EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Mention the name Ron Hextall and many hockey fans will conjure up images a wild-eyed goalie with a pirate's moustache chasing down a horrified opponent -- say a Chris Chelios -- with extreme malice in mind.
While the moustache remains, the countenance is now reserved and thoughtful. No doubt, Hextall's blood can still boil when he doesn't like what he sees on the ice, but he's carefully and doggedly created a new image for himself.
Smart, hard working and diligent, the L.A. assistant GM makes the shortlist for most GM jobs that come open these days.
Hextall and his boss Dean Lombardi left the Philadelphia Flyers organization to revamp the Kings and now have them on the cusp of the first championship in franchise history.
Hextall took some time this week to speak with the Free Press about the Kings and their trip to the Stanley Cup. Hextall has been to the final as a goalie with the Flyers, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in his rookie year.
"There's a difference in winning the whole thing as a player -- which is very special -- and winning as a manger. It's the second best thing to winning as a player and it's an opportunity that doesn't come along very often. Just two out of 30 get here," said Hextall. "Getting here is hard and you have to do whatever you can to try and take advantage when the opportunity is there."
The Kings under Lombardi and Hextall built the foundation of their organization from within, and complemented the base with a few bold off-season trades. The biggest was trading Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and a second-round pick to the Flyers for Mike Richards.
The Kings, and Richards, struggled early this season, so management struck again. The first move was firing coach Terry Murray to bring in Darryl Sutter and later, trading defenceman Jack Johnson to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Jeff Carter.
"There's no doubt about it, you have to think long and hard when trading two young players for a Mike Richards, and a young defenceman for a Jeff Carter. What people forget is that Mike Richards is 27 and Jeff Carter is the same age. We weren't trading a young player for an older player. That, we vowed not to do. We weren't going to trade a 20-year-old Brayden Schenn for a 30-year-old player," said Hextall. "But a 27-year-old at the beginning of his prime was something we felt was a good move. You look at a player now and you say, 'we have him for seven years until he's unrestricted.' Now, a lot of the times if he's a top player you're going to sign him, but it's not like the old days where you owned a player. We felt the Richards move would put us in the upper echelon and that's why we did it."
Hextall says another deal the Kings made two seasons ago is finally paying dividends at just the right moment.
"I think (Winkler native Dustin Penner) Pens would be the first to tell you we got very little in return from him for a year-and-a-half, but right now he's clearly the playing the best hockey he's played for us -- the type of hockey we expected from him when we traded for him," said Hextall. "He's a very good player, a big body and in the playoffs they make a big difference. Safe to say we wouldn't be where we are if he wasn't playing the way he is."
Kings goalie Jonathan Quick has been the best goalie of the playoffs and leads in all key statistical areas, including wins (14), GAA (1.44) and save percentage (.947).
Hextall, a dominant netminder in his day and an innovative puck handler, has been impressed.
"He's shown the tendency all year to rise to the occasion for big games and play his best hockey late in games and in tight games. He's shown all tendencies to be a winner and I think right now he's in the midst of proving it," said Hextall.
The Kings and Devils are unlikely combatants in the final and few would have predicted six weeks ago that L.A. would be sitting where it is today.
"There's such a fine line right now between winning and losing. There are no more teams like the Edmonton Oilers of the '80s. You can't build a team like that," said Hextall. "One play or one big effort from a player propels you to the next round. Nobody knows (who will advance). Truly. This playoff shows that more than any."
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