Ron Hextall called the shots at the Wells Fargo Center last weekend during his first NHL draft as Flyers GM. Credit: Getty Images
Sam Hinkie, you missed your calling. You would’ve loved the NHL Draft.
Had it been the Sixers’ general manager rather than Ron Hextall explaining why the Flyers drafted a kid with "tremendous upside" -- like 17-year-old defenseman Travis Sanheim, who won’t be ready for at least a couple of years at the earliest -- no one would’ve blinked. That’s the biggest difference between drafts for the teams which play in the same building.
In hoops drafted players drafted are expected to help almost immediately. In hockey what’s the rush? If they’re good enough, they’ll eventually get here.
"We have to remember these guys are prospects," said Hextall, at this weekend’s draft where the host city’s boisterous fans took more delight in jeering Commissioner Gary Bettman and the mere mention of bitter rivals like the Bruins, Rangers, Devils and especially Penguins than anything the Flyers did. "They have a lot of work to do. It’s now time for Travis to take the next step and work harder, eat right and develop his body There is a growth period here. He’s a long way from playing in the NHL."
Yet, with higher ranked names still on the board when their turn came at No. 17 just before 9 p.m. Friday night— including Sewell, NJ defenseman Anthony DeAngelo and Kaspari Kapenen, son of former Flyer Sami Kapanen — they went for the 6-3 kid ranked only No. 53 by the so-called experts at central scouting. Of course, considering he’d started the season down at No. 167, his growth has already been remarkable.
That’s been a Flyers’ pattern in recent years, including last season when they bypassed higher regarded names for 6-6 defenseman Samuel Morin and later took Swedish blueliner Robert Hagg. Add Shayne Gostisbehere, the star of Union’s Frozen Four run to the NCAA title and Hextall can foresee quite a competition to make the jump to the parent club.
"We got a real good group of young defensemen now," said Hextall, who added yet two more to the crop with third round pick Mark Friedman and Swedish 7th rounder Jesper Pettersson Besides them came 2nd round right wing Nicolas Aube-Kubel and left wingers Oskar Lindblom of Sweden in the fifth round and Russian Radel Fazleev in the sixth. "We have a real good group of young forwards on our team. These guys are gonna join those young forwards in two, three or four years. I got a mental picture in my mind of our team in three, four years and I get really excited."
The newest would-be Flyers — even though it may take awhile before they’re back playing in the Wells Fargo Center, feel the same.
"I knew they were extremely interested in me," said Sanheim, teammates with Fazleev on the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL. . "You could feel the passion in the building when they were making their pick. To be in the building and have that support right away was amazing."
"When I put on the jersey on, it was awesome," added Aube-Kubel, considered a speedy but undersized winger with Val d’Or of the Quebec Junior League, which went to the Memorial Cup semifinals. "Just to hear the screaming for the Flyers in the building was incredible."
Had Hextall been able to pull off the deal he was working on he would’ve really heard something. Making a pitch to Florida for consensus top pick in the draft, defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the Flyers reportedly offered Brayden Schenn, Vinny Lecavalier and Braydon Coburn but refused to include Wayne Simmonds. That, as well as a number of other proposed second-day deals to either move up or acquire more picks, ultimately fell through.
"Somebody else has got to be willing to move," explained Hextall, who hadn’t planned on going as heavy on the defensive end for a franchise which hasn’t had a draft choice play regularly on its back line since Chris Therien in 2004. "Teams say `Yeah, we’ll move back, but then they want a king’s ransom. You can’t move up or do something that you don’t want to do and overpay. If you feel you got the right deal, you do it, and if you don’t, you don’t."
So the Flyers stood pat, leaving Hextall no wiggle room under the salary cap, which came in lower than expected at $69 million when free agency gets underway Tuesday. In fact they’re $236,000 over the ceiling.
"It affects us for sure," conceded Hextall, who tried desperately—in vain—to get someone to assume Lecavalier’s four-year $18 million contract. "We’ve got to find a way to get below it. It was a little lower than we thought and hoped."