Flyers vs. Hurricanes: A Case Study of Drafting and Player Development During the Hextall Era (2014-2018)

There is an old saying that says, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. 

With the 2021 NHL Draft coming up on July 23rd, this famous quote applies to all NHL General Managers and their teams as they look to select players that will make an impact for them in the future.

In terms of selections, this year promises to be a draft filled with mystery and intrigue.  With the COVID-19 pandemic severely impacting junior hockey leagues to varying degrees around the world, NHL scouts will really be tested to provide knowledge and guidance to their respective organizations with few opportunities to actually watch this crop of players live.  As a result, scouts will have to dig deep and recall their notes on players from last season in order to fill in the large knowledge gaps of player information that exist for the current season.

In terms of preparation, GM’s and scouts will “do as the Romans do” and will fall back on the adage of taking the “best player available” strategy regardless of position.  This is the standard line that GM’s always state in order to assure their fan base that the organization will take the best possible player on their draft board and not simply draft based on position.  While the strategy itself makes sense, I personally have always regarded the statement as shallow and empty.  Regardless of which player was selected, GM’s always announce that they got the player that they had targeted from the beginning and that the player selected was indeed the player that was the best available.  Call me skeptical, but how come these draft boards are guarded as strongly as state secrets even years after a draft has taken place?  I am certainly not advocating for people to view the most current or recent information for drafts; but after a period of 5 years, that information would be much less important in terms of evaluating players and would also provide insight on how teams scouting staffs conduct their business and how managers ultimately make decisions related to drafting and developing players.  Why can’t fans and enthusiasts dive into the mysterious world of the boardroom of their favorite NHL team and see the difficult, arduous, and time-consuming work ends up on a draft board?  It would give people great knowledge and insight into the process and create an extra layer of transparency and accountability for management.

Yeah, NHL teams and their management don’t want that.

Lets just continue doing things “as the Romans do” since every NHL team and GM does the exact same thing with respect to player selection on draft weekend.

Instead, the only thing we can really do is to have a post-mortem examination on how well a team’s scouting staff and it’s GM performed when looking at the bulk of their work and comparing it to another organizations ability to draft and develop players.  For this article, I decided to try to find the positives and negatives of the Flyers drafting and development strategy by comparing the tenure of Ron Hextall as GM with that of the Carolina Hurricanes.  The Carolina Hurricanes were chosen as it is a team that has drafted players and integrated them as valuable pieces for their NHL roster.  Many fans (myself included) have been impressed with the Hurricanes style of play and how many of their drafted players have become invaluable contributors in what is most assuredly only the beginning of their Stanley Cup window.  In many ways, Ron Hextall’s patience and building through the draft was a philosophy that many fans got on board with in order to attempt to make the Philadelphia Flyers a Stanley Cup contender in order to finally bring a hockey championship back to a city that has been without one since 1975.

The hope is that the examination of Ron Hextall’s ability to draft and develop players  from May 7, 2014 to November 26, 2018 can be compared and contrasted to a team that is experiencing current and expected future success in order to establish some of the ways that the Flyers as an organization are meeting expectations, and where they are falling short.

Philadelphia Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes Draft Picks from 2014-2018

***All charts and information used was from http://www.hockeydb.com       

2014

Num.RndPlayerPosGP
171Travis SanheimD255
482Nicolas Aube-KubelR95
863Mark FriedmanD16
1385Oskar LindblomL184
1686Radel FazleevC
1987Jesper PetterssonD
Philadelphia Flyers 2014 NHL Draft Selections

Num.RoundPlayerPosGP
71Haydn FleuryD179
372Alex NedeljkovicG29
673Warren FoegeleL200
964Josh WesleyD
974Lucas WallmarkC187
1275Clark BishopC38
1877Kyle JenkinsD
Carolina Hurricanes 2014 NHL Draft Selections

2015

Num.RndPlayerPosGP
71Ivan ProvorovD371
241Travis KonecnyR349
703Felix SandstromG
903Matej TomekG
984Samuel Dove-McFallsC
1044Mikhail VorobyovC35
1285David KaseR7
1586Cooper MarodyC6
1887Ivan FedotovG
Philadelphia Flyers 2015 NHL Draft Selections

Num.RndPlayerPosGP
51Noah HanifinD436
352Sebastian AhoC366
934Callum BoothG
964Nicolas RoyC85
1265Luke StevensL
1385Spencer SmallmanR
1566Jake MassieD
1696David CottonC
1867Steven LorentzC45
Carolina Hurricanes 2015 NHL Draft Selections

2016

Num.RndPlayerPosGP
221German RubtsovC4
362Pascal LabergeC
482Carter HartG101
522Wade AllisonR14
823Carsen TwarynskiL22
1094Connor BunnamanC39
1395Linus HogbergD
1696Tanner LaczynskiC5
1726Anthony SalinitriL
1997David BernhardtD
Philadelphia Flyers 2016 NHL Draft Selections

Num.RndPlayerPosGP
131Jake BeanD44
211Julien GauthierR47
432Janne KuokkanenL62
673Matt FilipeC
743Hudson ElynuikC
753Jack LaFontaineG
1044Max ZimmerL
1345Jeremy HelvigG
1646Noah CarrollD
Carolina Hurricanes 2016 NHL Draft Selections

2017

Num.RndPlayerPosGP
21Nolan PatrickC197
271Morgan FrostC22
352Isaac RatcliffeL
803Kirill UstimenkoG
1064Matthew StromeL
1074Maksim SushkoR2
1375Noah CatesL
1686Olle LycksellL
1967Wyatt KalynukD21
Philadelphia Flyers 2017 NHL Draft Selections

Num.RndPlayerPosGP
121Martin NecasC125
422Eetu LuostarinenC52
522Luke MartinD
673Morgan GeekieC38
733Stelio MattheosR
1044Eetu MakiniemiG
1666Brendan De JongD
1977Ville RasanenD
Carolina Hurricanes 2017 NHL Draft Selections

2018

Num.RndPlayerPosGP
141Joel FarabeeL107
191Jay O’BrienC
502Adam GinningD
1124John St. IvanyD
1275Wyatte WylieD
1435Samuel ErssonG
1746Gavin HainC
2057Marcus WestfaltL
Philadelphia Flyers 2018 NHL Draft Selections

Num.RndPlayerPosGP
21Andrei SvechnikovR205
422Jack DruryC
964Luke HenmanC
1044Lenni KillinenR
1666Jesper SellgrenD
1977Jacob KucharskiG
Carolina Hurricanes 2018 NHL Draft Selections

Analysis

The tale of the tape is quite intriguing.  From the period of 2014-2018, Ron Hextall went to the podium and drafted a total of 42 players for the Philadelphia Flyers.  In the same period, the Carolina Hurricanes selected a total of 39 players.  In 5 drafts, the Flyers therefore selected 3 more players in comparison to the Carolina Hurricanes.  That basically rounds up to the Flyers making an extra selection in each of the last 5 NHL Drafts.

In terms of draft success, is there a difference in the amount of drafted prospects that have played in the NHL?  Out of the 42 players selected by Ron Hextall to this point, 20 of the 42 have played at least one game in the world’s best hockey league.  In terms of overall percentage, that works out to a 47.6% clip which is actually pretty impressive.  On the other hand, the Carolina Hurricanes have had 16 of their 39 selections play at least one game in the NHL for a 41% rate.

The above numbers would indicate that the Flyers have been more successful overall compared to the Carolina Hurricanes in terms of developing players from drafted prospects into NHL players.  While the situations and rosters for each club are different, it also bears to keep in mind the amount of opportunities given to young players in the prospect pipeline to break into the NHL club.  There is a difference between giving players an opportunity to play in the NHL due to injury compared to actually earning a spot as a regular on an NHL roster.  For the purposes of this case study, we will use the benchmark of 82 games (a full regular season in the NHL) to see how that affects prospect and player development.

When this is taken into account; of the 20 players that have went from draftee to playing at least 82 NHL games for the Flyers, the organization has had 7 players (T. Sanheim, I. Provorov, T. Konecny, N. Aube-Kubel, N. Patrick, C. Hart, J. Farabee, and O. Lindblom) out of 42 make the leap to becoming full-time NHL players.  That makes the development rate of the Flyers about 19%.  Conversely, the Carolina Hurricanes also have had 8 players reach the 82-game threshold (A. Svechnikov, M. Necas, N. Hanifin, S. Aho, N. Roy, H. Fleury, L. Wallmark, and W. Foegele) which would make their development rate 20.5%.

Now in all honesty, there is a little bit of flexibility in these numbers for both sides.  Sticking to the rigid 82 game formula neglects players that made their respective NHL club this season in an adjusted 56 game schedule and tends to negatively impact goaltenders.  For the Flyers, Aube-Kubel has played in 95 games and would not have made the list as an established NHL player if the threshold had been 100 games.  Connor Bunnaman thus far has not firmly gripped a roster spot and has played in 21 and 18 games respectively in the last two NHL seasons.  That being said, the success rate for the Flyers should be expected to increase due the fact that Wade Allison and Tanner Laczynski are expected to be mainstays on the Flyers roster for the 2021-22 season.  Also of note would be defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk who was signed by the Chicago Blackhawks this past season.  He featured in only 21 games this past season, but produced 4 goals and 5 assists for 9 points and should be expected to be on the Blackhawks roster full time next year.  While Morgan Frost is still considered to be in the mix for a roster spot, it is certainly not a guarantee for this coming season as his campaign last season was derailed due to injury.  If the three players mentioned above (Kalynuk, Allison, and Laczynski) were to be included in the overall development process as successes, the Flyers would then have graduated 11 players out of 42 prospects for a rate of 26.2%.

For the Hurricanes, Alex Nedeljkovic is well below the 82 game threshold but should absolutely be considered a roster mainstay following his stellar play this season in nailing down the Hurricanes starting goaltender spot and being nominated for the Calder Trophy.  Also cracking an NHL roster this season was Janne Kuokkanen who was traded to the New Jersey Devils.  This season with the Devils, Kuokkanen featured in 50 games and scored 8 goals and 17 assists for 25 points and should continue being an NHL regular.  Defenseman Jake Bean should also be expected to be a full time NHL player this upcoming season.  This past season he featured in 42 games during the regular season and played in all 11 playoff games for the Hurricanes.  Forward Steven Lorentz can also be added to that category as well as he played in 45 regular season games with Carolina (2 goals and 6 assists for 8 points) and all 11 games in the postseason.  Although Eetu Luostarinen played in 44 regular season games with the Florida Panthers this season, he did not play in any of the Panthers playoff games against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs.  Morgan Geekie is a player that I would consider to be on the bubble.  He played in 36 regular season games for the Hurricanes this past season as well as 3 playoff games.  For the purposes of this case study, both Geekie and Luostarinen will be given the same consideration as Connor Bunnaman; they at times can be considered NHL players but they have yet to lock down and solidify a spot on their respective rosters.  Both Julien Gauthier (now with the New York Rangers) and Clark Bishop (now with the Ottawa Senators) will get looks at training camp, but as of writing have not secured roster spots for their respective teams.  Adding Bean, Kuokkanen, Nedeljkovic, and Lorentz would adjust the Hurricanes tally to 12 developed players out of 39 total prospects for a development success rate of 30.8%

Therefore in terms of overall system development, the Hurricanes (30.8%) have a higher success rate as of right now than the Flyers (26.2%) with 4 less picks in the draft.  Are these numbers alone sufficient to make a determination?  Absolutely not.  Keep in mind that draft position plays a key role especially when understanding the variance in the quality of prospective draft classes each year.  Overall the Flyers have selected eight 1st Round picks from 2014-2018 while the Hurricanes have selected six times in the 1st Round.  Of those picks, the Hurricanes have selected in the top 15 selections a total of 5 times in their 6 selections, while the Flyers have selected in the top 15 only 3 times in their 8 selections.

If drafting and development of players is not that significant in differentiating between the Carolina Hurricanes (who by all accounts will be competing for Stanley Cup championships over the next few years) and the Philadelphia Flyers (who have alternated between being a playoff team and not for the last decade), then what is?

The difference is in the utilization of the prospect pool to meet the needs of the NHL roster.

Ron Hextall’s tenure in Philadelphia emphasized the patient approach; that drafting and developing players would turn the franchise around and allow the Flyers to transform themselves into a contender.  Longer term planning was needed to create sustainable success.  Fans who had been used to more of a reactionary, gunslinger approach to acquiring players needed to recognize that the landscape of the salary cap era made a short-term approach unsustainable.  Instead, the process would be a slow and deliberate one that would eventually reap the benefits of a competitive roster year after year. 

It was a grandiose plan that was well thought out and the majority of fans bought in.  There would indeed be growing pains at times, but that is to be expected as young players adapt and learn to play in the best professional hockey league in the world.  Hextall was tasked with making selections at the draft table and filling the cupboard with players to enable players to work their way up from their respective junior teams as amateurs, and eventually earn a spot as a professional player with either the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the AHL or the Flyers at the NHL level.  Overall, Hextall did stock the system; although there are different interpretations of his overall success during his 5 NHL Drafts.

I wouldn’t categorize Hextall as a “draft wizard”, but at the same time labeling him as an incompetent failure at drafting doesn’t fit the mold either.  As the comparison above shows, Hextall’s success rate in comparison with the Carolina Hurricanes is pretty comparable; and although the Hurricanes have developed a higher percentage of NHL players (by 4.6%) that success is tempered by the fact that Ron Hextall simply did not draft as consistently high as Carolina has (although he did make two extra 1st round selections) from 2014-2018. Both teams also selected the same amount of players in the 2nd Round in the same period of time.

The major failing for Hextall was not in terms of selection, but rather it was in not identifying his selections as valuable ingredients that can be used in trades to make the Flyers roster better.

Consider that of the 11 players that the Flyers have developed into regular or expected roster players for this upcoming season, only Wyatt Kalynuk is no longer part of the organization.  It must also be remembered that Kalynuk did not re-sign with the Flyers in order to become a free agent and eventually sign with the Blackhawks.  But by all accounts, the Flyers were trying to sign Kalynuk in order to keep him in the fold.  In other words, the Flyers plan as an organization was to let each of these players simmer in development until they were able to earn a place on the NHL roster while competing with other drafted players.

In comparison; of the 12 Carolina Hurricanes drafted players that have become or are fully expected to become NHL regulars, only 7 players (Svechnikov, Aho, Necas, Nedeljkovic, Foegele, Bean, and Lorentz) remain on the current Hurricanes roster.  The other 5 players that were drafted and developed by the Hurricanes were used to address needs or make immediate improvements to Carolina’s roster via trade.

Lets look at what those 5 players (Hanifin, Fleury, Roy, Wallmark, and Kuokkanen) brought to the Hurricanes current roster via trade.

Noah Hanifin was a 5th overall pick that was dealt to the Calgary Flames on June 23, 2018 as part of a package that included Elias Lindholm (another 5th overall pick) in exchange for defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Adam Fox.  Both Hamilton and Fox have become top-tier rearguards with both players garnering serious consideration for the Norris Trophy after their excellent seasons this past year.  It must be noted that the Hurricanes traded Fox to the New York Rangers for a 2nd Round pick in 2019 (traded by the Hurricanes) and a 2nd Round pick in 2020 (used to select Noel Gunler).

Haydn Fleury was a 7th overall pick from 2014 who was traded by the Hurricanes at the 2020 trade deadline to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Jani Hakenpaa and a 2022 6th Round pick.  While Fleury was mainly dealt due to Seattle expansion concerns with so many defensemen that were protection worthy, it should be recognized that Hakenpaa did end up playing 15 regular season games with the Hurricanes (he also played 42 with the Ducks) and played in all 11 playoff games for the Hurricanes this postseason.  In other words, they parlayed an asset that they could not protect from Seattle into a player that fit into their roster for their current season.  Although Jake Bean falls into the same category, the Hurricanes obviously identified that Bean was more in line with the Hurricanes plans going forward and therefore felt that they had no choice but the capitalize on trading Fleury.  With Hamilton potentially testing free agency, the Hurricanes trading of Fleury means that they can protect Slavin, Pesce, and Bean if they follow a 7-3-1 protection scheme or allow for the flexibility of perhaps working a deal with the Krakken depending on what Hamilton decides to do.

Nicolas Roy was a 4th Round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft that was traded by the Hurricanes with a conditional 5th Round pick to the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for center Erik Haula.  Haula scored 12 goals and 22 points in 41 games for the Hurricanes.

Lucas Wallmark was a 4th Round pick from 2014 that was packaged with the aforementioned Haula (who was a pending free agent), Eetu Luostarinen (mentioned earlier in this piece) and Chase Priskie to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Vincent Trocheck.  While Trocheck combined for 4 points in 15 games (regular season and playoffs) in 2019-20, Trocheck was a key offensive contributor for the Hurricanes this past season with 17 goals and 43 points in 47 regular season games.  Although struggling with injury, he also put up 2 goals and an assist in 9 playoff games in the 2021 playoffs.             

Finally, Janne Kuokkanen was a 2nd Round pick from 2016 that the Hurricanes traded along with Fredrik Claesson and a conditional 2020 4th Round pick to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for defenceman Sami Vatanen in February of 2020.  Vatanen did not suit up for the Hurricanes during the 2019-20 regular season but did play in 7 playoff games where he contributed 3 assists.

With each of these cases, the 5 players that were drafted and developed by the Carolina Hurricanes were traded and used to enhance the NHL team by acquiring talent that fit perceived needs on the roster.  In some cases, the Hurricanes absolutely hit it out of the park by transforming draft/prospect capital into players like Dougie Hamilton and Vincent Trocheck who drastically improved the NHL product.  In other trades, the Hurricanes used their drafted assets to add depth for a playoff run (ie. the Vatanen, and Haula acquisitions) or used them to help navigate the upcoming Seattle expansion draft while adding value (Hakenpaa) that was still able to contribute to the roster during the playoffs.  Even when seeing what Adam Fox has become and how little they received in terms of compensation in that deal, the Hurricanes have done very well overall to improve of their NHL roster through either acquiring established NHL players or adding depth pieces for the playoffs using drafted players as a focal point of their deals to become a contender.  

Conclusion

There is a marked difference in terms of how the Carolina Hurricanes view the drafting, development, and evaluation of players in comparison to the Hextall era Philadelphia Flyers.  While there is a little variance in terms of the actual talent selected, it is the philosophy of how to use the prospect pool to improve the NHL club that is the main difference between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Carolina Hurricanes.

Farm systems and prospects need to be stocked in order to establish future success especially with the hindrance of a salary cap.  Hextall was right to replenish the Flyers’ system and needed the time and the patience of the fanbase to take those important steps.  Where Hextall failed, was that he could not move out of this mindset to move the organization further forward. 

By his own words, Hextall advocated a 3-part plan that included cleaning up the Flyers salary cap situation, developing young players to integrate them into the NHL club, and adding to those pieces when it was ‘go time’.  Hextall continued to preach patience to a cooperative fanbase that had bought into the plan.  As year after year passed by, fans and media saw the continual hoarding of prospects under the guise that progress was taking place even without tangible or sustained success on the ice.  As pressure and frustration mounted, fans began wondering when the Flyers would enter into the ‘go time’ phase of the plan.

The problem was that the Flyers were locked into an organizational mindset of believing that development solely from within would improve the team.  While the Flyers signing of JVR may have signaled ‘go time’ to the fan base, the team still kept players that were woefully underachieving thereby self-sabotaging the final stage of the Hextall plan.  Instead, the Flyers continued keeping and making draft picks under the mirage that they were still in the second phase of the plan while in real-time, 5 years had elapsed.  Any progress that was made on the development front was mitigated by keeping sub-standard talent on the NHL roster without actively trying to improve the team in ways outside of the draft.  It is no wonder that Hextall was fired when the team continued to be an inconsistent group with no ability to make the playoffs consistently after 5-years.     

The Carolina Hurricanes are now a perennial playoff team since the 2018-19 season that has drafted well and was able to develop its talent effectively to help transform it into a potential Stanley Cup contender.  The Hurricanes may have drafted slightly better than Hextall (even when accounting for draft position), but the real difference between the Flyers and the Hurricanes is that Carolina recognized that evaluating talent within the organization as well as in the rest of the league is vital because improvement cannot come solely from within.  Using prospects as trade chips was an integral part of turning the Hurricanes fortunes around.  Having the mindset that prospects should be used in trades to improve the roster helped land players like Dougie Hamilton and Vincent Trocheck.  They also helped to surround young players like Svechnikov, Necas, and Nedeljkovic with established NHL players that made their transition to the NHL easier and coincided with improving the teams chances of experiencing success.

The organizational attitude of the Flyers not recognizing the need to improve by acquiring pieces from outside the organization through the use of the stocked draft cupboard as currency was the fatal flaw of Hextall’s plan.  Whether it was Hextall’s attachments to his draft picks, his inability or unwillingness to move forward with the plan, or fear of making the wrong move (or any move for that matter); the plan ultimately didn’t work as intended due to execution.  Whether that failure is due to arrogance, ignorance, or both; the responsibility lies with the manager. and the current state that the Flyers are mired in can be traced back to that failure.

The Flyers are not in their current state because of Hextall’s plan.  It was a sound plan that stalled and was executed poorly.

The Flyers are not in their current state because of Hextall’s drafting.  Drafting is not an exact science and every GM has successes and failures.  Was he a draft genius? Certainly not.  But he wasn’t the disaster that some claim him to be.  In fact, his drafting and development record is comparable to that of the Carolina Hurricanes who are now for all intents and purposes a perennial contender.

The example of the Carolina Hurricanes shows that the ultimate failure of the Hextall era was not utilizing drafted players and the prospect pool for the express purpose of using them in trades in order to improve the team.  This is the lesson that is blatantly obvious when looking at the Carolina Hurricanes as a case study and should be the lesson learned for Chuck Fletcher and the Flyers moving forward.

To reword the phrase that opened this piece: The Flyers are in Philly, but they should do as the Carolina Hurricanes do.

             

***

Do you agree with the article?  Do you disagree?

Feel free to leave any comments or feedback via twitter or at www.brotherlypuck.com.  .

Until next time from BrotherlyPuck.com,

I remain,

Manny Benevides

@mannybenevides

Photo credit: espn.com / cardiaccane.com

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