Philly Front Office

Let the Kids Play: Ron Hextall’s Flawed Approach to Prospect Call-ups

What Ron Hextall has done in the four years since becoming the general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers is only a few notches short of incredible. Handed the keys to a cash-strapped, prospect-depleted team with minimal hope for Cup contention, Hextall drafted and maneuvered his way to where we are today: a team built for both current competitiveness and future greatness. Patience has been the rallying call (trust the process?). It’s difficult to wait and restock and build from within, but as we’ve seen time and again, the results are usually worth the wait.

This form of patience has much to recommend it. But what if Hextall has extended his patience too far into other aspects of his decision-making—namely, his aversion to calling up prospects? Hextall has made it clear that he will only bring up an up-and-coming player once he has clearly shown that he is better than the veteran whose role he’d be taking. The problem is, this could be wasting some of a player’s most productive years.

Check out the graphs from this story by Eric Tulsky (and read the whole thing, if you have the time). The consensus in the hockey

 analytics community is that players peak sometime between the ages of 22 and 25, both in terms of scoring and generating shot attempts/suppressing opponents’ shots (Corsi). That’s surprising already, but look at how young players fare compared to their older selves in those graphs. An average 20-year-old forward records a 5v5 Corsi percentage of just over 50%, the same as an average 27-year-old. In other words, if a player is promising enough to project as NHL-caliber by age 27, they deserve a spot on the roster by age 20.

There are a number of biases that could be at play, as the article outlines. For example, perhaps coaches are smartly separating the early-developing prospects from the late bloomers, which means that the teenagers who do make the NHL are the only ones who are ready. Consider me skeptical—if player evaluation was perfect, there’d be no such thing as a draft bust.

So why are Hextall and most other general managers so reluctant to call up prospects? It’s simply risk aversion and respect for tradition. Common sense dictates that younger players are more likely to succumb to “rookie mistakes,” while veterans always know where to be. It does not consider, however, that experience is less useful if a player no longer possesses the physical prowess he once did.

This is not groundbreaking analysis. Any hockey analytics buff could tell you that NHL-ready younger players are not being used optimally (or perhaps not at all) while aging players with great “veteran presence” receive 20 minutes a night. But it’s clear that the message has not reached Hextall’s ears, or he’s chosen to ignore it, allowing Dave Hakstol to trot out the likes of Jori Lehtera and Dale Weise. Hak deserves some of the blame, but he can’t give Andrew MacDonald top-pairing defensive assignments if AMac is down in Allentown, and Hextall has a say in that.

You could make the argument that players who are not yet physically prepared to handle 82 games should not be on the roster. Perfectly reasonable. Play the young’un 50 or 60 games, and let a vet handle the rest. The team will be better off, both in the short run and in terms of extracting maximum value from each player.

Come opening night, Philippe Myers and Morgan Frost deserve to be in the starting lineup, so long as neither of them look over their heads in training camp. They’re arguably the two most dynamic prospects in the Flyers’ system, certainly capable of outplaying their competition. There would be rough patches, but allowing promising young players to take their lumps in the NHL could boost the Flyers far more than the organization’s decision-makers think.

There’s nothing wrong with waiting. It’s just that waiting might be holding the Flyers back from greatness.

Nick Som

Nick is the Lead Flyers Writer at Flyers Front Office. By day, he writes about historic places for SavingPlaces.org, with bylines at USA Today and CityLab. His favorite hockey player growing up was Robert Esche, before eventually realizing you should never pick a Flyers goalie.

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