PHILADELPHIA — The parent company of the Philadelphia Flyers has spent the weeks leading up to the season unveiling their best off-season acquisitions.
There has been a $265 million overhaul to the arena. There are $25 tickets at a refurbished standing room only area at the highest point inside the Wells Fargo Center and Comcast Spectacor installed a Kinetic 4K centre-hung scoreboard that makes Gritty look like Godzilla on the big screen. There’s even a sports book for fans who want to place a wager on the home team while they’re sipping a craft cocktail called “The Sexy Franklin.”
But the improvements to the arena the Flyers share with the 76ers hasn’t exactly trickled down to the roster. Even with the top-shelf amenities, fireplaces and artwork, the Flyers are longshots (+3600) to win it all.
They haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1974 and 1975, currently the fourth-longest drought in the NHL. The Flyers missed the playoffs for the fourth time in seven seasons, haven’t made it to the second round since 2012 and will hit 10 years since their last Stanley Cup Final appearance.
The new addition the Flyers are really counting on is the one on the bench.
New Head Coach Alain Vigneault
Alain Vigneault, known for quick fixes and who led Vancouver and the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final, was hired as the latest coach. Vigneault certainly boasts the credentials that prove he’s capable of turning the Flyers into winners. He has coached 16 NHL seasons for the Montreal Canadiens, Canucks and Rangers and his teams have made the playoffs 11 times.
“He’s a coach that knows what it takes to go far in the playoffs and win,” Flyers centre Sean Couturier said.
The Flyers gamble on college coach Dave Hakstol backfired and so did their commitment to former general manager Ron Hextall when he laid out a long-term rebuilding plan that was short on immediate playoff results. The Flyers hired Chuck Fletcher last December in hopes he can resuscitate the franchise and make the orange-and-black again known for more than their googly-eyed mascot.
The champion St. Louis Blues showed it could be done — they were the worst team in the NHL in January.
The Flyers hope their hectic early season travel schedule doesn’t derail their efforts: Philadelphia plays a final preseason game in Switzerland, opens the season in the Czech Republic, plays one home game on Oct. 9 and then heads to Western Canada for three games in five days. Did someone say jet lag?
Vigneault. F Kevin Hayes, D Matt Niskanen, D Justin Braun. Hayes signed a $50 million, seven-year contract that’s worth $7.14 million a season. Hayes became the Flyers’ third-highest paid player behind captain Claude Giroux and winger Jakub Voracek and steps in as their new No. 2 centre behind Couturier. He’s coming off a career-high 55 points last season with the Rangers and Jets.
Kate Smith. Don’t laugh. Smith’s connection with the Flyers started in 1969 and her rendition of “God Bless America” was a popular ritual through the years. She even had a statue across the street from the stadium in the sports complex. But the statue was yanked amid allegations of racism against the 1930s star and her video recording will not be played again. D Radko Gudas, C Jori Lehtera, and D Andrew MacDonald are among the notable departures.
All eyes are the 21-year-old Hart, who is expected to steady one of the shakiest positions throughout most of the franchise’s history. He stopped his first 25 shots in preseason action and looks capable of becoming a top-tier goalie. The Flyers used an NHL-record eight goalies last season, but Carter was by far the best and showed enough flashes of promise that he could possibly steal a playoff spot for the Flyers.
The Flyers are trying to shift from building to trying to contend for a title. Hextall’s regime was about drafting and developing, and Fletcher is turning his attention to making Philadelphia a playoff contender again. The Flyers should at least contend for one of the final playoff spots in the East and could snag one if once-prized prospects Shayne Gostisbehere and Nolan Patrick play to their potential.
Gritty will entertain the heck out of sports fans like no other mascot. As such, Gritty will continue to be must-see — but his post-season debut will have to wait at least one more season.
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Dan Gelston, The Associated Press