From the time Ron Hextall took over as general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, he has said that the organization will not rush players to the NHL. He repeated that mantra when the team drafted Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny with the seventh and 24th overall picks of the 2015 NHL Draft, said it again during the team's annual development camp in July and repeated it yet again shortly before the start of training camp in September.
Both last September -- when 2013 first-round pick Samuel Morin lasted until the end of training camp -- and prior to the start of the current preseason, Hextall cautioned of the dangers of reading too much into what a young player does during the preseason.
"You've got to be really careful on preseason because it's not an NHL game," Hextall said. "It's a preseason NHL game and a lot of times there are 10 NHLers in the same lineup and they're trying to get ready for the season and you've got other guys that aren't at that level yet. So you've got to be careful not to over-evaluate."
Hextall has also raised the issue of the "rookie wall": the common phenomenon of a rookie looking strong early in the regular season only to "hit the wall" and struggle come midseason, with the tailspin often being hard to correct as the player loses confidence.
For instance, there are some who believe that Luca Sbisa was never the same caliber of prospect again after 2008-09. He went straight to the NHL after the Flyers drafted him in the first round of the 2008 Draft, and played commendably for the first six to eight weeks. Thereafter he struggled mightily. Eventually, the team returned him to his junior club -- despite having already burned the first year of his entry-level contract. It was a devastating blow to the player's psyche and some believe he's never completely overcome that early setback.
In the case of the recently retired Dainius Zubrus, the Flyers' 1996 first-round pick carved out a long and reasonably successful NHL career as a defensive-minded role player. However, the player who was dubbed "Baby Jagr" at his first NHL training camp and showed flashes of brilliance early in his career, was ultimately done no favors by jumping directly from Junior A hockey to the NHL and bypassing both major junior and AHL hockey. His offensive game never truly developed as hoped and he endured several rough years after his rookie season before finding a niche role.
Hextall is keenly aware of these sorts of examples of seemingly "NHL ready" players whose development was hindered by the illusory nature of training camp. For every teenage player who hits the ground running in the NHL and attains stardom, there are more who either fall short of their initial potential or end up in a quick downward career spiral and do not stick in the NHL for the long haul. That is precisely what the general manager wants to avoid.
"There is no such thing as being too ready for the NHL, but there sure as hell is such a thing as being rushed before you are ready," Hextall said last April when asked about the danger of holding back prospects with his ultra-conservative approach.
Nevertheless, some observers expressed surprise when the Flyers returned Provorov and Konecny, as well as 2014 first-round pick Travis Sanheim, to their respective junior clubs on Wednesday of this week. Konecny showed some high-end skills and hockey sense in preseason games while Provorov made several nice plays with the puck. Both made a few noticeable mistakes, which is to be expected, but both stayed aggressive and did not lose confidence.
Sanheim, conversely, was oddly passive in his play throughout rookie camp, scrimmages and Tuesday's game against the Rangers. He played not to make mistakes rather than being assertive either defensively or offensively. Sanheim's high-end skating ability and prowess for jumping into the play were rarely on display in this year's camp. He backed in and conceded too much space rather than challenging when defending rushes.
This was Sanheim's second NHL camp but he fared better a year ago. Most likely, that is why he was an early cut. Although the odds were against him making the NHL roster at age 19 regardless of how he did in camp, he might have stuck around longer before being reassigned to the WHL's Calgary Hitmen. Now, he will have the opportunity to regroup, focus on building on his breakthrough 2014-15 WHL season and earning a spot on Team Canada at the 2015-16 World Junior Championships.
The future for all-three of these players remains very bright. The fact that the 18-year-old Provorov and Konecny and the 19-year-old Sanheim were early cuts from camp this year is actually an indication of the team's investment in their futures.
Bill Meltzer is a columnist for Flyerdelphia. Follow him on Twitter @billmeltzer.
The cuts continued for Ron Hextall as Wednesday came to a close. After sending Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Travis Konecny back to their junior teams, 20 more players were assigned to various locations.
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