PHILADELPHIA – The Philadelphia Flyers needed a true No. 1 goalie. They needed to shake up the nucleus of a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2012.
The Flyers needed to add some sort of impact player behind James van Riemsdyk to prove they will again be nothing more than a fringe playoff team.
What they did was Gritty.
Gritty, the new Broad Street Bushy mascot, was unveiled to a mix of amusement and horror this preseason. The wild-haired, googly-eyed 7-footer seemed uncertain on the ice and fell on his orange, fuzzy rear during his debut. Gritty in no time was trending on Twitter and became the wacked-out face of a 1,000 memes. The Flyers’ backstory for their new mascot goes like this: He was recently “found” during construction and the $250 million renovation underway at the Wells Fargo Center.
Give the team this: The Flyers can barely make “SportsCenter,” but Gritty was featured on “Good Morning America” less than 24 hours later. People were definitely talking about the Flyers.
The Flyers have been oft-criticized for their sentimental attachment to the past, from a 1970s “God Bless America” video to the recycling of former players as coaches or in management. The Flyers had tried a mascot before, too, but Slapshot lasted just one season in 1976. That’s Mascots 2, Stanley Cups 0 since 1975.
And that’s a problem.
All the efforts can’t make up for the fact the Flyers have had little juice of late in a crowded Philly sports scene. The Eagles are the Super Bowl champions. The 76ers had the Process. The Phillies contended until late August this season. The Flyers have been just a point or two away from not even making the playoffs in the years they’ve qualified since a run to the Stanley Cup final in 2010.
The Flyers have won between 33 and 42 games each of the last five years and haven’t touched 100 points since 2012.
“We like who we have in the room,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said. “We like the team we have now. We just have to go and have that chemistry and make sure we’re all on the same page.”
Van Riemsdyk signed a $35 million, five-year contract with the Flyers in July, and set a career high with 36 goals last season in Toronto. Taken by Philadelphia second overall behind Patrick Kane in the 2007 draft, van Riemsdyk played with Giroux and Jake Voracek during his first stint and returns with newfound confidence and experience from a bigger role in Toronto the past six seasons.
“That’s one of the fun things about playing here, is how into it the city is and how behind the team they are,” van Riemsdyk said.
The Stanley Cup drought is one of the longest in the league: The Flyers haven’t won a championship since back-to-back Cups in 1974 and 1975. Philadelphia lost in the finals in 1976, 1980, 1985, 1987, 1997 and 2010.
WHO’S NO. 1
Look no further than Philadelphia’s usual unsettled goaltending to understand why the franchise has gone 42 years without a championship. Michal Neuvirth is hurt again. Alex Lyon is hurt. And Brian Elliott is recovering from offseason hip surgery that makes his status a bit of an unknown headed into opening night.
Carter Hart is the minor-league star expected to eventually become Philadelphia’s franchise goalie. But Hart hasn’t even played in the AHL yet and even though the Flyers have nothing but uncertainty in net, Hart isn’t expected to become the everyday goalie this season.
Dave Hakstol, the surprise pick to coach the Flyers out of the college ranks, has led the team to two playoff berths in three seasons. Angry fans chanted “Fire Hakstol! Fire Hakstol!” in the playoffs.
But there is little reason to think general manager Ron Hextall is going to acknowledge his biggest gamble has been a bust. Hakstol had a reputation for developing young players and there are enough on the roster to merit at least one more season. He is in the fourth year of his five-year contract, and might have to show he can do more than take a so-so team to the first round to merit an extension.
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