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What do Ron Hextall’s first round drafting tendencies tell us?

A look at what the past might mean for the future with the Penguins’ 2022 first round pick

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Rangers - Game Two Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Ron Hextall participated at the helm of five drafts while serving as the general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers from May 2014 to November 2018. In this time, due to trades, he made a total of eight first round picks over the years. Hextall has not yet made a first round pick as the Penguins’ GM, because former the GM Jim Rutherford had already traded away the 2021 first overall pick, so Pittsburgh’s 21st overall selection on July 7th is set to be his first crack at it.

Here’s a look at Hextall’s history, to see if we can pickup any tendencies based on the actions and directions he took in the past.

(Note: heights/weights are probably a current view, to show what players have grown into)

Ron Hextall Draft History, First Round Selections

Year Pick No. Player Position Height Weight League
Year Pick No. Player Position Height Weight League
2014 17 Travis Sanheim Defense (left) 6'3" 181 WHL
2015 7 Ivan Provorov Defense (left) 6'1 201 WHL
2015 24 Travis Konecny Wing 5'10 175 OHL
2016 22 German Rubtsov Center 6'1 181 Russia
2017 2 Nolan Patrick Center 6'2 198 WHL
2017 27 Morgan Frost Center 5'11 170 OHL
2018 14 Joel Farabee Wing 6'0 183 US Devel
2018 19 Jay O'Brien Center 5'11 176 US Prep

Here are some items we can learn from the past:

An active trader

Other than the obvious point at the trade deadline, if ever there was a time to be on a high alert and watch for a trade with Hextall, the time around the NHL draft is key. The Pens are entering with pick No. 21, but they might not be using that exact pick, Hextall has a pattern of making moves both up and down in the first round over the years.

In 2016, Hextall moved down from 18th overall to drop down to 22nd. That netted him a high second-rounder as well, at 36th overall (to which he included a third rounder at 79th to balance the transaction out).

In 2015, Hextall did the opposite and moved up from 29th overall (at the price of giving up a late-second round pick at 61st) to go up to 24th and land the guy he liked in Konecny.

Though in the second round, in 2017 he moved a couple of mid-round picks to improve from 44th to 35th overall to be in position to draft Isaac Ratcliffe.

Hextall is not really known as a wheeler and dealer to be active with a high volume of trades, but the draft is an exception. He’s made several other trades at or near the draft, like the move that sent Brayden Schenn to St. Louis for two first round picks.

A North American is usually the play

Seven of Hextall’s eight first round picks have come from either the Canadian Junior system, or America. From Canada, due circumstances or design, he has not draft a first rounder out of Quebec but has frequented the Western Hockey League (three times) and the Ontario league (twice). Two other times he drafted Americans with ties to the US National team system.

Hextall did draft a Russian player once, but has yet to select a player from the Scandinavian regions. And though it could well be more of coincidence and a short sample more than anything else — it’s at least notable to point out that Hextall (a Western Canadian who matriculated in the WHL) has used more first round picks on WHL products than any other region. In what clearly is a coincidence, Hextall has picked two players (Nolan Patrick and Ivan Provorov) who even played for the very same team as him, the Brandon Wheat Kings.

The past might not always predict the future in this instance, teams will select from wherever they feel the best prospect available is, but the pattern of drafting North American players is pretty well defined at this point.

Center and left defense heavy

It isn’t a shocking development to see that most of the players Hextall has selected high have been centers, since generally speaking many of the best young forwards tend to play center ice at lower levels (including Penguin players like Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel who shifted to wingers as pro players).

A lack of right handed defenders could be a result of limited supply but does stand out after eight years that Hextall didn’t see a match or make it a priority to add there.

Playing it safe?

For hockey, with picks even in the middle of first round, analyzing picks becomes much harder. But Hextall made two top-10 picks that might tip his hand about a draft philosophy.

In what has developed into Hextall’s perhaps most controversial pick, he grabbed Nolan Patrick at #2 in 2017. For a while in the pre-draft process, Patrick was considered the leading contender to be first overall, so it does reek of hindsight to bash Hextall too heavily for making what at the time seemed like a good value based on what has transpired after the draft. After all, he made perhaps the obvious choice in the moment.

However, there was talk that Elias Pettersson and Cale Makar were rising quickly at the end of the pre-draft time, as was Miro Heiskanen. These players went in the next three picks after Patrick (though in inverse order as written above). Any of the three would have been much better picks, with the benefit of knowing the future.

As we see though, all of these players have some strikes against them from the developing Hextall overall strategy, with a RHD (Makar) not being coveted and straying from Finland/Sweden (Heiskanen, Pettersson respectively).

Hextall also took what was seen as a safe lane with Provorov high in the 2015 draft, with the subsequent picks being a louder defender in Zach Werenski, and forwards Timo Meier (playing in Quebec) and Mikko Rantanen (Finland) the other main choices that Hextall elected to pick around.

“Playing it safe” is not necessarily a criticism or pejorative for a NHL drafting strategy, but it also seems fair to say Hextall has tended to use conventional wisdom at draft time and go for safer picks (like Patrick) instead of a potential boom/bust selection like Makar or Pettersson.

Pretty good batting average

Hextall has done well drafting in the first round, particularly a little deeper into it. O’Brien has had a floundering path so far, jury is still out on him but it isn’t looking good and Rubtsov hasn’t quite been an NHL caliber player either. While those misses exist, grabbing players like Sanheim, Konecny and even Farabee towards the middle of the first round is a pretty impressive track record for Hextall picking at the top of the draft.

Surveying the field

The tough part about forecasting NHL drafting is that where the Pens are scheduled to pick (No. 21) it wouldn’t be a shock if they took anyone from about #15-40ish in most of the pre-draft rankings. It is difficult to predict which teams are high on the futures of players who have so much development to go. Unlike, say the NFL draft where mock first rounds can predict with a high degree of confidence which players should go at about which point in the draft, there is a lot more variability in the sport of hockey.

That disclaimer aside, here’s a Sportsnet listing of some players about in the range to potentially be available for Pittsburgh at 21, or close enough where Hextall may elect to trade up or down a few picks to zero in on his preference, while eliminating some of the names from leagues or spots he has avoided.

16. Jimmy Snuggerud, RW, USNTDP: Has the strength to apply himself to impact the game physically if his goal-scoring is off.

17. Frank Nazar III, C, USNTDP: There’s a nice element of explosiveness in his game to make him an effective small area player.

19. Denton Mateychuk, D, Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL): In terms of his approach, there are few better in this class. He takes command out on the ice leading vocally and by example.

20. Jack Hughes, C, Northeastern (NCAA): Super skilled and creative player who moves effortlessly, while playing with his head up to easily assess his best option.

21. Kevin Korchinski, D, Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL): Reports vary widely on this player. You’re wowed by the skating ability and edgework, as much as you’re concerned about his ability to defend.

23. Isaac Howard, LW, USNTDP: Have to determine whether or not he can be a top-six forward. If he can’t, is there enough of a ‘Plan B’ to make him an effective middle- or bottom-six player?

27. Rutger McGroarty, LW, USNTDP: As a solid two-way option, his personality and leadership qualities make him a viable pick in the latter stages of Round 1.

31. Luca Del Bel Belluz, C, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL): Plays both sides effectively. Will need to add weight and strength to steepen the developmental curve.

For different reasons the above names make sense for some consideration based on a rough scan of Hextall’s past. But the past doesn’t always foretell the future, and the Pens’ organization has different needs compared to where Philadelphia was and what their goals were at that time.