VOORHEES, N.J. — Ron Hextall has exercised as much extreme caution and due diligence when it comes to throwing a young promising prospect into the frying pan of an NHL rink.
But Nov. 14, 2015, will always be a day when the Flyers' general manager and the entire organization was forced to deviate from the plan.
And for the better.
With an injury to Mark Streit, the Flyers were desperate for a puck-moving defenseman to bring an offensive punch to their blue line. The five healthy blueliners were Nick Schultz, Radko Gudas, Brandon Manning, Michael Del Zotto and Luke Schenn.
The Flyers were begging for a player of Shayne Gostisbehere’s abilities. That night, Gostisbehere assisted on the Flyers' game-tying goal before Jake Voracek provided the overtime game-winner to beat the Hurricanes in overtime. Three nights later, Gostisbehere ripped a power-play slap shot past Jonathan Quick for his first NHL goal.
Seventeen months after leading Union College to a national championship in Philadelphia, GhostMania was sweeping over the Wells Fargo Center once again, and it never stopped. Ideally, the Flyers wanted Gostisbehere to spend a full season with the Phantoms, but that egg hatched well before the timer expired.
Gostisbehere went on an amazing tear in January, scoring a point in 15 straight games to set a new NHL record for a rookie defenseman. When March rolled around, he was easily logging over 20 minutes a night.
“Play your game, do your thing,” Gostisbehere said, “When all of that stuff was happening with me and everything going so well, I think the most important thing is the guys in this room keeping you down to Earth and your family and your support system don’t let you get too big of a head. It was crazy, but it was a fun ride.”
And the Flyers' goaltending carousel always seems to be one crazy, never-ending ride.
Sunday, general manager Ron Hextall added to the ongoing drama by declaring Michal Neuvirth doubtful for the season opener in Vegas with an injury he labeled as “not day to day,” which leaves the Flyers with Brian Elliott, Anthony Stolarz and Carter Hart as their only healthy goaltending options.
As he did with Gostisbehere three years ago, Hextall is hesitant to heap too much praise on Hart despite the rookie’s impressive body of work in the preseason with a 1.20 goals against average and a .957 save percentage, and ideally would prefer the 20-year-old Hart to receive a significant workload in Lehigh Valley before he’s thrust into the NHL spotlight.
“If it’s right for the team, sometimes you have to do it,” Hextall said. “I haven’t ruled out anybody who’s on the ice with our team right now.”
Three years ago, Hextall had no choice in elevating Gostisbehere from Lehigh Valley, where the defenseman had just 14 games under his belt. Now, here we are 11 days removed from the regular season and the Hart era seems to be one heartbeat or hip injury away from reality.
Gostisbehere remembers the support system he had in 2015, and with the same core group in the Flyers' dressing room, the team's fourth-year defenseman can’t see why Hart can’t have the same level of success if given the opportunity.
“It’s you against the world. If you do bad, it’s not the worst thing in the world,” Gostisbehere said. “He will kill it because he’s such a good goaltender. When he gets a chance, I know he’ll be ready.”