“If you’d have told me two years ago I’d be sitting here, the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, I would have started laughing, but here we are. I’m very excited about it.” — Ron Hextall, 2/9/2021
Hextall is not kidding, what a long strange journey it has been for him. Most known in Pittsburgh for being the hot-headed Flyers goalie from 1986-92 and then again from 1994-99. In recent years he was back as the Philadelphia general manager from 2014-18.
It’s that stint which we’re looking back at here, with help from a great GM career retrospective from Broad Street Hockey to learn more about what Hextall did on his first NHL GM job.
But, as Hextall pointed out, just because he had certain tendencies or gained a certain reputation in his first stop, that doesn’t necessarily speak to the entirety of his skills and abilities.
“My philosophy has always been, we want to be as good as we can be,” Hextall said. “We also have to keep the future in mind, but we have to keep today in mind too. This situation I’m coming into now is certainly different than the one that we took over in L.A. or in Philadelphia. I’m not a one-trick pony. I’ll work with [Brian Burke] to, again, become the best team we can today. If we can get better this year, we’ll try to get better.”
Here’s what Hextall has on the resume so far.
Hextall oversaw five drafts in Philadelphia, and he also served as an assistant GM in Los Angeles which built that team up in the late 2000’s into the club that would win the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014 (with Hextall on staff for 2012).
His record with the Flyers showcases some really impressive hits on the draft board.
Travis Sanheim, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Mark Friedman, Oskar Lindblom, Radel Fazleev, Jesper Pettersson
Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, Felix Sandstrom, Matej Tomek, Samuel Dove-McFalls, Mikhail Vorobyev, David Kase, Cooper Marody, Ivan Fedotov
German Rubtsov, Pascal Laberge, Carter Hart, Wade Allison, Carsen Twarynski, Connor Bunnaman, Linus Hogberg, Tanner Lyczynski, Anthony Salinitri, David Bernhardt
Nolan Patrick, Morgan Frost, Isaac Ratcliffe, Kirill Ustimenko, Matthew Strome, Maksim Sushko, Noach Cates, Olle Lycksell, Wyatt Kalynuk
Joel Farabee, Jay O’Brien, Adam Ginning, Jack St. Ivany, Wyatte Wylie, Samuel Ersson, Gavin Hain, Marcus Westfalt
Finding first round hits doesn’t always automatically pay out, but drafting high is the best chance to add NHL talent. Hextall has excelled here finding Sanheim, Provorov, Konecny, Patrick, Frost and Farabee over just a five year period. He did have some high draft spots for Provorov and Patrick, but made it a point to accumulate a lot of draft capital.
It will be interesting to see what Hextall’s strategy is in Pittsburgh. Former GM Jim Rutherford never met a draft pick he wasn’t willing to trade, including trading some of his more promising prospects shortly after drafting them in the vein of FIlip Gustavsson, Calen Addison and Filip Hallander. This year, the Pens already only have a single pick in the first four rounds of the draft (a second rounder). That must be quite the shock to a manager like Hextall.
Hextall did have some first round misses, as anyone would. The hits outnumbered the misses though.
Deeper in the draft, Hextall did well to find Oskar Lindblom, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Carter Hart as diamonds in the rough.
All in all, it’s difficult not to be impressed by Hextall’s draft day results. You can always use hindsight to nitpick or improve him here or there (“why not draft Elias Pettersson instead of Nolan Patrick”, which the answer is no one at the time with any knowledge would have thought to do that), but generally speaking, Hextall is bringing in a positive draft/development resume.
Being as Jim Rutherford made 50+ trades in his almost seven years on the job, the team and fanbase is very conditioned to seeing mega-moves made to bring in new faces. And then send them out, sometimes pretty quickly afterwards. Here are the major trades made by Hextall as Flyers GM:
June 23 - traded Scott Hartnell for RJ Umberger and a 4th round pick (later traded to Los Angeles - Los Angeles selected Austin Wagner. The pick eventually turned into Mikhail Vorobyev)
Feb 27 - traded Timonen to Chicago for a 2nd and a conditional 4th round picks (packaged for Travis Konecny, conditions were met which turned it into a 2nd round pick which was used on Wade Allison)
March 2, 2015 - traded Braydon Coburn to Tampa Bay for Radko Gudas and a 1st and 3rd round picks (1st round pick traded to Columbus - Columbus selected Gabriel Carlsson. The pick eventually turned into Travis Konecny. Matej Tomek was selected with the 3rd round pick)
June 26 - traded a 2015 1st round pick and a 2nd round pick for a 2015 1st round pick (selected Travis Konecny)
June 27 - traded Chris Pronger and Nicklas Grossman to Arizona for Sam Gagner and a 2016 4th round pick (the pick was trade a few times and eventually used in the package to move up to select Isaac Ratcliffe)
Jan 6 - Traded Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn to Los Angeles for Jordan Weal and a 3rd round pick (selected Carsen Twarynski)
June 24 - traded 2016 1st and 3rd round picks to Winnipeg for Chicago’s 1st round pick and Winnipeg’s 2nd round pick (selected German Rubtsov and Pascal Laberge)
March 1 - Traded Mark Streit for Valtteri Filppula, a 4th round pick, and a conditional 7th round pick (selected Maksim Sushko and Wyatt Kalynuk)
June 16 - traded Nick Cousins and the rights to Merrick Madsen to Arizona for the rights to Brendan Warren and a 2018 5th round pick
June 23- traded Brayden Schenn to St. Louis for Jori Lehtera and two first round picks (Morgan Frost & Joel Farabee)
Not a lot here, and frankly a number of these moves (Lecavalier, Pronger, Hartnell, Grossman) were used to move out lengthy and bad contracts, sometimes dead cap money in order to clear out mistakes from the past regime. Hextall will be in familiar territory here looking at Mike Matheson’s grotesque $4.875 million contract that still has 5.75 seasons on it, or Brandon Tanev in a few years as an aging energy player on a monster $3.5 million cap hit that isn’t 25% completed yet could be a headache down the line as well.
One other interesting note is that Hextall was not afraid to be active on draft day and shuffle picks around to move up and get his guy. And his guy one draft night turned into the team’s leading scorer in 2019-20 (Travis Konecny) so that one certainly worked out for the franchise.
Who were the major July 1 signings by Hextall? Let’s take a look.
Ray Emery: 1 year, $1.0 million
Michael Neuvirth (2 years, $1.625 million AAV)
Dale Weise (4 years, $2.35 million AAV),
Brian Elliott (2 years, $2.75 million AAV)
James van Riemsdyk for six years (6 years, $7 million AAV)
Typically July 1 deals end up making a player rich, and a team regret it. Hextall did well to avoid too much pain on July 1’s, though his touchy salary cap situation also tied his hands a little in the early years. Most of his moves were cheap deals to try and add goaltending (the Flyers story!), but the Weise deal was swing and a miss and a reminder to not chase lower-end forwards when you can probably find just as much in the bargain bin.
The van Riemsdyk contract is probably controversial, though the now-31 year old is living up to it by currently leading the team in 2020-21 with 18 points in 13 games. That’s not a deal that can be handed out every year, but Hextall was willing to add the size and skill of JvR, and to this point it hasn’t been a disaster. We’ll see how it’s looking in 2023 when it expires.
What does Ron Hextall’s past major moves teach us about where he is coming from, if it may not show where he is headed with the Pens? His drafting record has been very strong, his trade history is not very active relative to Rutherford, besides on draft days. And his free agency decisions aren’t terrible but weren’t great either.
In all, Hextall was a manager who inherited a cap mess and a team in need of young talent, and eventually he gradually stocked the team up to where they are a very competitive club, and (holds nose) should remain so for several years with the core of players that Hextall provided.
In Pittsburgh, the situation is different, of course. The Pens don’t have many draft picks, and Hextall comes to a place where his next first rounder is already gone. He’s got a few unfavorable contracts and not a ton of young talent, but does have a really good core of players in the age 26-34 “prime” mold (talking Jake Guentzel Brians Rust and Dumoulin, Zucker, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang).
How Hextall moves ahead and shapes the team in order to get the most out of the Crosby/Malkin final years will be an incredibly interesting and important time in the Penguin franchise history. And just maybe by the time it is all over Pens’ fans will remember something else than that time Hextall went after Robbie Brown by the time it’s all said and done.