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Hextall Building for Playoff Hockey; Philosophy & Why Pryor is Important

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby,Ron Hextall
UNIONDALE, NY - FEBRUARY 27: Pittsburgh Penguins Center Sidney Crosby (87) and New York Islanders Right Wing Jordan Eberle (7) battle for the puck during the first period of the National Hockey League game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders on February 27, 2021, at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, NY. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire)

Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall and new Director of Player Personnel Chris Pryor had buckets of success at the NHL Draft when the two were paired as GM and assistant general manager in Philadephia. In fact, Pryor had a big role in building the Philadelphia Flyers core, which included Claude Giroux and the Flyers crop of young defensemen.

Hextall also gave Penguins fans a glimpse into the determined attitude that Hextall hopes will define his version of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But Pryor is more important than a director of amateur scouting, which he will oversee with the Penguins.

“He’s a top evaluator of talent, and it’s been proven over many, many years,” Hextall said on Saturday. “We’re excited to have him on board.”

No, Hextall admitted adding Pryor to the Penguins was his “No. 1 priority,” and the fallout is just the start of the changes to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Based on Hextall’s description, Pryor, 60, completes the Penguins management team and is someone whom the new Hextall regime was waiting to hire to begin shaping the Penguins organization.

“He was the No. 1 priority for sure. We can sit with Patrik (assistant GM Patrik Allvin), Chris, myself, and Burkie (President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke) and go full evaluation on different areas of our staff,” Hextall said.

The picture should be coming into focus. Pryor is Hextall’s guy and a trusted evaluator not only of 18-year-old players but of different parts of the organization.

Hextall now has his guy in place to help him make decisions that span well beyond trading for this player or that pick.

After more than 20 years with the Flyers organization, Pryor was fired two days after Ron Hextall was canned in November 2018. It was quite the temper tantrum in Philly as assistant coach Gord Murphy was also part of the three-day purge. The Flyers’ loss could well be the Penguins’ gain.

From 2013-2018 when Hextall and Pryor worked together, the Philadelphia drafts produced 19 NHL players. The 2014 Draft was especially fruitful as their first four picks made the show, including first-rounder Travis Sanheim and the fifth-round steal, now a top-six forward, Oskar Lindblom.

Hextall acquired nine first-round picks during his four-plus-year tenure. And Philadelphia made the playoffs twice. You can see why PHN was told Penguins owner Mario Lemieux zeroed in on Hextall.

Career games played and statistics in parenthesis.

  • 2013: Samual Morin, 11th overall (13gp. currently on taxi squad)
  • 2014: Travis Sanheim 17th overall (276gp, 20g, 56a)
  • 2015: Ivan Provorov 7th overall (332gp, 45g, 96a)
  • 2015: Travis Konecny 24th overall (311gp, 88g, 105a)
  • 2016: German Rubstov (4gp, on loan to KHL)
  • 2017: Nolan Patrick 2nd overall (162gp, 28g, 38a)
  • 2017: Morgan Frost 27th overall (27gp, 2g, 5a)
  • 2018: Joel Farabee 14th overall (16g, 20a)
  • 2018: Jay O’Brien 19th overall (Has not yet made his NHL Debut).

We don’t need to rehash the Pittsburgh Penguins drafting in the same time period. First-round picks were little more than spending cash for the Penguins to chase Stanley Cups. Only one of the Penguins’ first-round picks brought back a significant Stanley Cup contributor. Hello, Phil Kessel.

Though former GM Jim Rutherford also traded a first-round pick for David Perron, whom he later traded for Carl Hagelin, but counting that is stretching it.

The Flyers also had several noticeable deeper round picks.

  • 2013: Robert Hagg 2nd Round (216gp, 12g, 31a)
  • 2014: Nicolas Aube-Kubel 2nd round (62gp, 9g, 11a)
  • 2014: Oskar Lindbom 5th round (148gp, 32g, 30a)
  • 2016: Carter Hart 2nd Round (85gp, 45-29-7, .912 Sv%, 2.74 GAA)

No Penguins draft pick since 2015 has made an NHL debut for the Penguins.

Hextall Draft Philosophy: Force of “will.”

It was obvious Hextall not only respects Pryor’s scouting eye but how Pryor handled the staff.

“Chris was extremely valuable to (the Philadelphia Flyers). He’s got a strong opinion, but he’s also open to other people’s opinions and working as a group,” Hextall said. “The biggest thing with scouting to me is you have to use your whole group. Everybody has to be involved … Chris was our top amateur guy there, and his success speaks for itself.”

PHN asked Hextall about his philosophy when he and Pryor sit at the table. Hextall didn’t touch on speed or talent. He didn’t offer tropes about the best player available, but he gave one of his longest answers and spoke in-depth about what Penguins fans will see in the coming years.

We found Hextall’s answer interesting, and if he sticks around for more than a few years, Hextall’s drafting philosophy is about willpower and the will to win the next puck or the next situation.

“I think the No. 1 thing that I like from all players, Chris certainly does, and our whole staff did, the word I like to use is ‘will’ so whether you’re a highly skilled player or a role player, the will to compete on a nightly basis, to win one-on-one battles, to take a hit to get to a puck, all of those types of things important for playoff hockey…Hextall began. “You guys have seen it here in Pittsburgh over the last few years, you’ve got to have guys who sacrifice.”

Under Pryor’s watch, the Philadelphia Flyers also drafted deeper round players like Shayne Gostisbehere (3rd round, 2012), Patrick Maroon (6th round, 2007), and even Patrick Sharp (3rd round, 2001).

You don’t hit many, but when a team does, good things happen. Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Matt Murray, and Kris Letang were third-round picks between 2005 and 2013.

But the Flyers first-round success is impressive. In addition to the list above, Claude Giroux was drafted 22nd overall in 2006. Sean Couturier was eighth overall in 2011. Even James van Riemsdyk in 2002.

“The word I come back to is ‘will.’ It’s not necessarily a physical thing, but it’s an ‘I’m going to win that battle, I’m going to get to the net, I’m going to put my nose down to get to the net and do everything I can to score a goal,'” Hextall said. “That’s the word I use.”

Hextall didn’t pinpoint a skillset or a physical trait that he and Pryor want to draft. His message on that front is it takes all kinds, from stay-at-home defensemen to pure skill.

As long as they have the will.

That kind of sounds like a Mike Sullivan team, too, doesn’t it? After Hextall chatted for nearly eight minutes on Saturday, it surely seems a little of that Philadelphia Flyers mentality will be present. For Penguins purists, we may point out Rick Tocchet was also born and bred as a Flyer. And the LA Kings won a couple of Stanley Cups with Hextall as Dean Lombardi’s AGM. Those LA teams were brutally tough.

Oh, and Hextall also said the Pittsburgh Penguins would like to add toughness, too.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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