Opinion

The Nolan Patrick Problem.

When Ron Hextall was hired as the successor to Paul Holmgren in 2014 he brought along with him a blueprint to help the Philadelphia Flyers win the Stanley Cup. Hextall’s plan was straight forward and easy to understand:

  1. Clean up Paul Holmgren’s salary cap mess.
  2. Build from within – develop and draft a large pool of young talent.
  3. Go all in and try to win the Stanley Cup.

Ron Hextall’s plan was not radical or incoherent, it did not base itself off of a new fancy statistic created by an algorithm – it was straight forward and easy to understand. It also went against one of the biggest problems in Philadelphia sports: impatience. Fans of the Philadelphia Flyers were spoiled as it was simply commonplace to expect a blockbuster trade or big free agent signing regularly. For two decades it felt like the Flyers were going all in, attempting to win the Stanley Cup nearly every season.

Having Ron Hextall preach his philosophy of patience and over ‘cooking’ (developing) internal talent was a breath of fresh air to hockey in Philadelphia when he stepped into the role of General Manager in 2014. With Paul Holmgren throwing every penny possible at free agents and trading away draft picks like he was on a mission to draft the least amount of players possible – having ‘Hexy’ was a fantastic change of pace. Hextall was not shy about the team being a few years away from true contention; and also showed that no matter what he was not going to steer away from his plan, which would ultimately be his downfall in Philadelphia.

The 2020-2021 NHL season is winding down; Ron Hextall is now running the show in Pittsburgh as their General Manager and current Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher was handcuffed at the recent trade deadline. Fletcher was unable to make a ‘win now’ move because the team, who has been sputtering out of control for six weeks, is showing no signs of stabilizing. Hextall’s plan went into the garage bin three years ago – but why after years of staying on course did everything crash? Why did a franchise and fanbase who truly bought into a different way of thinking just sweep it all under the rug? Why did this plan fail? What if we were able to see the Hextall led Flyers in their final phase of his blueprint?

It’s easy to form an endless list of hypothetical questions. But essentially impossible to find a unanimously agreed upon answer to those same hypothetical questions. Instead we’re left to try and put together the puzzle of what could’ve been; using the information and facts that are floating around in time and space. This piece that you are about to read, for the most part, is a mix of true facts with some speculation sprinkled in.

The amount of optimism and hope surrounding the Flyers was starting to boil over as we entered the summer of 2017. The team had a blossoming pool of defensive prospects, a blue chip goalie, can’t miss goalie prospect in Carter Hart and most the most exciting part of it all: the second overall selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Prior to 2017 the Flyers held the 2nd overall pick one other time, in 2006, where they lost out on the Patrick Kane lottery and received James van Riemsdyk as a consolation prize. Picking within the top five of the entry draft is, in most cases, looked at as a team receiving a franchise altering player. Typically, players selected with within the top five have a high pedigree and are expected to make an impact right away. Forgoing the traditional development path of an NHL prospect, and instead making the jump to the show at age 18 or 19.

The Flyers had only a 2.4% chance of receiving the second overall selection in 2017 – and in a rare occurrence it seemed that luck was on their side. Unlike prior years where there was a unanimous player expected to go first overall; Auston Matthews in 2016; Connor McDavid in 2015, Nail Yakupov in 2012 – this year’s first and second draft selections were viewed as a ‘1A & 1B’ situation. Nolan Patrick was viewed as the anticipated number one overall selection at the start of the 2016-2017 season, but by the time the draft rolled around Patrick and Swiss born Nico Hischier were interchangeable at picks number one & two. For three months Flyer fans, writers, bloggers, etc. argued online and in the media who would be the better player for the Flyers to receive. But ultimately it was not up to any of us – it was up to Ray Shero and the New Jersey Devils.

Nobody ever anticipated Nolan Patrick playing for the Philadelphia Flyers. Adam Kimelman’s mock draft from January 2017 had the Flyers drafting Nikita Popugaev. Patrick Iverson of SB Nation predicted the Flyers drafting Cody Glass.

Nolan Patrick was never part of the plan.

The waves of the Nolan Patrick draft pick helped shape the Flyers team we know today. But if the Flyers do not pick 2nd overall does Brayden Schenn get shipped off to St. Louis? Making the Flyers draft selections of Morgan Frost and Joel Farabee non existent. Do they go out and trade or sign another center during the 2017 off-season – making it so they never sign Kevin Hayes. The hype train was picking up speed every single day.

With the leaves starting to fall and the 2017-2018 season underway fans in Philadelphia were excited to see what their up and coming Flyers could do. The team started off the season just okay, not good, not bad; they posted a 6-5-1 record in October. But the wheels already looked to be coming off when two weeks into November they started a winless streak that would last almost an entire month (November 11th – December 2nd) – having a record of 0-4-5 during the timespan. But fans soon forgot about the nearly month long winless drought as the team stormed back with a six game winning streak. The Flyers would build on this and dominate the month of February winning ten games and only losing one more in regulation (10-1-2). Moreover, Claude Giroux, who was looking like he was pre-maturely entering the twilight of his career silenced every critic by posting a career best 102 point season. Giroux’s resurgence was largely helped by centreman Sean Couturier finally, finally, having his breakout season in the National Hockey League. After six seasons in the league, and a career high 39 points in 2015-2016, Couturier posted a 31 goal & 76 point campaign. Shayne Gostisbehere continued to prove himself as an elite offensive defenseman – racking up 65 points of his own. The Flyers made the playoffs after a one year absence, and would eventually lose in the first round to the Pittsburgh Penguins, in six games. On paper it’s easy to write off the series against the Penguins, with a 7-0 loss in game 1, 5-0 loss in game 4 and a 8-5 loss in game 6. But the Flyers showed a tremendous amount of resilience in their playoff series. Sean Couturier played the majority of the series with a torn MCL and Ivan Provorov was played with a separated shoulder.

The team was on the upswing, Hextall’s blueprint looked like it was working, what could go wrong?

Moving into the 2018-2019 season there was something the Hextall controlled Flyers had never experienced: playoff expectations. For the last three seasons the Flyers were viewed by most to be a bubble team – meaning they could sneak into the playoffs, but they also could miss. There were no real expectations surrounding the team. They were not expected to be in the playoffs the prior spring, they were not expected to take the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games. They were not supposed to be there, and they were a team playing with house money. But going into this season it was different. The fans were ready to win; the players were ready to win; and the organization looked ready to go ‘all in’. Fueled by Ron Hextall making his first big free agent signing of his tenure – bringing back James van Riemsdyk, signing him to a 5-year contract, there were hopes of a deep playoff run in Philadelphia.

But when the Flyers started off the 2018/2019 season with a 10-12-2 record questions started to be asked. Fans were begging the team, and Ron Hextall, to make a move – the team needed a shakeup. The Flyers allowed five or more goals in eight of their first twenty four games of the season. While they were winning games, the games in which they did win they were also giving up a lot of goals. The calls for head coach Dave Hakstol to be fired were growing louder and louder, and many expected Hakstol to be the first domino to fall. But he wasn’t. Two days after a 6-0 loss at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Philadelphia Flyers fired General Manager Ron Hextall. Behind the scenes it looked as if the organization was no longer buying into Hextall’s theory of building the team.

Paul Holmgren did not hide the rift that opened up between Hextall and the rest of the Flyers brass. In a team issued public press release Holmgren stated:

“We thank Ron for his many significant contributions, but it has become clear that we no longer share the same philosophical approach concerning the direction of the team. In light of these differences, we feel it’s in the organization’s best interest to make a change, effective immediately.”

Flyers President Paul Holmgren and Chairman Dave Scott were ready for the Flyers to enter phase three of Hextall’s plan and gun for a Stanley Cup run. But Ron Hextall did not agree that the time was right. During Hextall’s tenure here he displayed a lack of evolution to his ideas, and it seemed as if it was Ron’s way or the highway.

Flyers chairman Dave Scott was quoted during the summer of 2019, raving about the level of communication and collaboration with Chuck Fletcher as Flyers GM – further backing up the idea of ‘Ron’s way or the highway’.

“Probably one of his biggest plusses is that he’s a collaborative guy. He’s smart. He’s got a very open style. I came over and spent a day with Paul and was so impressed with the group of people we have. You’ve got Chuck’s staff in there and the new coaching staff in there. You’ve got the data analytics in there. It’s something I hadn’t seen in the six years I’ve been here, just full collaboration and everyone kind of agreeing on what moves we were gonna make.”

Just a quarter of the way through the season, the first with real expectations during Hextall’s time, he was canned. The team wasn’t winning and Hextall, in his usual fashion, was not going to make an earth shattering move. And even while impatient fans moaned and groaned on the internet, most still had hope in Hextall’s plan. But Paul Holmgren and Dave Scott had grown fidgety and impatient. Realistically we were most likely only a season away from entering that third and final phase of Hextall’s plan. But somewhere along the way, possibly with the addition of Nolan Patrick, too much had been expected from a group who, in hindsight, was not ready to make the jump to a true Stanley Cup contender. They had a fantastic foundation, built up by Hextall, but the team that lost in six games to the Penguins was not just one or two pieces away from making a deep playoff run. The Hextall controlled Flyers were so close to discovering their true potential, but instead the 2020-2021 season is coming to an end and it’s looking more and more as if the team is going to make a significant change to its core. Nevertheless, Hextall’s philosophy and blueprint grew stale internally – and we’re still seeing the aftermath of his firing three seasons later.

Ron Hextall was not a perfect General Manager.

Nobody is perfect, and that includes Hexy. He made some questionable decisions, such as re-signing players like Ryan White, Brandon Manning, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde, Michal Neuvirth. All replacement level players who did not have business being re-upped. The Flyers were up against the cap for nearly the entire duration of Ron Hextall’s tenure – obviously he wasn’t going to sign a big name free agent to replace one of these players on the roster, that wasn’t possible. Ron Hextall instead used these replacement level players as a stopgap, almost purposely creating an internal logjam. A logjam that forced young players to not advance through the system quickly. Hextall went on the record many times talking about how he liked to ‘over-ripen’ prospects.

But how does Nolan Patrick fit into all of this?

Nolan Patrick, objectively speaking, is an average hockey player. Four years after getting drafted Patrick has not lived up to the expectations of a 2nd overall draft selection. This does not mean Nolan Patrick is bad – or even that he was a bad pick. He may never be anything more than a 30pt 3rd line centreman who is used on the 2nd power play unit. He may end up in the KHL within five years. Heck, he could shut the mouths of every doubter of his by breaking out next season – maybe while wearing a Seattle Kraken uniform. Trying to predict the direction of the Flyers as a team right now is difficult enough, let alone one player on this team.

The problem with Nolan Patrick was he was an unexpected wrench in Ron Hextall’s plans, one that unfortunately threw the whole ship off course. Causing expectations of some to become prematurely higher than they should have been.

Would we be sitting here thinking about this if Nolan came into the league and immediately put up back-to-back 60 point seasons? Probably not. But it also isn’t right to lay the problems plaguing an entire organization on one 22-year-old kid from Winnipeg. The calls of disdain directed at Nolan Patrick are growing louder, and there is some merit to them. With only 14 games left in the Flyers 2020-2021 season, Nolan has only scored 4 goals this year – and has stretches where his almost invisible out on the ice. Adding salt to the wound, Miro Heiskanen and Cale Makar, the two picks after Nolan, are looking both like Norris caliber defensemen. Elias Pettersson rounded out the top five and has established himself as an elite top six center for the Vancouver Canucks. It would be a complete waste of brainpower to try and justify the Flyers picking one of these players in hindsight, because it was never the case at the time – but that doesn’t lessen the pain of the sting any less.

The Flyers lucking into the 2nd overall pick was supposed to help accelerate their rebuild and bring them another step closer to going ‘all in’. Instead it only added unnecessary fuel to the hype train and resulted in an unsustainable level of impatience that was a primary cause for Ron Hextall’s time in Philadelphia coming to an end; causing the blueprint and fresh ideas he brought into the organization to be tossed aside for another combination of recycled General Manager and Head Coach.

Photo: Bill Streicher – USA Today Sports

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