Ron Hextall was brought back to the City of Brotherly Love 15 years after his playing career ended with one objective in mind- rebuild the Philadelphia Flyers. Through his five seasons at the helm of the Flyers organization, he oversaw some of the most interesting drafts in their history. Ever since his firing in 2018 fans have argued about what his legacy as a drafter is, was he great or was he just fine? Let’s take a year-by-year breakdown and find out.
Hextall’s first at-bat as the general manager set the tone for his reputation as an above-average drafter. What can be looked back on as a decent draft took quite a while to show any results. Sanheim and Lindblom didn’t make the NHL until 2017 and Aube-Kubel didn’t secure a full-time spot until late 2019. Mark Friedman was considered a middle-of-the-road defensive prospect and served as the Phantoms’ top guy until being claimed on waivers in 2021. Fazleev and Pettersson both saw time in North America as well but never made the NHL. Oskar Lindblom will probably go down as the best late-round pick under Hextall’s watch.
2015 will be the year that defined Hextall’s success and propped him up as a draft expert to the masses. He walked away from the first round with two top players that addressed huge holes for the Flyers in Ivan Provorov (7th) and Travis Konency (24th). He drafted an onslaught of goalies, but so far only one has made it to the Flyers’ minor league system in Felix Sandstrom, but Ivan Fedotov seems to be a very talented player that has spent his whole career in various Russian leagues. As for the rest, Tomek and Dove-McFalls were never signed, Marody’s rights were traded away and today he is in the Oilers’ development system, and both David Kase and Mikhail Vorobyev have fled to their native countries after spending their entry-level deals with the Phantoms and limited NHL time. It’s one of those drafts where even if the majority of players were busts, Provorov and Konecny make it all worthwhile, and it’d look even better if one of the goalies ends up making the NHL in the next few seasons.
2016 was the first sign of Ron Hextall trying to get fancy with his early-round picks. He tried to be the smartest guy in the room and pick the players that were, for one reason or another, falling down the draft board. The Flyers traded back four spots with the Jets and took German Rubtsov, who was involved in the Russian doping scandal, 22nd overall, then took Pascal Laberge with the other pick they got from Winnipeg 36th overall, famously passing on Alex DeBrincat, who went two picks later. While neither of those picks were too far from their original projections, they were riskier picks and, due to injuries after they were drafted, neither hold true NHL potential anymore.
Interestingly, even though his first two picks were failures, Hexy did manage to redeem himself by selecting Carter Hart 48th overall. The next five picks, Allison, Twarynski, Bunnaman, Hogberg and Laczynski are all players that have made the NHL or hold the potential to be NHL regulars one day. Allison only has 14 games under his belt but seems to hold the keys to be a bonafide star, while Twarynski, Bunnaman, and Laczynski look to make a fine supporting cast as depth forwards. Hogberg only has one season in the AHL under his belt, and didn’t look out of place doing so and if he continues to grow could eventually see NHL minutes.
Even though Hextall struck out on his first two picks, he more than made up for it later and, once again, added to his reputation as a great drafter
On paper, the 2017 draft should have been the gem of Hextall’s time in Philly, but boy has this train come off the rails in the years since. The Flyers jumped 13 spots to secure the second overall pick, which they ended up using to select consensus number one overall pick Nolan Patrick. He then traded Brayden Schenn for a pair of first round picks, one of which he used to select Morgan Frost, who dominated in juniors after his draft year. Isaac Ratcliffe was a 6’6 beast who was a man amongst boys during his junior years. Kirill Ustimenko was a premier goalie in Russia’s top junior league.
Fast forward to 2021 and Nolan Patrick has never lived up to his original draft hype and has dealt with migraine issues further compacting his on-ice struggles. Morgan Frost has struggled making his leap to the professional levels and destroyed his shoulder which kept him out of the 2021 season. Ratcliffe’s transition to the big leagues has been nothing short of a complete failure as he can’t utilize his size among actual men the same way he could against 16 year olds. Ustimenko spent the 2019-20 season in the ECHL then missed the entire 2020-21 campaign after injuring himself while being loaned during the pandemic. Sushko probably has the highest NHL potential amongst the rest of the players, but even that is a relatively low bar.
To add salt to the wounds, they lost Wyatt Kalynuk who refused to sign with the team after college and looks like a potential stud in the making for the Blackhawks. 2016 was a prime example of not counting your chickens before they hatch, as nothing is a guarantee.
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Ron Hextall’s final draft in Philly may end up being his worst. He managed to snag 12th-ranked North American skater Joel Farabee 14th overall with the pick they acquired the summer before as part of the Brayden Schenn trade, but Hexy went cowboy once again and picked Jay O’Brien with the Flyers’ own first round pick at 19. O’Brien was a consensus late-second round pick in most rankings and has shown zero signs of being an NHL-caliber player since his draft year. Adam Ginning and John St. Ivany have never been signed by the team. Wyatte Wylie is currently playing with the Phantoms and may one day crack the NHL roster, but his overall ceiling is probably on the lower side. Samuel Ersson has been a stud goaltender in Sweden since his draft and recently signed his entry-level deal, but with a transition to different ice in front of him, we won’t get a clear reading on his potential until he suits up for games in the minor leagues first. Neither Hain nor Wesfelt have signed contracts with the club.
All-in-all, Ron Hextall did a fine job drafting. He secured a top guy at each position in Ivan Provorov, Travis Konency and Carter Hart. Farabee seems like he’s a star in the making and Sanheim, Lindblom and Patrick are all competent to a degree in the NHL. The issue is, it could’ve been so much better.
One of the biggest stories of Hextall’s drafting was his willingness to take huge risks early in the draft, but play a very conservative, by-the-numbers approach in the later rounds. Trying to outsmart the competition with those wild picks of O’Brien, Rubtsov and Laberge are the difference between good and great. With all the risks he took early, he seems to target almost exclusively two-way, 200-foot players in the later rounds that had very little upside as a diamond in the rough. Players like Bunnaman, Twarynksi, Sushko, Strome and Vorobyev are all pretty run-of-the-mill players that have made it to the top of the AHL but simply aren’t dynamic enough to earn a full-time NHL gig.
Though in the overall picture, Hexy managed to re-stock the cupboard full of prospects. All six of his picks in 2014 at least made it to the AHL, as well as 8 of his 10 picks in 2016, and 6-of-9 in 2017. That’s a percentage that most teams don’t reach. Now, in an perfect world, those middle-of-the-road prospects are ideally used in trades to make the main roster better rather than have them flee to their home country the second their ELC’s are up, but he never really pulled that trigger, but that’s a different article for a different day.
The star power is undoubtedly lacking, which is about 50/50 his fault and just horrible luck. Hindsight is always 20/20 when it comes to drafting, and now that the dust is starting to settle from Hextall’s reign, it’s safe to say that he was probably had more success than most in the grand scheme of his abilities when it came to finding prospects that made it as far as the AHL, but the lack of elite players to come out of five years and 42 picks is a bit alarming. It’s a prime example of quantity versus quality.
Was Hextall a good or great drafter? Realistically, he lands somewhere in the middle. The players he brought to town had all the potential in the world, but not every prospect to enter your system should be hoarded, and that’s ultimately how he’ll be remembered. A guy with an eye for talent but ended up being his own worst enemy when it came time to push forward with the players he drafted. If he had a bit more pep in his step and gave some of these guys shots in the NHL, or dealt them away at their peaks for current NHL players, we’d probably be able to look back much more fondly on the whole experience, instead the story of Hextall’s time as GM remains “what could of been had he just tried a little harder.”
By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
photo credit: apnews.com