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What Ron Hextall’s 2017 expansion experience means for the Pens

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Can we learn anything from 2017 to apply to 2021 for the Pens and the Seattle expansion?

Pittsburgh Penguins v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

Ron Hextall runs a tight ship, so beyond speculation no real information about the Penguins’ actual plans for the Seattle expansion draft are known.

But the past perhaps provides a reference, given that Hextall has already been the general manager of an NHL team during a recent expansion, in 2017 when he was with Philadelphia and Vegas was coming into the league.

Turns out, we might be able to learn quite a bit, as there is a really interesting parallel for the recent contract extension that the Pens gave to Teddy Blueger.

First and foremost, here’s who the Flyers protected and exposed in 2017:

FORWARDS (7)

Sean Couturier
Valtteri Filppula
Claude Giroux
Scott Laughton
Brayden Schenn
Wayne Simmonds
Jakub Voracek

DEFENSEMEN (3)

Shayne Gostisbehere
Radko Gudas
Brandon Manning

GOALTENDER (1)

Anthony Stolarz

Per the NHL Press Release, the following is the list of AVAILABLE players from the Philadelphia Flyers for the 2017 Expansion Draft:

FORWARDS (13)

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
Greg Carey
Chris Conner
Boyd Gordon
Taylor Leier
Colin McDonald
Andy Miele
Michael Raffl
Matt Read
Chris VandeVelde
Jordan Weal
Dale Weise
Eric Wellwood

DEFENSEMEN (7)

Mark Alt
TJ Brennan
Michael Del Zotto
Andrew MacDonald
Will O’Neill
Jesper Pettersson
Nick Schultz

GOALTENDERS (2)

Steve Mason
Michal Neuvirth

Alright, so what to make of the decisions? Here’s a Broad Street Hockey piece from 2017 when the list was made public:

Of the 11 names on that list, eight of them — Couturier, Filppula, Giroux, Schenn, Simmonds, Voracek, Gostisbehere, and Gudas — come as no surprise at all. All eight of them have been on everyone’s projected lists since this exercise began, as well they should be.

The other three names — one last forward, defenseman, and goalie — were the ones that no one was quite sure of heading into this morning, and it turns out that those respective spots have gone to Laughton, Manning, and Stolarz. Let’s break those three selections down a bit further.

Up front, there were a few possible names that seemed to be in play for that seventh and final forward spot — chief among them, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Michael Raffl, and Jordan Weal. Laughton getting the spot, frankly, comes as a bit of a shock given the fact that he spent only two games in the NHL this past season and was otherwise stuck in Lehigh Valley for the entire year. Does this decision — protecting him over the likes of Bellemare, who was just given an extension and a letter on his jersey, or Raffl, who this team has regularly used as a top-line winger over the past three years — suggest that Laughton may have an inside track to make the Flyers for good next year? It’s a fascinating decision by Ron Hextall, in any case.

Wait – hold the phone. Did anything jump out at you? Let’s highlight a passage:

Does this decision — protecting him over the likes of Bellemare, who was just given an extension

Now isn’t that interesting? Hextall gave Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, a hard-working and well-respected lower line center a $1.4 million contract for two years before expansion, but then left him exposed to the expansion draft….Earlier this week, Hextall gave Teddy Blueger, a hard-working and well-respected lower line center a $2.2 million contract for two years before expansion, with it still officially unknown if Blueger will be protected or exposed in the latest expansion draft.

Is the past a prologue for Blueger’s status? We’ll find out in a few days. But simply signing a forward to an extension is not necessarily a clear signal that Hextall will value a lower line/PK forward enough to protect him (just ask Bellemare, who ended up being the player the Golden Knights took from Philly).

Shifting gears, on defense there is another parallel for Hextall’s 2017 team and his 2021 team in dealing with expansion. Back then, it was defenseman Andrew MacDonald as an over-paid player with three years left on a $5.0 million cap hit. MacDonald had (and has) quite the negative reputation among fans in some circles, but he was also playing on the first pair for much of the 2016-17 season, and his time on ice was second highest among Flyer defensemen.

Despite this big role, Hextall recognized the salary inefficiency and still left MacDonald exposed. More from BSH’s perspective on the fall-out:

On defense, by all accounts it appears the question the Flyers had to answer was “do they think there’s a benefit to exposing MacDonald and his big contract?” If so, then Manning would more or less get the team’s third protection slot by default over MacDonald, who played a top-4 role on the team this past year. We see now that they believed that MacDonald was worth exposing, which puts him on the expansion block.

The lesson shown here is that Hextall will favor on-ice results over role and was willing to leave a big salary out, in the unlikely event it would tempt the expansion team to take an overpaid veteran with a good reputation among coaches, but a hefty salary.

This lesson could perhaps be applied to the statuses of Mike Matheson and Marcus Pettersson, who both have burdensome contracts. It’s been suggested the Pens could protect a third defenseman like Cody Ceci or Mark Friedman and leave both Matheson and Pettersson exposed. And maybe Hextall will go that route, even though he already knows what you likely know – the expansion team isn’t taking a very expensive long-term option like Matheson who has five years left on his contract, for just OK play.

In net, Hextall made another possibly intriguing decision when viewed through the lens of the 2021 draft. The Flyers protected youngster Anthony Stolarz, who at that time had only appeared in seven NHL games. They elected to leave Steve Mason (an impending unrestricted free agent) and Michal Neuvirth (an established NHL caliber goalie and their backup) unprotected. BSH again:

And in net, the selection came down to Michal Neuvirth, the seasoned veteran coming off of a bad and injury-plagued season but who has shown he can play well, or Anthony Stolarz, the young netminder who’s on the cusp of the NHL after three seasons with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Protecting Stolarz shows that the Flyers have some faith in him even despite a bit of an average season with the Phantoms — could it also show that they may be willing to play him in a backup role in the off-chance that Neuvirth goes to Vegas in the expansion draft?

The situation of Tristan Jarry doesn’t totally align with Mason or Neuvirth enough to read too much into this, but it is fairly enlightening to see what Hextall chose to do. Neuvirth was a player they also signed to a two-year extension in March 2017, as BSH mentioned, injuries dogged him throughout that season, but the Flyers still had Neuvirth in the plans in March, only to leave him out there for the taking in July due to a down 2016-17, where he had only a .891 save% in 28 games. If you really squint hard, can you tie Neuvirth in 2016-17 to the way Tristan Jarry fell off in the playoffs in 2021?

Maybe. A little.

But, given this information, it wouldn’t be totally shocking or out of character for how Hextall operated in 2017 if he left his established goalie who stumbled late in the season who still had two years left on his contract open to expansion and protecting a somewhat surprising goaltender. He did it before with Neuvirth, the possibility could be on the table to do the same with Jarry. Or at least seriously, seriously consider it.

The protection of Scott Laughton over Bellemare is probably the most revelationary move Hextall made. It showed committing to a higher upside and skill over a useful and good fourth line player. If that same mentality holds, you can probably expect to see names like Blueger, Brandon Tanev and Zach Aston-Reese all open for Seattle to take.

The other big takeaway is Hextall’s lack of motivation to make side deals. Many Flyers’ fans and media and observers were pondering if Philly would make an extra deal with Vegas to ensure Jordan Weal stayed with the Flyers. Hextall has said recently he won’t deal with Seattle, and had the same mentality for Vegas. That turned out to be a shrewd move, as Hextall didn’t have to cough up extra, unnecessary assets like so many of his peers did – and Vegas didn’t even select Weal anyways when they had the opportunity to do so. As mentioned, Bellemare was the choice.

That experience will be interesting to see what Hextall has learned and if he will adjust. Last time he left a role player he really liked exposed, and it cost him the player. Will Hextall repeat that path with Blueger? We’ll find out in the next few days.