Fans of the Philadelphia Flyers can’t see much reason for optimism right now. The team missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons in 2020-21 and 2021-22 for the first time since the early 1990s. Two tumultuous seasons have taken their toll in Philadelphia, and things keep getting worse.
Cam Atkinson will not play in 2022-23, and the news came just two weeks after he was skating with the team primed for a return from an upper-body injury. Head coach John Tortorella recently scratched Kevin Hayes, who is under contract with the Flyers through 2025-26. Even when they picked up a solid contributor off waivers in Lukáš Sedlák, he darted for Czechia when he realized the Flyers weren’t anywhere near contention.
Where is the glimmer of hope for the Flyers? They sit seventh in the Metropolitan Division with enough injuries to key players to keep their medical staff busy for years. They’re by all sensible expectations out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, but it’s Christmas time. Fifth-overall pick Cutter Gauthier will play for Team USA at the World Junior Championship beginning on Dec. 26. Philadelphia’s top prospect could become a beacon of hope on the world stage for a fan base desperate for any glimpse of positivity.
The Flyers selected Gauthier with the fifth-overall pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. A prospect with the size, the speed, and the shot to become a high-impact player at the NHL level breathed some excitement into a fan base worn out from consecutive disastrous seasons that fell way short of expectations. Despite the consensus agreement that the newly-rated top prospect wouldn’t be ready for the professional level for at least another season, the legitimate potential of a future first-line forward became enough reason for the fans to feel satisfied.
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Gauthier leads the Boston College Eagles with 16 points in 13 games this season. His 1.23 points per game ranks him 18th in the NCAA. Charlie O’Connor of The Athletic discussed Gauthier’s developing sense of a two-way game at the center position, the spot he hopes to master before reaching the NHL.
“But the offense is in full bloom, in large part because he’s starting to get a real handle on the importance of timing — when to get involved in a play and move up ice versus staying back and focusing on defense,” O’Connor said in November (from The Athletic, Flyers prospect Cutter Gauthier is ‘back in the zone’ and starting to live up to his draft pick pedigree, 11/17/22).
The Boston College star spoke at Flyers Development Camp about how he emulates the play of Winnipeg Jets center Pierre-Luc Dubois, describing him as a “big power forward with lots of skill who controls the pace of the play any time.” He also mentioned Mark Scheifele and Auston Matthews as models for specific elements of his game.
Gauthier and Team USA at the World Juniors
Gauthier will play left wing on the top line for Team USA at the World Juniors. Logan Cooley, the third-overall pick in 2022 by the Arizona Coyotes, will play center while St. Louis Blues’ prospect Jimmy Snuggerud will play the right side. Both his linemates are having big years with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. All three forwards played together for the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP). They already started the fireworks with a skilled passing play against Team Sweden in a pre-tournament tune-up game.
Gauthier spoke in July about the value of top American prospects working their way up through the USNTDP.
“I think it’s just a testament to the culture and the coaching staff there. They’ve been the best of the best and I haven’t had anything like that growing up. I was extremely fortunate to have the great supporting career I did over the past couple of years. You know every single day you’re working with 23-24 other guys who have like-minded goals of playing in the National Hockey League one day, who are always striving to get better every single day. It’s fun to have that atmosphere every day, and it’s just great achieving the same goal as a team and as a person as well,” he said.
Carter Hart in 2018
The Flyers found themselves in a tumultuous situation five years ago leading up to the holiday season. They lost 10 consecutive games spanning from Nov. 11- Dec. 2, 2017. The fan base grew restlessly angry with head coach Dave Hakstol. General manager Ron Hextall poured gasoline on a fire with a poorly-timed quote after the ninth of the 10 losses.
“Actually, from the start of the year, I’m pretty good with the way our team’s played, pretty good with the way our team’s played the last nine games…Obviously, results lately are not very good. We’ve deserved better, but we haven’t gotten better. Obviously, we’ve got to find a way,” the former Philadelphia goaltender said.
The Flyers had already matched the longest span in franchise history without winning a playoff series at five seasons. They hadn’t had a sustained period of success from a goaltender since Hextall himself wore the orange and black from 1986-1992 and from 1994-1999. The narrative of Philadelphia as the goalie graveyard raged while Ilya Bryzgalov collected a fat check to stay away from the team for the fifth season in a row and Sergei Bobrovsky earned his second Vezina Trophy in 2017.
What reason did Flyers fans have to be optimistic about much of anything? Enter Carter Hart, Hextall’s second-round selection from the 2016 draft. The 19-year-old had blossomed into the best goaltending prospect in the world as a star in the Western Hockey League (WHL) for the Everett Silvertips. He had already helped Team Canada to a silver medal at the World Juniors in 2017.
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Previously hopeless Flyers fans saw a glimpse of the future when Hart lived up to the hype on the world stage with a 5-1-0 record that helped Team Canada earn the gold medal at the 2018 World Junior Championship. He led the tournament with a .930 save percentage (SV%), and he allowed just 11 total goals for a 1.81 goals against average (GAA). While Casey Mittelstadt earned the tournament MVP for the Americans, Hart walked away with even more promise for his future after flashes of greatness in front of the best talent evaluators the sport has to offer. He went on to earn the Four Broncos Trophy as the player of the year in the WHL for 2017-18 after leading the league in GAA and SV%. He also became the first player to win the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Goaltender of the Year Award twice.
Hart has been the MVP of the first half of the 2022-23 season for the Flyers. He currently ranks 5th in the NHL in goals saved above expected (GSAx) with 13.9, according to Money Puck. His 48-save efforts on Oct. 27 and Dec. 15 stole points away from respective playoff contenders in the Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils. His stability in the crease has been the strongest element of an otherwise miserable season.
Flyers Fans Searching for Hope
At a time when Tortorella explicitly admits that he isn’t worried about the results of each game, the Flyers aren’t playing a brand of hockey that will excite their fan base this holiday season. Gauthier will not affect Philadelphia’s position at the bottom of the league standings. He will not step into the NHL in 2023-24 or 2024-25 and solve the problems of an organization miles behind its goal of Stanley Cup contention.
However, the opportunity for a player with his style and raw skill to perform on the world stage could breathe some life into a fan base that has nothing but disastrous injury news, hostility within the organization, and a terrible record on the ice to focus on right now. An international competition with Team USA expected to compete for the gold should wake up some of the sleeping passion for hockey in Philadelphia.
The tournament takes place from Dec. 26 until Jan. 5 in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Moncton, New Brunswick. The Americans will open group play on Dec. 26 against Latvia. They’ll continue against Slovakia on the 28th, Switzerland on the 29th, and Finland on the 31st. Team Canada won the gold medal at the World Juniors in August after a postponement related to COVID-19 last holiday season.