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Philadelphia Flyers Top 25 Under 25: Anthony Stolarz took a step forward but still has work to do

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Anthony Stolarz broke out to a fantastic start last season that sent his stock soaring. But a just-okay second half reminded fans that Stolarz still has work to do.

Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

Two stellar seasons with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League and Anthony Stolarz proved that the Flyers were justified in taking a raw goaltender with no real experience versus high-end competition with their second round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. Unfortunately, the first professional season for Stolarz was less impressive, as the New Jersey-born goalie posted a 0.905 save percentage in 31 games with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the AHL in 2014-15.

Apparently, Stolarz had no interest in repeating those struggles.

He immediately outplayed veteran goalie Jason LaBarbera, storming out of the gate in October and November and posting a save percentage of 0.930. Suddenly, a prospect on the verge of being overshadowed by the mass infusion of talent at the goaltender position that Philadelphia added in the 2015 NHL Draft was back to being a player to watch for prospect-hound Flyers fans.

No. 9: Anthony Stolarz

Position: G
Age: 22 (1/20/1994)
2015-16 League/Team/Statistics: Lehigh Valley (AHL) - .916 SV%, 2.60 GAA in 47 GP
Nationality: American (Edison, NJ)
Acquired Via: 2012 NHL Draft -- Round 2, Pick 45 (Pick acquired via Columbus along with Pick No. 117 in 2012 and a fourth-round pick in 2013 for Sergei Bobrovsky)

Stolarz's fantastic play continued through the remainder of the calendar year, as he posted a 0.925 save percentage in December to close out 2015 with a 0.928 average in 22 games. His start to the season even had some wondering when the soon-to-be-22 year old would get his first taste of NHL action.

The second half of Stolarz's sophomore professional year was a bit bumpier, but that can't be entirely blamed on the young goalie. After all, he did receive extended time with the big club in February, March and April -- more than total three weeks, in fact. Unfortunately for Stolarz, however, during those stays with the Flyers he did not have the opportunity to play in a single regular season game, instead sitting on the bench as Steve Mason received all the starts in the absence of Michal Neuvirth.

Stolarz may not be a teenager anymore, but Flyers general manager Ron Hextall would almost certainly agree that the young goalie would have been better off honing his craft in the AHL rather than sitting on the bench for weeks at a time with Philadelphia. But the Flyers wanted the best possible option as a backup in case of disaster, and Stolarz fit the bill. The unfortunate result was that he missed valuable playing time in the interim.

But it wasn't just the repeated call-ups that threw a wrench into Stolarz's breakout season. Following that stellar three-month stretch to kick off the season, he did see his numbers regress in January, as Stolarz could only manage a 0.874 save percentage in nine games, dropping his season rate down from 0.928 to 0.915.

And while the intermittent call-ups in the ensuing months may have helped to break his rhythm, it's fair to note that Stolarz never could push his metrics back up to early-season levels. From his February 13th start through the end of the season, Stolarz posted a 0.917 save percentage -- still fine, but a far cry from the 0.928 that caught everyone's attention early on.

So this season becomes a proving ground for Anthony Stolarz. If he can recapture the magic of the first three months of 2015-16 (or at least a reasonable approximation), there's no reason why a netminder of his size and skill level shouldn't be viewed as one of the top goalie prospects in hockey, even if he'll turn 23 in January.

He should have a strong team in front of him. The Flyers placed a focus upon adding established AHL talent in the offseason like T.J. Brennan and Andy Miele, and that's in addition to talented young players like Travis Sanheim and Nicolas Aube-Kubel making the leap to the pros as well. The Phantoms could be legitimate contenders this year.

As for Stolarz's playing time, he should at least match his 47 games from 2015-16, and will likely top that workload. College free agent signing Alex Lyon will probably push him for starts, but considering Stolarz's success in 2015-16 combined with his status as a second round pick of the franchise, it's fair to assume that Stolarz will be the 1A in Lehigh Valley this season.

This season is especially important to Stolarz's NHL future, for a number of reasons. First, the contracts of Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth both conclude at the end of the 2016-17 season, and the two netminders are expected to go head-to-head all season long in a battle not just for the starting job this season, but for convince the coaching staff and front office of which one is more deserving of an extension and the No. 1 role moving forward. It's unlikely that the Flyers will be able to retain both goalies, which would leave the backup spot in 2017-18 open. If Stolarz continues his progression, it's not unthinkable that the Flyers could earmark that spot for him.

Second, Stolarz will also be in need of a new contract at the end of next season. He'll be a restricted free agent, but even if a big-money contract is almost certainly not in the cards, he'll still want to ensure that he remains in the organization's plans by delivering a satisfactory season.

Finally, as a player who will be concluding his third year as a professional, Stolarz will be eligible to be "poached" by the Las Vegas expansion team next summer if he is not protected by his team. Since the most likely scenario is that the Flyers will sign one of Mason or Neuvirth and then protect the one they choose, the team is in something of an awkward spot when it comes to Stolarz. They obviously want him to excel in the AHL this year so that he makes a strong case to move into the NHL backup role in 2017-18. But if he makes too strong of a case, there's always the possibility that Las Vegas snatches him up as their "goalie of the future."

But to even get to that scenario, Anthony Stolarz must deliver on the promise he showed last season and post a standout year with the Phantoms. In a few short weeks, we'll see if he can do so.

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How we voted for Anthony Stolarz :

Kelly Travis Charlie Allison Kurt Brent Collin Kevin Al Community
14 12 12 8 13 11 7 10 15 9

How we voted at No. 9 :

Kelly Travis Charlie Allison Kurt Brent Collin Kevin Al Community
Samuel Morin Oskar Lindblom Philippe Myers Taylor Leier Philippe Myers Robert Hagg Oskar Lindblom Pascal Laberge Robert Hagg Anthony Stolarz

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Previously in Philadelphia Flyers Top 25 Under 25, Summer 2016: