PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Flyers found a pair of rookies this season they expect to become superstars over the long haul.
The first one is obvious: Gritty, the mischievous furball that not only would win an NHL mascot MVP vote by a landslide, the googly-eyed giant just might win a popularity contest among all of sports’ greatest characters.
The next one is the spark the Flyers need more than a Phillie Phanatic knockoff: a goalie.
Flyers Have Found Their Goaltender
Carter Hart gave Flyers fans a reason to tune in when the season was left for dead and showed that — yes! maybe? — the franchise that has foundered between the pipes may have a goalie who can win them a Stanley Cup. Hart is just 20 years old but showed enough flashes of promise from his mid-December call-up from the minors that it convinced the Flyers (37-37-8; 82 points) they won’t have to chase another veteran this summer.
“Am I going to trade Carter Hart? I’d have to be crazy,” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said.
Fletcher can scratch “get No. 1 goalie” off his summer to-do list.
But the list is long for a franchise that has failed to reach the second round of the playoffs since 2012 and has alternated between missing and making the post-season each of the following years.
“We weren’t good enough,” Fletcher said Monday.
Fletcher Will Have the Task of Hiring the Next Flyers Coach
That’s why Fletcher was hired after Ron Hextall was fired in November after 4 1/2 seasons on the job in which he tried to revive a depleted farm system and patiently build a championship contender. Fletcher fired coach Dave Hakstol weeks later and gave minor league coach Scott Gordon the interim label. Fletcher and Gordon met briefly Monday to discuss upcoming schedules — but not the fate of the coach. The Florida Panthers took one of the top candidates off the market when they hired Joel Quenneville on Monday. Gordon, who quickly became popular with the players, is among the candidates.
“I had a great time with the group of players,” Gordon said. “What I liked about it, when I was up front and called them out and was hard and challenged them, I got a response from them. When you try and do that in this day in age and not have them resent you, that’s an important part.”
Fletcher thinks it’s important, too.
“My search for the next head coach starts today and Scott remains a candidate,” he said.
Here are some key developments from 2018-19 that will remain relevant for the Flyers:
GETTING GRITTY WIT IT
Gritty was the undisputed star of the lost season.
He made 114 appearances this season, including cameos at the Stadium Series and All-Star weekend. The Flyers sold more than 17,000 pieces of Gritty merchandise at home games this season. The NHLPA voted Gritty the best mascot in the NHL and he was as in-demand as a Hollywood A-lister, with appearances on the late-night circuit with Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel.
The Flyers may have been unwatchable, but Gritty was a surefire smash.
The Flyers might continue to try to build from within. There is money to spend, but the NHL free-agent market is thin, with Erik Karlsson, Tyler Myers and Anton Stralman among possible players the Flyers could target.
“I don’t think it’s an elite market, but we’ll see,” Fletcher said. “There are always players that can help your team.”
Like many bad teams, the Flyers fell behind first in games and got off to a slow start that left them buried in the standings before a midseason surge offered a glint of a playoff hope.
“We have some bad habits right now,” Fletcher said. “It’s mindset, but you need the mindset to embrace the habits. It’s about making sure going into camp next year, we have to change some details, change our mindset and have a good start. A lot of reasons we fall behind in games is because we give up easy goals. It’s not about effort. It’s about thinking, about working smart and playing better.”
The Flyers need more out of once-prized prospects Shayne Gostisbehere and Nolan Patrick. “Ghost” slumped from a career-high 65 points last season to just nine goals and 37 points this season.
Travis Sanheim, Oskar Lindblom and Phil Myers played for Gordon in the minors and there’s hope that the familiarity can help them improve on their 25-22-4 record since the interim coach took over.
“I think we have good players,” Fletcher said. We just need a few more.”
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Dan Gelston, The Associated Press