Hextall’s patience failed to move Flyers forward

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The Philadelphia Flyers did things a little differently.

After the Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers, and St. Louis Blues all fired their head coaches over the past month as a result of their disappointing starts, the Flyers decided to go in a different direction on Monday by keeping their coach (for now) and instead parting ways with Ron Hextall, the general manager who assembled the roster.

Team president Paul Holmgren said in a statement that it had become clear they “no longer share the same philosophical approach concerning the direction of the team.”

What exactly that means still remains to be seen. Was there a disagreement on the fate of head coach Dave Hakstol, with Hextall maybe not wanting to fire with the guy he hired? Or was Holmgren and Flyers ownership simply fed up with a lack of progress and what has become a stale, consistently mediocre team?

The results do not lie. In the Flyers’ four full seasons under Hextall they made the playoffs twice, missed the playoffs twice, never recorded more than 98 points in a single season, never recorded fewer than 84 points in a season, never finished higher than third place in the division, and never got out of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

At times they would lose 10 games in a row, and at times they would win 10 games in a row.

There was never any consistency, except for the final mediocre result in the standings every year.

A quarter of the way through season five the team looks to be headed for a similar finish, and management had apparently seen enough.

[Related: Flyers fire GM Ron Hextall]

What stands out about Hextall’s tenure with the Flyers is that he didn’t really do anything to hurt the team long-term. They are not in a worse position today compared to when he took over. If anything, he did quite a few good things early on to help improve their situation. He ditched a lot of troublesome contracts in Vincent Lecavalier, Nicklas Grossmann, Luke Schenn, Braydon Coburn, and the end of the Chris Pronger contract, while also getting some decent value back in return.

In exchange for those five contracts he acquired Jordan Weal, Radko Gudas, and the first-round draft pick that would eventually become Travis Konecny, all of whom are still members of the team today. That is probably more than could have been reasonably expected based on what he was giving up at the time.

In the first round of the 2015 NHL draft they selected Ivan Provorov and Konecny with the seventh and 24th overall picks, both of whom are now core parts of the team.

They selected Carter Hart, their (hopeful) goalie of the future, in the second-round of the 2016 draft.

And while trading Brayden Schenn for Jori Lehtera may have downgraded the team in the short-term, the trade did net them first-round picks in 2017 and 2018, giving them multiple selections in each of those rounds.

His outlook was clearly more long-term, not only with the way he made draft picks the key part of the (Brayden) Schenn trade, but with the way he refused to part with any of the team’s young prospects in an effort to make the team better right now.

Just take a look at all of the players and assets Hextall traded since the start of the 2016-17 offseason.

Filppula, Tokarski, and Mrazek were all basically acquired out of desperation due to injury situations at center and in goal in those years, but the main focus is clear — draft picks and the future.

That patient approach was also evident when it came to free agency where the Flyers were mostly quiet under Hextall. It wasn’t until this past summer when they brought back James van Riemsdyk on a five-year contract that the really tried to make a big splash on the open market.

Before JvR, the two biggest free agent signings under Hextall were Dale Weise and Brian Elliott.

The common theme you keep coming back to here is simply, this move isn’t great, but it’s also not really terrible. Do you know what that gets you on the ice if you keep making moves like that? A team that isn’t really great, but also not really terrible. In the end that will probably be Hextall’s lasting legacy the Flyers’ general manager.

His patience and methodical approach to building the team might work out in the long-run, but it was clearly not working for an ownership that seemingly grew tired of not seeing any real progress at the NHL level.

It’s okay to have faith that Hart might one day, finally, solve the Flyers’ cursed goalie position. It’s okay to believe in Shayne Gostisbehere and Provorov as the foundation of the defense for the next eight years. It’s okay count on Nolan Patrick and Konecny to be your future at forward.

But you can still do all of that while also making some improvements in the short-term to try and take advantage of a roster that still has top-line veteran players in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, and Wayne Simmonds on it.

You don’t have to keep turning to a revolving door of mediocre goalies as stop-gap options until Hart is ready.

You can try to find some better defenders to complement Gostisbehere and Provorov, even if it means trading one of your many first-round picks or a couple of prospects.

Hextall was seemingly unwilling — or unable — to do that.  It resulted in a team that was stuck in neutral for too many years, and leads us to where we are today.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

kris letang
Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.