The Flyers appear to have found their long-sought-after goaltender of the future, a year ahead of schedule.
In the process, have they also (surprise, surprise) found their future coach?
Goalie Carter Hart, a onetime sensation on the junior level, is only 20 but has been on the Flyers’ radar for a while.
He was looking like a career minor-league coach. That is, until he replaced the fired Dave Hakstol on Dec. 17. Promoted from the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms, he has steadied the Flyers and improved the line of communication as their interim coach.
Gordon, 56, a former New York Islanders head coach and Toronto Maple Leafs assistant, is opening the eyes of the Flyers’ front office.
General manager Chuck Fletcher recently danced around a question about whether Gordon’s “interim” label might be removed, but the analytical coach has greatly enhanced his stock.
The Flyers are 15-9-3 under Gordon and, most impressive, their young players, including Hart, Travis Sanheim, Oskar Lindblom, Nolan Patrick, and ex-Flyer Anthony Stolarz, have made noticeable strides. Hart is comfortable playing under Gordon, an ex-goalie who can share his good and bad experiences with him.
Many Flyers played for Gordon with the Phantoms.
“I think that definitely benefited us and made it an easier transition for him to come up here,” Sanheim said. “It was easy for a lot of guys. He communicates well, and he likes to be detailed in everything he does.”
The veterans are also in his corner.
“He’s been really good for us,” center Sean Couturier said. “He reads the game well and adjusts pretty quickly. He brought in a few adjustments to our system, and so far it’s been good.”
So who is Gordon, anyway?
He is self-deprecating, someone who mocks his, um, accomplishments as an NHL goalie (career goals-against average: 5.60 in 23 games).
He is a student of the game, someone who loves coaching hockey so much that, whether in Allentown or Philadelphia, he has been apart from his wife, Jennifer, for most of the season.
Jennifer Gordon owns two ballet schools that she runs in the Atlanta suburbs, which is where the Gordons live, and she visits on weekends. The Gordons’ sons are longtime rink rats. Erik, 20, plays goalie for the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. "He’s way better than I was,” Scott Gordon said. Their other son, Ryan, 16, plays forward for the Skipjacks 16-and-under team in York, Pa., a two-hour drive from Philadelphia.
Gordon can analyze a situation — whether it’s, say, a defensive breakdown or the team’s 1-3-1 neutral-zone forecheck, which has played a key role in the Flyers’ 11-1-1 surge — with the best of them. Ask a question about a specific play and he passionately describes each of the players’ responsibilities and what they did right or wrong. He is a master at the X’s and O’s and can be critical in the locker room, but he also is down-to-earth and approachable, and that makes him connect with the players.
“He knows how to get his point across,” Couturier said.
“The guys here have really bought into Gordo’s system,” defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. “Everybody’s pulling on the same side of the rope.”
Joel Quenneville, who led Chicago to three Stanley Cups, is a logical candidate to become the next Flyers coach. After all, the Flyers front office discussed Quenneville right after the Blackhawks fired him. At the time, Hakstol, who had strong support from then-GM Ron Hextall, was still the Flyers coach.
Quenneville has 890 career wins, second in NHL history, and his resume speaks for itself. But even if the Flyers pursue Quenneville, there are no guarantees he will want to come to Philadelphia. He will have numerous teams courting him.
Gordon would be more than a consolation prize. Because he nurtured many of the Flyers in Lehigh Valley, no one knows these players better. If the Flyers don’t hire him as their head coach after the season, it wouldn’t be surprising if someone else does.
Make no mistake: Gordon has grown exponentially as a coach since he directed the rebuilding, injury-laden Islanders teams in 2008-09 to early in the 2010-11 season.
Back then, Gordon said, his attitude was: “We do things this way, and I don’t have to explain myself because, in my mind, I was successful [in the AHL] before I got here, and I’ll be successful continuing to do what I tell you to do. Just do it. That type of thing. That’s the only thing I knew.”
Times have changed. So has Gordon. More younger players are in today’s game, and video is playing a greater role than ever in preparation.
“Before, you’d go into a video session and you [as a coach] knew everything that had happened. The players didn’t have access to the games,” Gordon said. “Now, they have already watched all their shifts before we have meetings. They already have their answers for you when you ask, ‘Why did you do this?’ ”
Gordon said there is the ‘what, how and why’ involved in coaching. In the past, he said, “I was about the what. Then I’d tell them about how we were going to do it. I didn’t worry about the why. Now, I’m more conscious of the why because they want to know why we are doing this. And if they can understand the why, you get more buy-in. The why didn’t even exist until maybe three years ago for me.”
The Brockton, Mass., native said he is a better delegator than he was in his first NHL coaching stint, giving his assistants more input. He said all coaches “are way more comfortable in their second jobs. You have time to reflect and get experience with other people” between coaching stints. “You realize there are other ways, and you need to be open with it.”
Gordon has become a much improved coach in his second go-round, but is it enough to convince Fletcher that he should remain on the job?