It didn’t take long, on a recent Friday at the Skate Zone in Voorhees after the Flyers had finished practicing, to pick up on the two big differences between the team they were last season and the team they hope to be this season.
One of those differences sat at his locker and, as he peeled his goaltending pads off his legs, mentioned that he felt stronger and quicker for having gained six pounds over the previous few months.
“It was kind of weird,” Carter Hart said. “Maybe it’s because I’m starting to fill out. I don’t know. But I was really hungry a lot this summer.”
Anyone who has spent any time around the Flyers over, say, the last three decades recognizes how rare it is that they would enter a season with a relatively settled goaltending situation. Usually, there’s significant uncertainty around the position: the question of Brian Elliott’s age and workload, the health of Michal Neuvirth’s groin, the state of Steve Mason’s or Ilya Bryzgalov’s mind.
The 2018-19 campaign might have been the apex of that uncertainty. The Flyers used eight goaltenders, rifling through them sometimes out of necessity, sometimes as if the goalies were relief pitchers in a Gabe Kapler-managed bullpen.
Even as a rookie, though, Hart was the best of that bunch, by far, meeting every expectation for a 20-year-old kid who had been touted as a potential superstar. He did nothing over the 31 games he played to suggest he can’t or won’t be that good or better in the future, and there is a school of thought that the Flyers will be better merely for his presence, for the calm and confidence that can come over teams that know they have goaltenders who, when things go bad, can bail them out.
“Sometimes it can change things in a negative way, too,” forward Scott Laughton said, “where you’re kind of leaning on them too much.”
Funny enough, that’s exactly what happened to the Flyers last season once Hart joined them. He was terrific, and their record improved because he was. But by most statistical measures, the overall quality of their play declined.
He covered up for many of their mistakes, more than any of their other goalies did, and while Hart’s performance gave the Flyers a glimmer of hope that they might make a late charge into the playoffs, relying on a goaltender to be a superhero every night isn’t a sustainable strategy for becoming and remaining a Stanley Cup contender.
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Which brings us to the second big difference from last season to this one. For several minutes in the locker room that Friday, the atmosphere among the players was relaxed, as one would expect for a team that still had two weeks of training camp and preseason to complete.
With the Flyers playing their regular-season opener in his home country, the Czech Republic, Jake Voracek offered restaurant and beer recommendations to any writers who would be making the trip. Shayne Gostisbehere, wearing a baseball cap backward, padded around the room. One by one, the players left to get on with the day. Same ol’, same ol’.
Alain Vigneault, the team’s new head coach, soon made it clear, after all the players were gone, that everything was not staying the same. The Flyers had lost a preseason game the previous night and played terribly. So Vigneault had decided that, instead of having the team’s veterans play just three preseason games, he would have them play four or five in the name of getting them ready for the start of the regular season.
“When you’re in the playoffs and you go for a round, two rounds, three rounds, four rounds, that’s intense hockey,” Vigneault said. “That’s a longer season. This group has been off for a while, and in my mind, it just needs a little bit more preparation, and there’s nothing better than situations where games are on the line.”
That last bit was coach-speak. The outcomes of preseason games aren’t “on the line” in any meaningful sense. No, Vigneault was flexing his muscles, using his track record as an NHL head coach to wake the players up to a new reality.
Gone is Dave Hakstol, who after coaching at the collegiate level believed he needed time to earn the trust and respect of professional athletes and was, at times, too deferential to them. Back at Lehigh Valley is Scott Gordon, who had just two-plus years of experience as a head coach in the league before replacing Hakstol last season.
Here was Vigneault — 15 years, 11 playoff berths, two appearances in the Stanley Cup Final, with a built-in credibility that his predecessors lacked — establishing a different tone and demanding some early accountability.
“They don’t have a choice,” he said. “It’s just the way it is.”
It was an interesting and welcome early message to send, but there’s no telling yet how much change Vigneault’s presence and methods will effect in the long run. Through four head coaches in seven years, the Flyers have been stuck in the middle of the NHL — never very good, never downright awful, just … there.
Vigneault might help them break out of that rut. He might. But he likely won’t be the primary reason. Hart will. The coach matters a little. The goalie matters more.