When Sam Morin and Robert Hagg returned from their respective NHL debuts with the Flyers, Phantoms coach Scott Gordon sensed something different right away, and it had nothing to do with their performance on the ice.
"The smiles were bigger," Gordon said Wednesday. "There's no questions about that. It's just one game but until you actually play that first game, I think as a player, you're waiting and you're hoping, and what if it doesn't happen? And when you get that first game, it's a load off your shoulders. I'm sure they were walking a little bit lighter."
For both guys, it was like a sample you receive walking through Costco. Next season, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall will likely have both defensemen buying in bulk as they take on a bigger load after Hextall said last week the team will go younger as they replace free agents Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz (see story).
But the timeline would test any young player's patience.
"Yeah, that's [Hextall's] philosophy and I agree with it 100 percent," Hagg said. "You need to be good down here (AHL) in order to have a chance at the NHL. You need to relax and realize you have young players down here and take our time to develop. When we're ready, we'll get a shot."
No other Flyers defensive prospect has as much AHL experience as the 22-year-old Hagg, who has logged 192 games.
"You look at a guy like Robert, who's been here for three years -- it would be very easy to say, 'Jesus, it's just not going to happen here,'" Gordon said. "But he needed every bit of those three years to get to where he is now, and he's probably the most consistent defenseman out of our group. He doesn't have the amazing numbers offensively, but what he does in our defensive zone, on our penalty kill, how he gets up into the play, how he's improved his puck skills -- it's been a process."
Twenty-eight of the 30 first-round picks from the 2013 draft had already broken into the league by the time Morin (drafted 11th overall) made his debut.
"You see all those guys get their chance, but I'm not frustrated," Morin said. "I know my time's going to come. I didn't want to go to the NHL and not get better because I wasn't playing a lot. In juniors, I got a lot of ice time, here I've gotten a lot of ice time and I've gotten better every day and still getting better."
Now Hagg, Morin and 2014 first-round pick Travis Sanheim will be the defensive pillars in the Phantoms' first playoff appearance since 2009. The 6-foot-7 Morin, who's been compared endlessly to that of Hall of Famer Chris Pronger, feels there's room (in his game) to grow.
"I'm still young," he said, "and when you see me in five years in the NHL, you're going to be like, 'That time in the AHL was worth it.'"