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Column: Ron Hextall relishes GM role in Philadelphia, sleepless nights and all

Philadelphia Flyers General Manager Ron Hextall speaks during the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft in Philadelphia in June.
(Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

There are nights Ron Hextall is so consumed by his job he can’t shut off his brain.

In seven seasons as the Kings’ assistant general manager, Hextall oversaw their exemplary farm system, but General Manager Dean Lombardi made the final decisions in major matters. In Hextall’s first season back in Philadelphia, where he had made his name as a feisty goaltender, he was an assistant to GM Paul Holmgren and didn’t have the ultimate say.

Now, he does. Hextall was appointed the Flyers’ general manager in May, a promotion he welcomed even though it ruins his sleep.

“The biggest difference is that sometimes you wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning and your mind starts grinding and you stay awake for a couple hours when you have something going on that you’re evaluating and analyzing,” he said. “But it’s been all good.”

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The Kings, the team he helped raise from rubble to two-time Stanley Cup champion, will visit the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday to face the Flyers, the team he’s trying to mold into a champion. He departed Los Angeles on good terms, eager to be closer to his four children and to someday run his own shop, so he expects to feel strong emotions Tuesday.

“Of course, there’s sentiment involved. I’m very fond of my time in L.A., and all our people there,” he said by phone. “It’s a wonderful staff, and I’ve remained in contact with a lot of people there.”

He’s drawing on his experience with the Kings as he tries to fortify the Flyers, who missed the playoffs in the 2012-13 season, were eliminated in the first round last season, and are coping with key injuries on defense. He has borrowed bits of philosophy from Flyers icon Bob Clarke, their senior vice president, and Holmgren, the Flyers’ president, as well as from Lombardi.

“You’ve got the two ex-players in ‘Clarkie’ and ‘Homer’ and then you get the other side of it. Dean’s a lawyer and very analytical, so you tune into some of his thought process and his thinking,” Hextall said. “I learned an awful lot from Dean and from being in LA.

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“In Philly, things have always been fairly stable. In L.A. we turned over the whole infrastructure of the organization, from trainers to coaches to scouts. I’d never been through a process like that before. I think one of the most valuable things I learned was hiring people and how important it was to hire the right people.”

Hextall is following Lombardi’s script of building through the draft and giving kids time to develop, but he will sometimes have to improvise. He acknowledged last week that he didn’t want to promote prized defense prospect Shayne Gostisbehere yet but had no choice because of injuries that will keep defensemen Braydon Coburn and Andrew MacDonald out for a month.

“Things happen that you don’t expect and you’ve got to adjust, but you’ve got to have a plan and believe in it and stick to it,” Hextall said. “Everybody here has been very supportive of the way I want to do things.

“We’ve got some good young pieces coming, and in that sense there’s similarities with L.A. We’ve got a real good young group of forwards here, and we’ve got some young defensemen coming that we’re really excited about. So we’ve got to have some patience.”

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The Kings won two titles thanks to patience and good personnel decisions. If Hextall can bring that to the Flyers, his sleepless nights will be easier to take.

Learning curve for Blue Jackets

Winning a playoff game for the first time and taking the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games in their first-round series last spring was a huge step forward for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The next step should be to win a playoff series, right?

“For us right now the idea is to get into the playoffs. It’s hard,” said John Davidson, who has assembled the NHL’s youngest team (average age 25.68) as the director of hockey operations.

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“Once you do that, we’ll build on that, but we have to continue as we build a brick at a time, and experience is part of that. We’ve got to find a way to find growth with the youth, which we’re doing.”

The Blue Jackets are spunky and physical, and they have a gem in center Ryan Johansen, who ranks among league scoring leaders with five goals and 11 points in eight games. He missed training camp while negotiating a three-year, $12-million contract.

“It was tough for everybody. My biggest concern was I didn’t want him to miss time,” Davidson said. “It’s important for his development to have another year of growth, which we can see he’s doing.

“It’s an important year for him and for us, for us to continue to go upward. We have the All-Star Game coming up in Columbus, and we’d love to have him in it if he continues to play well.”

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Davidson also said he has warm feelings for winger Marian Gaborik, whom he traded to the Kings last March for Matt Frattin and two draft picks.

“He wanted to stay in Columbus, and we felt that for him and for us, it wasn’t the right time,” Davidson said. “I was very happy for him. We text each other and talk. He’s a first-class guy. He’s a good hockey player. We’re getting younger before we get better, and so we have the fit that we need right now.”

Slap shots

Boston forward Chris Kelly summed it up well in calling Zdeno Chara “irreplaceable” after the dominating defenseman tore a ligament in his left knee. He’s expected to be out four to six weeks, but no surgery is planned….The San Jose Sharks’ home sellout streak ended last Saturday at 177 (205 including playoffs) when they fell about 200 short of filling the SAP Center.

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen


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