Nine shots, three goals, and Carter Hart was through for the night on Tuesday. Just as he was through when he got lit up five games into his NHL call-up in Carolina, or that time back in October, when Springfield lit him up early in his AHL career.
The common denominator in those decisions was Scott Gordon, the Flyers’ interim coach, who has operated with far less hesitation or caution than the coach he replaced. Gordon pulled Hart again Tuesday, after the Flyers fell behind by three goals in the first 10 minutes of a 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It was the exact sort of situation that former Flyers general manager Ron Hextall often cautioned could affect or even irreversibly damage the 20-year-old’s confidence, resisting calls to promote the kid despite the four-alarm emergency in net that so sabotaged this team’s high-expectation season, and ultimately cost Hextall his job.
They’ll tell you now that Hart wasn’t ready to handle this when the season began back in October, and the statistics bear this out. He wasn’t superb out of the gate, but when new Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher decided to promote him on Dec. 18 and waive the latest of Hextall’s stopgap goalies, Calvin Pickard, he factored in the opinion of his new interim coach, Gordon.
Gordon deemed the kid ready, as he once had with Robert Hagg and later Travis Sanheim and most recently Philippe Myers. It’s the advantage he has as the long-awaited Flyers rebuild finally begins to take shape with the promotion of these players and the dispatch of Hextall placeholders Dale Weise, Jori Lehtera, and Jordan Weal.
Gordon knows these guys, and they know him. He’s had heart-to-hearts not only with Hart, but also with Sanheim and Hagg and Oskar Lindblom and even Phil Varone.
``For sure,’’ Gordon said before Tuesday’s game, when I asked if he felt that was an advantage. "When I got here and we talked about Travis and where he was going to play and what his responsibilities were going to be, it wasn’t anything I had to think twice about. I knew what he was capable of. And A-Mac [Andrew MacDonald] and Hagger.’’
In his job as the New York Islanders head coach, Gordon turned MacDonald from a minor-league call-up to a plus player. In a way, his coaching led to the Flyers’ valuing MacDonald so highly, trading for him in 2013-14, and signing him to a long-term contract. Hagg was his project for three AHL seasons, ultimately developing into the dependable blueliner who seems very much a part of this team’s future.
``It’s not just me,’’ Gordon said. ``It’s any coach. That’s why sometimes you see teams make trades for players who played for a coach when he was in another organization. You’re kind of removing some of the uncertainties that you might get if you were just trading for someone randomly.’’
This is his trump card, his ace when the Flyers brass begins to sort out this uneven season this spring or — dare we dream — early summer. It was generally assumed that Gordon himself was a placeholder from the previous administration when he got the job bump in December, there until Fletcher could talk Joel Quenneville into the job, or some other brand name with his name already on a Cup.
But Quenneville, or that other brand name, will not have the connection with these guys that Gordon does, and the benefits of that have been clearly on display during the Flyers’ climb from abysmal to relevant. Gordon met Hart at the bench shortly after replacing him with Brian Elliott on Tuesday, and the gist of it was to tell him to ready himself for his start Thursday against Montreal. He also told him why he was taking him out.
``That’s what I like about Gordo,’’ Hart said. ``He’s honest and straightforward, and I respect how honest he is. That’s just kind of the person he is. And he’s a pretty positive guy. He’s done a lot for our group.’’
He’s not perfect. On Sunday, Gordon dressed seven defensemen so he could get Myers into a game, give him a 10-minute taste. He decided to go with six on Tuesday, sitting Myers against the NHL’s best team, leaning on MacDonald, who was plainly victimized on the Lightning’s first two goals.
But that’s just it: He’s also not afraid to be imperfect, or for his players to be. It’s the luxury of that interim tag, perhaps -- something he alluded to when he got the job. One day at a time, one period at a time, one shift at a time. It’s the most repeated answer to how the Flyers flipped their narrative in such a short amount of time, from obvious sellers to borderline contenders.
And, it’s the most repeated reason for why Fletcher might remove that interim tag this summer rather than seeking that brand name. With Gordon, the Flyers could hit the ground running in September, integrate more smoothly the system he has wedged in during the limited practice time afforded since he was hired.