Ron Hextall’s policy in regards to when the right time is to bring a young Prospect up to the NHL has always been the same. We have heard him say it a million times, “for a young player to make this team, he has to earn it. We’re not going to give a young player a spot just for the sake of saying that we have filled our roster with young players. He has to perform to the point where he pushes a veteran out of a roster spot” I have always agreed with this policy. So why now is Ron Hextall straying away from it? How come after outperforming all of the defensemen in Camp other than Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere is Sam Morin sitting in the press box? This will be the questions I will try and find answers to in this article.
Competition is a good thing. It pushes us to get better. And a good healthy competition helps teams better evaluate who is most deserving of roster spots and starting positions. The Philadelphia Eagles gave us an example of how it’s not a good idea just to hand a young player a roster spot without a competition.
They awarded Isaac Seamalou the starting left guard position before the start of training camp without any competition. Seamalou was a disaster with the low point being giving up three sacks to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Eagles have been scrambling to find a starting left guard ever since as a result. Conversely, The Flyers had one of their most intense and productive training camps in years as a result of having a lot of talented young players pushing the veterans for roster spots.
But, the approach the Flyers have taken with their 3 rookie defenseman, especially with Samuel Morin, has been puzzling. I can understand both Ron Hextall’s and coach Dave Hackstol’s hesitation when it comes to putting three rookie defensemen into the lineup all at once.
The situation would be compounded with the Flyers when you consider the fact that along with the three rookies, they would also have Ivan Provorov who is entering only his second year in the NHL and is only 20 years old, along with Shayne Gostisbehere who is entering only his third year in the NHL and is only 24 years old. So if the Flyers were to start all three of their rookies, that would mean that five out of the Flyers 6 starting defenseman would be 24 years or younger with three years or less of NHL experience. So for this reason you can see why the Flyers would be hesitant not start all three rookies.
But there’s no reason why they couldn’t have at least started two of them. In their opener against the San Jose Sharks, the Flyers decided to start only one of the three rookie defenseman. Robert Haag was the only rookie to start while Samuel Moran and Travis Sanheim were healthy scratches. Dave Hackstol’s explanation for the lineup that he put on the ice was that it was the season opener and there would be a lot of opening-night jitters. So he wanted a veteran lineup.
There are several problems with his rationale for this though. Number one. Both Robert Hagg and Samuel Morin both made their NHL debuts last year. So they already know what it’s like to play in an NHL game. Number Two. Whether it’s the very first game of the regular season or not, these young players are going to be nervous no matter when it is that they finally get into the lineup since it will be their first game of the season. So why not get the opening game Jitters out of the way right from the first game of the year?
Another problem with going with the two veterans over the two rookies is the fact that Dave Hackstol left himself in a position to potentially be painted into a corner . If the Flyers were to beat the Sharks, the natural decision would be to stay with the veterans because you won with that lineup. But by doing that you are stunting your young players development because they’re not going to get any better by sitting in the Press Box.
If the Flyers were to lose to the Sharks, the natural inclination would be to change your line up since the one you had out there against San Jose didn’t work. If you do this, the young players are going to be looked as saviors to get things turned around. The result of this would be even more pressure on the youngsters then they would have had if they had just started the opener. The more sensible path would have been to get the rookies into the lineup on opening night, get the opening-night Jitters out of the way right from the start, and if the Flyers were to lose they could always fall back on the veterans.
To his credit, even though the Flyers beat the San Jose Sharks, Dave Hackstol, decided to take Brandon Manning out of the lineup and inserted Travis Sanheim against the Los Angeles Kings. Sanheim had a very uneven game. He showed flashes as to why the Flyers picked him in the first round of the 2014 NHL draft. He was able to lead a few rushes with his skating ability. And he exhibited an above-average shot from the point.
But he also showed that he is still a raw player. He made a mistake on the kings first goal where he allowed Trevor Lewis to get behind him for an easy tuck in goal. He also made a bad pinch late in the third period that led to a two-on-one break that led to the Kings second goal that was the nail in the coffin for the Flyers.
Sanheim also made a bad mistake in the game against the Ducks where he got caught watching the puck and left a man wide open in the slot to score an easy goal. Young defenseman are going to make mistakes. So the fact that Sanheim has been directly responsible for three opponents goals is nothing to be alarmed about. It is something that he will learn from and he will be a better player as a result of it.
Sanheim’s uneven play is something that hasn’t only started with the start of the regular season though. His play has been inconsistent all through training camp. When you compare it to how Sam Morin has played all throughout camp, it is somewhat perplexing as to why Sanheim is in the lineup and Morin is in the press box.
Unlike Sanheim, Morin has been consistent right from the start and it continued all throughout camp. He was solid in his own Zone with his positional coverage. When he made a mistake and somebody was able to get around him, he was always quick to recover. His decision-making with the puck was very good. He always made that good first pas out of his own Zone. He even showed some offensive ability. He scored a goal and had an assist on a short-handed goal as well.
Sanheim is the more talented of the two, but Morin clearly outplayed Sanheim during training camp. Morin looked like the finished product who was ready to graduate to the NHL Whereas Sanheim, although talented , still had a lot of rough edges and looked like another year in the American Hockey League would do him a lot of good. So logic would dictate that Morin would be in the lineup and Sanheim would be the one who either started out in the Press Box or who got sent down to the Phantoms.
There are a couple of other factors that leaves one somewhat confused when looking at the Flyers decision making process with these two players. Going into training camp, the Flyers had two openings on their defense as a result of not having resigned Nick Schultz and Michael Del Zotto. The Logical thinking was that Sam Morin and Robert Haag would fill those two spots. Both had three plus years of AHL experience and both got a taste of the NHL last year. When being asked about which of the young players had the best shot to make the NHL roster, Hextall said that Morin and Haag had a leg up on everybody else because of their AHL and NHL experience.
When you look at Hextall’s philosophy when it comes to developing players, it is surprising that he is going with the less experienced more raw player over the more experienced polished player. There are some plausible explanations for it though. Ivan Provorov and Sam Morin can only play the left side and Radko Gudas can only play the right side. So that limits the Flyers options.
You obviously can’t put him in the lineup in place of Ivan Provorov and have him play with Andrew MacDonald. Pairing him with Radko Gudas wouldn’t be a good fit because Morin and Gudas are basically the same player. Normally you want one Puck carrying defenseman with one stay-at-home physical defenseman. Both Gudas and Morin are big physical defensemen so that pairing wouldn’t work.
So the Flyers only option for getting Morin in to the lineup would be to take Robert Haag out of the lineup and insert Morin next to Shayne Gostisbehere. This move makes a lot of sense to me for several reasons.
First the Flyers have played three games in four nights. The NHL season is a grind and one of the hardest things for a young player to get used to is playing an 82-game schedule. Even though he has played well, it wouldn’t hurt for Robert Haag to be given a night off and for Sam Morin to be put into the lineup. Second, I believe that Sam Morin is a better fit to play with Ghost than Robert Haag is. Although Haag is more of a stay-at-home type of defenseman, he is also a guy who isn’t afraid to carry the puck and make forays into the offensive zone. Morin is somebody who concentrates more on playing in his own end and providing a physical presence. This makes him a better fit to play with Ghost .
Also, Ghost and Morin have played together several times during Flyers training camps. And every time they have they have clicked beautifully.. It was plain for one to see that there was a great chemistry between the two of them. And they are the perfect complement to one another. Morin offsets Ghost’s lack of size and Ghost offsets Morin’s lack of offensive ability.
So when you look at all of the factors that have gone into the Flyers decisions with their young defenseman, it causes one to scratch their heads. And with Ron Hextall being so close to the vest when it comes to revealing his thought process when making decisions, all one can do is guess as to what his motivation is for making the decisions that he has made.
I look at it this way. I trust Ron Hextall as a general manager. When you look at his track record and how he has built this organization from being in a shambles in to having one of the deepest organizations in the NHL, it is hard not to. I still don’t like the decision of sitting Sam Moran for what will be four straight games after tonight’s game at Nashville. But coaches and GMs can see so many more things then the average Joe can. I think there is a method to Ron Hextall’s madness. I think when we look back on the decisions he has made with these three young players, it will all make sense in the end.