have a high degree of trust in close games.

The problem with the Flyers' defense corps in recent years has NOT been a lack of bonafide NHL defensemen on the roster. Rather, it has been a dearth of players who fit near the top of the pyramid on a leaguewide basis and an over-abundance of one who fit in the mid-to-lower segments. Meanwhile, because virtually all of the regular starters were veterans of free agency eligible age, they all earned inflated salaries. Their combined cap hits threw the Flyers' salary cap picture out of whack. 

In order for the Flyers to get a few years of relief from the cycle of constantly trading Draft pick assets and then spending open market prices to lock up middle-of-the-pyramid to specialist defensemen, it was imperative that they nurture some of their own defensemen in the system into bonafide NHL players. Even if none of them reach the top of the pyramid or next step down, simply having a few mid-range NHL players on entry level or bridge contracts will open up salary cap space to address other needs.

The threefold process of correcting the problem actually started shortly before the Flyers brought Hextall back from Los Angeles but greatly expanded under his watch.

Step one: Doubling down on scouting homework on defense prospects available in the NHL Draft. Historically, the Flyers have fared better in drafting forwards and the organization has long kept to a "best available player regardless of position" philosophy in the early rounds.  However, it was tough to ignore the alarming number of outright misses (especially in the second round) or players who made the NHL but didn't quite live up their potential while in Philadelphia when the organization did draft defensemen in the earlier rounds.

What did the Flyers' earlier busts have in common? Players such as 2001 first-round pick Jeff Woywitka, and second rounders Jason Beckett, Ian Forbes, Denis Bodrov and Kevin Marshall (for whom the Flyers traded up in the 2007 Draft in order to grab in the second round) all had huge frames and/or a penchant for physical play but either had suspect puck skills or suspect hockey sense. Woywitka, who was traded while in his first pro season, eventually reached the NHL as a botton-of-the-lineup defensemen. None of the others made it.

In more recent years, there has been a paradigm shift in the way the Flyers scout defensemen. The Flyers place very high scouting emphasis on mobility, hockey sense and puck-possession skills that is every bit as important as size and truculence; in some cases, even more so. This has been evident in the middle rounds, where the team has grabbed players such as Shayne Gostisbehere and Mark Friedman, who are undersized but have high skill and hockey IQ levels.

Step two: Replenish the blueline prospect pool through the NHL Draft.  In the past, the Flyers were in perpetual "win now" mode at the expense of trading away upcoming draft picks and/or young NHL players in favor of immediate help from veterans. If a team goes to that well too often, it has a detrimental effect both on the farm system and the salary cap structure.

One of the biggest changes that Hextall has emphasized thus far in his general manager tenure has been to avoid quick-fix trades. He has hung onto draft picks and added more whenever possible.

Shortly before the Flyers brought back Hextall as an assistant GM with a longer-range plan of having him succeed Holmgren, the Flyers used their first-round and second-round picks of the 2013 NHL Draft to select defensemen Samuel Morin and Robert Hägg. Although the Flyers would have taken a higher-ranked forward if one had fallen to them  in their draft slot, there was a bit of added priority given to honing in draft-eligible defensemen within that range.

In the 2014 Draft, Travis Sanheim was higher-ranked internally by the Flyers than any of the forwards available with the 17th overall pick. He showed why during the 2014-15 season, enjoying an outstanding campaign in the Western Hockey League in which he progressed in every area of the game and even led all defensemen in the league in scoring.  In the third round of the draft, the Flyers took college-bound sleeper prospect Friedman, whom many in the organization has a pro hockey future ahead of him.

In the recently completed 2015 Draft, the Flyers ranked Ivan Provorov very high and even contemplated moving up from seventh overall to ensure another team (most likely the Columbus Blue Jackets) did not trade up to select Provorov ahead of them. Ultimately, the Flyers decided to hold tight and Provorov was still there with the seventh pick.

The Flyers now have a very deep and talented pool of defense prospects: Provorov, Sanheim, Morin, 2012 third-round pick Gostisbehere and Hägg are the top five in order, with Provorov and Sanheim currently being more of a 1A and 1B gradation.  The organization is also high on Friedman, while 2012 fifth-round pick Reece Willcox has a chance at getting an entry-level contract if he has a strong senior year at Cornell following a junior season that was set back by a high ankle sprain. 

Furthermore, the organization has not given up on former Carolina Hurricanes second-round pick Mark Alt (acquired via trade in 2013), whose second pro season was set back by a series of injuries. Lastly, undersized but spunky defensive defenseman Jesper Pettersson will enter his second pro season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in 2015-16. 

Phase three: Focus on patient development. In many ways, this is the most important and difficult part of the process. Defensemen tend to require substantial learning curves at the pro level, and it is very easy to get impatient. It's vital for players to develop properly.

Hextall strongly emphasizes a mantra of patience and has said that he would rather wait a year too long to place significant NHL responsibilities on a prospect than rush him into a regular spot and then watch him struggle. He is especially cautious about defensemen because it is quite common for young defensemen to do well early on and then "hit the wall" later in their rookie season or over the next season or two after that. 

The Flyers in recent years have greatly expanded the scope of their "player development coach" responsibilities. It has become a full-time job, with longtime NHL defenseman and AHL coach Kjell Samuelsson roving to work with defensemen in the system and John Riley working with forwards. It is possible the organization may also add a full-time goalie development coach. 

The development process is the least familiar phase to casual hockey fans, but is indispensable. It begins very shortly after the player is drafted.  Unfortunately, it can take several years — not months — to see the process through and there can easily be some stumbles along the way. There are no guarantees of optimal returns on investment.

As their young defensemen start to reach the NHL level as regulars, players will be doled out only the responsibilities they are ready to handle. The workload will increase as the players become adjusted and take advantage of opportunities.

It is unlikely that every player in the Flyers' prospect pool — including all five atop the defense hopefuls list — will blossom into impact players at the NHL level. However, the pool is so deep and so much attention is being paid to development details that the odds are pretty good that a few will probably become vital parts of the NHL team while still in the relatively early (read: less costly on the salary cap) phases of their professional career.

Former NHL executive and current TSN director of scouting Craig Button lauds the approach that Hextall has taken.

"This is what the NHL is all about today," said Button. "You have to draft and develop from within, especially the top end of your blueline. You can't get them in free agency and no one is trading them to you. You have to do it yourself."

Hextall gets that, and virtually everything he has done thus far as Flyers general manager has been done with those objectives in mind. It won't be a quick process, nor will the Flyers immediately be more than a bubble team in terms of playoff possibilities. In the long-term, however, he is following the model by which perpetual championship contenders are built. 

As reasonably inexpensive young players develop and assume roles in key lineup spots, there is more cap flexibility to add prominent free agent forwards or to make multi-piece trades that do not hurt system depth. 

Bill Meltzer is a columnist for Flyerdelphia. Follow him on Twitter @billmeltzer.

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