Ron Hextall doesn’t like using the word rebuild when describing his four seasons as the Flyers’ general manager, but, in a sense, that’s what has transpired.
Well, the rebuild is officially over.
The Flyers made a bold, expensive move and greatly upgraded their offense by signing a Jersey guy, James van Riemsdyk, when the free-agent market opened Sunday and Hextall decided to go “all in.”
Van Riemsdyk isn’t as fast as he was in his first stint with the Flyers, but he is a big-time presence around the net. The wide-bodied left winger scored 36 goals for Toronto last season, and he helps give the Flyers a dynamic top six while also improving their power play.
Having dug himself out of the salary-cap problems he inherited when he took the job in 2014, Hextall finally had some money to spend and he was able to sign one of the top free agents in the class.
“Our philosophy four years ago was more to get our cap in order and gather young assets,” Hextall said, “and we’ve kind of been through that process now. It’s coming to fruition now in terms of guys we have on our team, and when we can add somewhere to strengthen our team, we want to do it. And we’ll continue to try to do it.”
It will take more than van Riemsdyk, of course, to make the Flyers a serious Stanley Cup contender. Their goaltending is still iffy, especially with Brian Elliott having core-muscle surgery in February and not looking like himself after he returned late in the season.
In addition, Hextall was unable to land the third-line center or veteran defenseman he coveted, primarily because the players he pursued were asking for contracts that the general manager deemed too lengthy.
“As of right now, the one thing we don’t want to do is box our kids out that we feel are pretty good players long-term here,” Hextall said. “The term thing is a big issue for us right now.”
Travis Sanheim is expected to be a defensive regular this year, and Samuel Morin, who won’t be able to play until February because of knee surgery, and blossoming Phil Myers figure to join the defense in 2019-20.
Thus, to Hextall’s way of thinking, veteran defensemen like Ian Cole or John Moore weren’t as attractive — at least not for what they were asking. Both would have stabilized the defense, but Cole signed a three-year, $12.75 million deal with Colorado, and Moore got a five-year, $13.75 million contract with Boston.
Calvin de Haan, a second-pairing type who had shoulder surgery in January, is still available, but Hextall apparently doesn’t like the term he is seeking.
Talking about free-agent defensemen in general, Hextall said he was “sort of waiting. Whether something’s going to come around, I don’t know. We’ll try to get better at every position. If the right player is there on a short-term deal, we’ll take a long, hard look at it.”
Hextall seemed disappointed he wasn’t able to add a third-line center. Tyler Bozak went to St. Louis (three years, $15 million), Paul Stastny signed with Vegas (three years, $19.5 million), Riley Nash got three years for $8.25 million with Columbus, and Jay Beagle, who would have been a good addition to the penalty kill, signed a four-year deal with Vancouver for $12 million.
Hextall may fill the third-line-center spot internally. Scott Laughton needs to produce more offense on a consistent basis to handle the role. Then again, if Laughton is put between wingers such as Oskar Lindblom and Wayne Simmonds, his production may increase.
“We’ll continue to look at what’s around, whether it’s the market or trades,” Hextall said. “Sometimes the market guys are looking for three-, four- or five-year deals and then all of a sudden in mid-July they’re happy to get one.”
That said, Hextall is comfortable if he has to fill that third-line center spot from within. “I like our internal options better than committing to a long-term deal on a player,” he said.
There is another intriguing candidate, mega-prospect Morgan Frost. At 19, he is a long shot, even though he tore up the Ontario Hockey League with 112 points and a ridiculous plus-70 rating last season. Hextall said Frost needs to get stronger, but he has bulked up to 184 pounds, and with a big summer in the weight room, perhaps the 19-year-old will dazzle the Flyers in camp and force his way onto the roster.
“We’ll see,” Hextall said. “He’s got work to do.”
There is plenty of time for Hextall to add another piece or two before the Flyers open the season in Las Vegas on Oct. 4. But he has to feel good to have landed one of the best players on the market, even if the term (five years) and cap hit ($7 million) were a little steep for the 29-year-old van Riemsdyk.
Hextall said he had four or five forwards that he pegged in free agency. “That was our line. We weren’t going past that,” he said. “We weren’t signing someone similar to what we have. We got one of those guys, so we feel fortunate.”
Fortunate, but not satisfied. This is a team that allowed 4.67 goals per game in its playoff series against Pittsburgh. This is a team that took a nice step Sunday but still has defensive deficiencies and goalie questions that won’t be masked by a 36-goal scorer.
But, hey, they look a lot stronger than at any time in Hextall’s tenure.