There isn’t a Flyer who doesn’t share management’s feeling that the team underperformed this year. Proof of that can only come next season, of course, but a smart GM looks at any particular season in context.
Miss the playoffs once and it can be about karma, injuries, or circumstance. Miss them in consecutive years and not only does the plan come into greater question but so does the players’ -- and the organization’s -- self-image.
Only once in Flyers history have they not bounced right back from a non-playoff year. When they missed five straight seasons from 1990-94 around the Eric Lindros deal, it not only was due to their depth being stripped but also their expectations, something Ron Hextall has no intention of letting happen again.
Let there be no misinterpretation, then, of his meaning. When he vows to patiently steer a course that can make the Flyers’ true Stanley Cup contenders again, Hextall is not blowing off 2015-16 for any big payoff by 2017-18.
“We are not going to lose sight of what this organization is all about, which is trying to win every day,” Hextall told Philadelphiaflyers.com in a video interview currently posted on the site. “So our goal this summer is to look around and try to get better for next year.
“If there are some moves to make, we are going to make them. If there are free agents we can look at and sign, we are going to do that. We owe it to our fans, our players and the organization to be the best we can be every year. We’re going to do everything we can to be better next year and I truly believe we will be.
“I believe we are a playoff team right now. I believe we don’t have a lot of guys that you say, ‘they’re going down.’ Most of the players are either on their way up or they are maintaining. So hopefully we add a couple pieces. We expect to be in the playoffs.”
Of course, it’s one thing to wish you had made it in to the playoffs and another to think falling short is just about the worst thing that ever happened to you. To get more out of this failed season than just a high draft choice, the core players have to hate this week as much as does their GM.
“I do believe our players are very disappointed,” said Hextall. “I think they have the same feeling as I have -- that we’re too good a team to be sitting out the first round of the playoffs.”
Of course at the same time these players have to think they’re pretty good, with the capability of getting better.
“People look at our record and that we’re out of the playoffs and they seem to forget about having [Jake Voracek and Claude Giroux near] the top of the scoring race,” said Hextall. “Obviously, [Sean Couturier] is starting to show signs and Brayden (Schenn) is starting to show signs -- they’re damn good pieces.
“We’re not a bottom-end team. When you can beat good teams, you can beat bad teams and we beat a lot of good teams (19-16-9 against playoff qualifiers). Maybe those teams are (not) as jacked up against us than the better teams but (if) you are still beating them on a fairly consistent basis, it shows the potential of your team.
“We lost to some lesser teams below us and it is something we have to correct.”
The bad first periods and the (10-20-11) road record also impact on the leadership. But so did the team’s refusal to let go of the rope as a playoff spot became improbable, begging the question: When the pressure is off, is it harder to play or easier?
“I think that even though we [were] mathematically out of it, our guys [were] still battling,” said Hextall. “I think that shows the character we have in our top guys.
“I think [Steve Mason] coming back this year and essentially backing up what he did last year, that’s a huge positive for this franchise. He looks like a guy moving forward that we can be a top team with and [goaltending has been] a big hole.
“Nick Schultz, Michael Del Zotto, Ryan White, Chris Vandevelde, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare -- we had some guys step up this year do a pretty good job.”
That some guys didn’t take another step forward did not entirely reflect their individual regressions Chemistry played a hand. The Flyers, while eight-deep in NHL-caliber defensemen for most of the season, lacked the cornerstone guy who could lift the play of a complimenting, defensive-type partner, plus make fewer – and fresher -- minutes for the second and third pairs mean more for the team.
The Flyers have no shortage of strong support-level forwards, but lack a setup center who could help make Wayne Simmonds a more consistent threat at even strength, and perhaps raise the level of play of others.
“We (will) try to add a skilled forward and a steady, good-with-the-puck defenseman,” said Hextall. “On my wish list, that is where we are looking. Whether we can make it happen or not, I don’t know. But we certainly will try everything we can to make it happen.
“No one is going to give you a top young established defenseman for anything other than numerous pieces. I don’t see that deal coming along. The plan is to draft and develop, continue to work with our development people and hopefully we come out with a No. 1.”
With his cap room limited, and his determination to not give up on young players who seemed to plateau ongoing, Hextall’s jackpot would be adding a veteran forward not only good with the puck but good in the room.
“I have said this before and I will say it again: leadership is not one guy,” he said. “It’s not Bob Clarke anymore, those days are gone. There is too much else going on within a team for one guy to be able to handle it.
“An example of leadership that this year came to another level is Jake. There is no game or practice where any of us looked at it and said, ‘he isn’t giving everything he has,’ and that’s huge. One of your top players has taken his game and his leadership to another level.
“In the past Wayne might have gotten a little frustrated. This year he was much more in control, still driving his teammates and playing hard on every shift and every practice. Along with G, I think we have more leadership than people believe. But I believe it has to mature. And if we bring in a player of character and honesty he is going to add to the leadership group. So it will be a priority.”