Flyers eye new approach in GM, unlike ‘unyielding’ Hextall

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Philadelphia Flyers fired general manager Ron Hextall because – to swipe a page from their glory days – he was Broad Street Bullheaded.

Hextall preached patience.

The Flyers want to win now.

That clash of ideology turned toxic in Philadelphia’s front office, and it cost Hextall his job in his fifth season as GM. Paul Holmgren, the Flyers’ loyalist and team president, had few solid answers Tuesday as to why he made the move, other than to repeatedly call Hextall ”unyielding.”

Hextall’s arrival signaled a new era in Flyers history, one where short-term fixes, big-budget spending and mortgaging the farm system were no longer in vogue. He gamely tried to restock the farm system and refused to make a major trade for a star that could instantly inch the Flyers closer toward contention.

And when all that got the Flyers were a pair of first-round playoff exits and a 10-11-2 record this season, Hextall got the boot.

”He was unyielding in his plan and remained that way,” Holmgren said. ”Good for him. He’s a well-thought out, deep-thinking guy.”

The deep thoughts included packaging draft picks and prospects for All-Stars capable of carrying Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Jake Vorcek and James van Riemsdyk at least into May.

The Flyers expect to hire a GM in weeks and he’ll have to make an urgent decision: keep or fire coach Dave Hakstol.

”I hate to say Dave Hakstol’s fate is in the next GM’s hands but it is,” Holmgren said. ”I’m not going to make that decision.”

Hakstol, 132-97-40 in three–plus seasons, was set to coach the Flyers on Tuesday night against Ottawa.

Holmgren said he never asked Hextall to fire the coach he hired with no NHL experience out of North Dakota. But Holmgren said Hextall had told him ”of course, I’m thinking about it.”

But, Holmgren added, ”he never did it.”

The Flyers did at least discuss the potential of adding Joel Quenneville after the Chicago Blackhawks fired the three-time Stanley Cup champion coach.

”I can tell you his name came up right away when he was let go,” Comcast Spectacor CEO Dave Scott said. ”I think Ron was set on, stay the course.”

With his biggest backer gone, and the Flyers wallowing, Hakstol’s job is in serious danger.

”I like Hak. I think he’s done a decent job under the circumstances he’s coached under,” Holmgren said.

”Decent” isn’t exactly an encouraging vote of confidence. Hakstol has had his issues – the Flyers are last in the NHL in the penalty kill (69.7 percent) – but Hextall’s decision to enter the season with two oft-injured goalies haunted the team. The Flyers have matched a franchise-high with five goalies this season while prized prospect Carter Hart lingers in the minors.

”Is he our long-term solution? I don’t know that,” Holmgren said. ”I’m not prepared to answer that. That’s another topic for the next GM.”

Holmgren punted about every major issue facing the Flyers to the next GM, and there are plenty of top candidates. The Flyers have about $7 million in salary cap space, and enough talent that should entice some heavy hitters for the job. Former Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi, who won two Cups and now works for the Flyers, told Holmgren he wasn’t interested. But Chuck Fletcher, Ron Francis, Sean Burke and Brian Burke are sure to pique the interest of a team eyeing its first Stanley Cup since the back-to-back titles in 1974 and 1975.

”What can we do now, today, to make the team better now? Not two years or three years from now,” Scott said.

Hextall was criticized for refusing to listen to scouts and advisers and had been accused of cutting off alumni from access to the team. Hextall, a star goalie and one of the franchise’s more popular players, had wanted his own process on his terms.

”His plan was his plan and we’re really hoping for a little more openness going forward,” Scott said.

Asked when the Flyers decided to shift from long-term rebuild to legitimate contention, Holmgren was blunt.

”We’re in the fifth year,” Holmgren said. ”That’s a long time in hockey years.”

The Flyers haven’t made the Cup finals since 2010 and haven’t won a playoff round since 2012.

”It’s a long time,” Scott said. ”We’re gonna go for it.”

The decision to dump Hextall was about dollars and cents as much as it was the state of the roster. Fan apathy is at a low, attendance is down and tickets are steeply discounted on StubHub. There is little buzz apart from the new googly-eyed mascot.

What’s more, the 76ers, their fellow Wells Fargo Center tenant, have overtaken the city in popularity, with big stars and packed houses.

”They were having some challenges and then (Jimmy) Butler coming certainly helps things,” Scott said.

So the Flyers need their own Butler?

”Couldn’t hurt, that’s for sure,” he said, laughing.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Morning Skate: Bolts need Vasilevskiy; Isles should be buyers

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Flyers are rallying behind Oskar Lindblom after his Ewing’s sarcoma diagnosis. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• The Bolts need Andrei Vasilevskiy to play like he’s one of the best in the world again. (Tampa Times)

• Coaches have been getting fired for reasons both known and unknown. (Los Angeles Times)

• The Blackhawks keep finding ways to hit new lows this season. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Jim Benning was looking to trade Sven Baertschi, but he was forced to put him on waivers. (Vancouver Sun)

• A London Knights physiotherapist helped save Tucker Tynan’s life. (CTV News)

Tom Wilson has become a new-age power forward. (Sportsnet)

• Four players from the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association will play in the ECHL All-Star classic. (The Ice Garden)

• If good teams don’t go on long losing streaks, what does that mean for the Edmonton Oilers? (Edmonton Journal)

• Referee Tim Peel is likely done for the season after suffering a broken leg. (RMNB)

• Islanders GM Lou Lamorielllo should dip into the rental market this season. (GothamSN)

• Alexis Lafreniere is hoping to become the next future first overall pick to turn in an incredible performance at the World Juniors. (Featurd)

• It’s still too early to say that Jack Eichel is among the greatest players. (Rotoworld)

• It’s time for the Anaheim Ducks to rebuild. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Former Lightning head coach Steve Ludzik needs a liver transplant. (Tampa Times)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Kane’s hat trick; Staal’s milestone night

Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates with Jonathan Toews
Getty Images
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Three Stars

1) Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Kane surpassed Sidney Crosby for the scoring lead this decade with 16 days left in the 2010s. Since Jan. 1, 2010, Kane has 791 points (311G, 480A), while Crosby has 788 points (296G, 492A). No. 88 recorded his sixth NHL hat trick in Chicago’s 5-3 victory over Minnesota. The Blackhawks have a long way to go if they want to have a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but a victory against a surging division rival is a good place to start.

2) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

On a football Sunday, the Jets scored a touchdown in their 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Scheifele played a huge part with his three-point performance featuring a goal and two assists as he extended his individual point streak to six games. Neal Pionk added three assists, including two power-play helpers. The top four teams in the Western Conference (Blues, Avalanche, Jets, Stars) currently reside in the Central Division and playoff positioning will be crucial as each team eyes a lengthy postseason run.

3) Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Staal became the 89th player in NHL history to have 1,000 career points when he tallied a power-play goal against Chicago Sunday. After a dreadful 4-9 start to the season, the Wild have climbed up the standings with a 12-4-5 record in their past 21 games. The alternate captain leads Minnesota with 26 points, including four goals in the previous three games.

Other notable performances from Sunday:

  • Anze Kopitar’s two-goal performance in the Kings’ 4-2 victory against the Red Wings helped him surpass the iconic Wayne Gretzky for fourth place on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. Kopitar picked up his 918th and 919th point in his 1038th game.
  • Blake Wheeler finished with three points, including a goal and an assist during a four-goal barrage spanning 4:17.

Highlights of the Night

Staal etched his name in the NHL record books with this one-time blast

William Karlsson won an important foot race before Reilly Smith slid a cross-ice pass over to Jonathan Marchessault

Factoids

  • A total of 33 goals were scored across four contests Sunday for an average of 8.25 per game [NHL PR].
  • The Jets scored four goals in a span of five minutes or less for the fourth time in franchise history [NHL PR].
  • The Jets’ four goals in a span of 4:17 are their second-fastest scored in a game in franchise history, behind the mark of 3:50 set on Nov. 18, 2017 [NHL PR].
  • Canucks’ Bo Horvat has won an NHL-high 414 faceoffs this season [Sportsnet Stats].

NHL Scores

Winnipeg Jets 7, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Chicago Blackhawks 5, Minnesota Wild 3

Los Angeles Kings 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

Vegas Golden Knights 6, Vancouver Canucks 3

Sabres demote under-performing center Mittelstadt to minors

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres have assigned under-performing second-year center Casey Mittelstadt to the minors.

The demotion to Rochester of the AHL was made Sunday, coming a day following a 3-2 overtime loss at the New York Islanders in which Mittelstadt was a healthy scratch for the third time in four games.

The 21-year-old has four goals and five assists in 31 games this season, and limited to just a goal and an assist in his past 21. Buffalo selected the play-making center with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft following his senior year in high school.

He then signed with Buffalo and jumped directly to the NHL in making his Sabres debut immediately following his freshman college season at Minnesota.

Mittelstadt has failed to play up to early projections of developing into Buffalo’s second-line center. He has 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points in 114 career NHL games.

Players hope U.S.-Canada rivalry game helps spawn pro league

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The United States women’s hockey team beat Canada 4-1 on Saturday night, with players hoping the first in a series of five games between the international rivals will help kindle the public’s interest in both their sport and their fight off the ice for better professional opportunities.

Canada’s Victoria Bach and the Megan Keller of the U.S. traded power-play goals in the first period, before Amanda Kessel put the U.S. on top for good with a player advantage in the second. Abbe Roque’s backhand in the period gave the US a 3-1 lead and Alex Carpenter beat Genevieve Lacasse for the final goal 1:15 seconds later.

More than 7,000 fans showed up for the international competition, which comes after more than 200 members of what has since become the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association announced in May they would not play professionally in North America during the 2019-2020 season.

“I think it’s important for people to watch us play and see the level of talent and entertainment that’s out there,” Kessel said. “It’s getting that understanding that we need to help get us a place to play year-round so that people can see us more than five times a year.”

The women are seeking a professional league that provides a living wage, health insurance, infrastructure and support for training. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League shut down in the spring after 12 years of operation, leaving only the five-team National Women’s Hockey League, where most players make less than $10,000 a season.

“The product is there,” Kessel said. “The people to watch it are there. We just need a structure set in place.”

Sarah Nurse, a forward for Team Canada, whose cousin Kia Nurse plays for New York in the WNBA, said players are hoping to get support from the NHL, which has, so far, expressed little interest in investing in a women’s league.

“We can look at (the WNBA) and see that women’s sports have value and they have a place in this world,” said Nurse, who made $2,000 last season playing in the CWHL. “That is definitely a model that we look to.”

The rivalry series was created after the Four Nations Cup in Sweden was canceled when top Swedish players pulled out of national team events due to concerns over their salary and working conditions.

Without a viable pro league, players who are out of college have been training on their own at random rinks across North America in between gatherings of the national teams or training sessions and exhibitions sponsored by the players association.

Canada won two of those over the US in Pittsburgh last month.

But the lack of consistent competition can stunt the players’ development, especially when it comes to be being prepared for world and Olympic competitions, the players said.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Nurse said. “Games are when we truly get better and test out our skills, so it’s unfortunate that we don’t have more games to play.”

Cayla Barnes, who plays defense for the U.S. team and Boston College, said she and the other college players on the national teams understand what is going on and appreciate what the older players are doing.

“They are putting so much on the line for the younger generations,” she said. “Not just for us college kids who are coming up, but for U-8, U-10 girls who are coming up so they have opportunities later on. So I think all of us who are younger are trying to support them in whatever way we can.”

Hundreds of girls wearing their youth hockey jerseys attended the game, chanting “U-S-A” as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

“I want to be like them, like in the Olympics when I get older,” said 14-year-old Leila Espirito Santo, of Glastonbury “I started playing when I was in fourth grade and I wasn’t the best, but watching them play made me want to be better. It showed me I could do it.”

The teams will meet again on Tuesday in Moncton, New Brunswick. Other games part of the 2019-20 Rivalry Series are slated for Feb. 3 and Feb. 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Feb. 8 in Anaheim, California.