The world of prospect-related punditry can be a harsh one to those who struggle or fail to stack up to expectations, even if just briefly. And that’s especially true in a setting like the Flyers’ system, which has consistently been adding quality prospects at every position over the past few years. As new names show up and existing names emerge and rise, others must inevitably fall. And even though prospect development is a long game, fans can’t be faulted for looking through the “what have you done for me lately?” lens when trying to decide which prospect they may prefer out of a given group.
Which brings us to Anthony Stolarz, whose drop from No. 7 in our Winter 2017 25 Under 25 series to No. 14 in our current version is the biggest fall down the rankings of any player that remained in the Top 25. The franchise’s near-unquestioned top goalie prospect at this time a year ago, Stolarz had a 2016-17 season that can be described as a missed opportunity at best and a setback at worst.
Now, five years after being introduced to the Flyers’ system, Stolarz is at a bit of a crossroads in his Flyers career. Is he NHL-ready? If not, is he close? And how close do the Flyers actually think he is? Can he kick one of the Flyers’ current goalies off the NHL team before either of their two-year contracts are up? Is he still the Flyers’ goalie of the future? Is he still even the best goalie on the Phantoms? There are a lot of questions surrounding the New Jersey native, and we’re going to get at least some answers this season one way or another.
No. 14: Anthony Stolarz
Age: 23 (1/20/1994)
Acquired Via: 2012 NHL Draft -- Round 2, Pick 45 (Pick acquired from Columbus along with Pick No. 117 in 2012 and a fourth-round pick in 2013 in exchange for Sergei Bobrovsky on June 22, 2012)
2016-17 League/Team/Statistics: Lehigh Valley (AHL) - 0.911 SV%, 2.92 GAA in 29 GP
Ranking in BSH Winter 2017 25 Under 25: 7
After a few seasons of being the Flyers’ best goaltending prospect more or less by default, Stolarz stepped up in a pretty big way in the 2015-16 season. An outstanding first half of the season for the Phantoms — he posted a .928 save percentage from October through December that season — set him up for an AHL All-Star bid, and while his numbers tailed off a bit in the second half of the season, he also spent some time with the Flyers covering for (in most cases) Michal Neuvirth, who missed time due to injuries.
In the thick of a playoff race, the Flyers didn’t give Stolarz any ice time during those appearances, leaning heavily on their starter at a time where every win was crucial. But the fact that Stolarz was even on the team was seen by many observers as a vote of confidence. With Mason and Neuvirth both set to be free agents the next summer, the prevailing wisdom was that with one more solid AHL season Stolarz would probably find himself in the NHL full-time a year or so later.
A season that didn’t go according to plan
It’s now officially a year later, though, and Stolarz is not going to be starting the 2017-18 season in the NHL. Neuvirth is back, as he and Brian Elliott are both on deals that will take them through the 2018-19 season. And that’s because that last step forward that we wanted to see from Stolarz never quite happened in 2016-17. His overall numbers with the Phantoms regressed year-over-year; in particular, his save percentage dropped from .916 to .911 despite the fact that he was playing behind a much better Phantoms team than the one he starred behind the year prior.
There may, though, be an excuse (a potentially legitimate one!) baked into the tale of Stolarz’s AHL-level setback. On November 12, a night during which Neuvirth suffered a knee sprain that took him off the ice until January, Stolarz’s still-young AHL season had gotten out to an excellent start. He’d posted a .926 save percentage in his first eight games with the Phantoms, and his performance to that point made him the no-brainer call-up option. When you combine his excellent start with the ghastly first month of the year Steve Mason had (he’d posted a .880 save percentage prior to Stolarz’s call-up), it seemed like a great situation for Stolarz to get some real run at the NHL level for the first time, and to perhaps get an extended audition for a full-time role with the team next year.
But that’s not quite how things unfolded. Rather than use that time as a stretch to see what he had in Stolarz, Dave Hakstol elected to use it as a time to try and get his starter back on track. And boy, did he try: of the 23 games Stolarz spent with the NHL team, Mason started 21 of them. But Stolarz did finally see some NHL ice time during that stretch, getting a win in his NHL debut in November and getting a shutout in his next game against Detroit.
Still, over a span of a month and a half, Stolarz only played in four organized hockey games, just two of which were starts. And when he returned back to the Phantoms just after the New Year, his play took a dive: Stolarz’s save percentage with the Phantoms in 2017 was .905, and it wasn’t until the end of the year where he really started to get back on track ... except then he went down on April 12 with a leg injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the Phantoms’ season.
(A caveat here is that Stolarz’s second-half numbers were pulled down by a rough game on February 4, during which he allowed 7 goals on 32 shots in a loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. If that game had never happened, Stolarz’s numbers for the year look much better — in fact, his save percentage would jump up to .916, right where it was last year. Of course, every game matters and throwing out single games to try and create a rosier story is somewhat misleading, so read into that information as much or as little as you want.)
If Stolarz — who looked the part of an NHL goalie in his small sample with the Flyers, posting a .928 save percentage across four starts and three relief appearances — gets a few more appearances with the Flyers during his six weeks with them, does he maybe stay a bit more “in game shape” and come back to the Phantoms a bit stronger? Alternatively, could the Flyers have called up someone else — maybe Reading Royals starter and minor league veteran Mark Dekanich — to ride the pine behind Mason night in and night out, ensuring that Stolarz continued to get regular ice time in Lehigh Valley? Was it that crucial to have the best backup possible behind Mason if the plan was clearly just to play said backup as little as possible?
I’m not sure what the right answer was, and I understand the Flyers going with the safest option, which was to keep the best goalie around that they had available. But it’s very possible that the team’s handing of Stolarz in ‘16-17 hindered his development, and it may have led us to some of the questions surrounding him today.
Is Stolarz ready for that next step?
Stolarz was given a one-year contract in early July, and the Flyers’ goalie setup will probably be similar to what it was last year at the NHL and AHL levels. Neuvirth will split time with Brian Elliott at the NHL, while Stolarz and Alex Lyon will in theory fight for starts in the AHL and Stolarz will likely be the first call-up for whenever Neuvirth inevitably gets hurt. But as we discussed when talking about Lyon last Tuesday, this is an important year for Stolarz to prove his standing in the organization, since the Flyers will be adding one (Carter Hart) or even two (Felix Sandstrom?) goalies to their North American ranks in 2018-19, and there just won’t be room for everyone to stay.
Which is all to say that the Flyers may very well be reaching, if you’ll pardon my French, a shit-or-get-off-the-pot moment with Stolarz pretty soon. He’s spent three seasons with the Phantoms and played 107 games there, and with another full healthy season those numbers would likely rise to around four and 150, respectively. Hextall has said that he doesn’t believe that a prospect can get too much time in the minors, but he’s also said that when a player is ready, the team will find space for him.
And the problem there is that Hextall has basically said that Stolarz might be ready and on the team in a scenario that’s different from the one they’re in now. Hextall said in early July that he thinks Stolarz “has improved every year” with the Phantoms, and that he would maybe have been used in a backup role with the Flyers “if we had Marty Brodeur here”, which means “if we had an established No. 1 goalie here”. Basically, if Hextall is to be believed, the Flyers probably think Stolarz is ready for a 15-to-25-game-a-season role as a backup in the NHL. (And by the way: really, Ron? You couldn’t have picked anyone else for that analogy?)
I reached out to Greg Balloch, contributing editor of goalie-centric publication InGoal Magazine, who on July 1 tweeted out that Stolarz “has nothing left to prove in the AHL” and should be on the Flyers this year, for his thoughts on Stolarz’s progression and NHL-readiness as of now. Here’s what Greg had to say in an email on the matter:
Ideally Stolarz would begin his full-time NHL career with a consistent veteran partner, but the Flyers decided to let Steve Mason walk this offseason. I’ve softened my stance that he needs to be in the NHL immediately due to Brian Elliott being something more of a wildcard, but the fact remains: He does not have a lot left to prove in the AHL.
The Phantoms play high-event hockey. They force a lot of pressure, but they also give up their fair share of chances. In fact, they gave up the most shots on goal in the league last season, 10th-most the year before that, and 2nd-most in Stolarz’s rookie AHL season. He’s appeared in 107 AHL games, and 7 NHL games scattered over the last three years - and he’s seen a lot of rubber.
At 23 years old, I consider this a crucial point in his career. Historically, not a lot of NHL starting goaltenders remained in the AHL through their age 24 season. He needs to be challenged at the next level in order to improve into the elite-calibre goaltender that a lot of goalie coaches think he can be. There will be bumps along the way (See: Hellebuyck, Connor) but he will be better off for it in the end. This is why he would need a strong partner with him in the NHL when he falters. Splitting time with Alex Lyon/dominating the AHL would be redundant, or possibly even counter-productive to his development. He needs to see semi-consistent NHL action in 2017-18, and I would consider anything less than 20 games (barring injury/disaster) a failure by the organization.
I also asked Greg — who said in another tweet that Stolarz’s style “translates to the NHL game very well” — for his thoughts on what Stolarz’s average-ish AHL numbers to date mean, in regards to what we should expect if and when he makes that jump. Here’s what he had to say there:
It’s important to not get too hung up on minor league save percentage. Generally, yes, you want to see success at a lower level before they make the jump to the NHL - but it isn’t everything. Especially when it comes to goaltenders. The difference between an AHL lifer and an NHL goaltender is usually that the NHL goaltender had success right out of the gate when he was given a shot with the big club. Compare and contrast the careers of Mike McKenna vs Al Montoya, for a recent example. Montoya was also an incredibly high draft pick, which also plays a part in which goaltenders even get a shot.
Career AHL numbers shouldn’t be the deal breaker, especially when you can alter your play to skew them. Other than the speed, the biggest difference between the AHL and NHL is the quality of defensive systems. For goaltenders, this is a big deal. A larger goaltender can adjust their style to be more aggressive, and play a more front-door or “all or nothing” type of game. Against lesser-skilled shooters, you will usually see save percentage numbers go up. The problem is when you move up to the next level, that aggressiveness becomes a weakness, and shooters will prey on that. (Side note: This is even more evident for junior-level goaltenders making the jump to the professional game, and the reason why so many struggle initially).
Stolarz is an incredibly efficient goaltender when he plays deep in his crease. His post-integration (using the net to seal the short side and pre-load lateral movements) is advanced for a goaltender his age. Taking more depth, and overlapping on the post on rush plays doesn't play into his strengths. It also takes away from his natural advantage, which is his 6-foot-6 frame. When the defensive structure in front of him improves, we’ve seen the result that it can have. His short NHL stint last season should have given everyone a good idea.
It’s time for the Flyers to get serious about what they have in Stolarz. There is no fourth-line to stick a goaltender on in the NHL. Goaltending development is a tricky business, and you sink or swim with the goalie in net that you think has the highest ceiling. Of the goaltenders in the Flyers system that are NHL-ready (or near it), that goalie is Stolarz.
Greg’s analysis here does bring up an interesting question: how much weight do you put on Stolarz’s success in his very brief NHL window last year? Goalies are crazy and you don’t want to read too much into a small sample, but nothing in his play last year suggested that the NHL game was too big or too fast for him, and that’s certainly a very good sign. And hey, if the “defensive structure” of last year’s Flyers team was enough for him to shine, imagine what he could do when the team has some actual good defensemen on the ice.
Of course, as Greg alludes to and as Hextall has more or less admitted, the situation the Flyers are in isn’t one that is really conducive to Stolarz getting a ton of time at the NHL level, which makes the task of trying to figure out his future here that much harder.
What do the Flyers see Stolarz as?
In opting to re-sign Michal Neuvirth in March, the Flyers essentially slammed the door on Stolarz starting this season with the Flyers, since Neuvirth’s injury history necessitated that they get a more established option for their other goalie spot. Unless the Flyers did a total 180 on their opinion of Stolarz’s NHL-readiness some time after Neuvirth signed his extension, it seems like this whole chain of events ran counter to their belief that they’re not going to let veterans block NHL-ready prospects. The optics of the whole situation suggested that the Flyers chose a short-term future that featured Neuvirth over one that featured Stolarz (and over Mason, but that’s a separate discussion that we won’t get into here).
But then an interesting thing happened in June: Hextall elected to protect Stolarz, and not Neuvirth, in the Vegas expansion draft, ensuring that they would not lose him for nothing. If the Flyers only saw Stolarz as a future backup at the NHL level, they’d probably have just been willing to expose him. They clearly like Neuvirth and don’t want to lose him, they can get a backup anywhere, and they have a goalie logjam staring them in the face. The fact that they protected Stolarz means that they likely see something more than just a backup or an AHL-lifer in him.
So now the question is this: when do they give Stolarz the chance to show that he can be more than that? Do they think there’s something in his game he needs to fine-tune that can be fixed with a little bit more AHL time? Is the plan to just get him some ice time with the Flyers when one of Neuvirth or Elliott inevitably gets hurt? Is this year going to be a fight to the finish for Stolarz and Lyon where the winner stays with the organization next year and the loser gets replaced next year by Carter Hart?
As Greg alluded to above, it’s not common for goalies to emerge as legit NHL starters when they’re in the AHL as long and as late into their careers as Stolarz would be with another year in Lehigh Valley. Hextall, when in doubt, has generally erred towards the side of patience when it comes to young prospects, but it’s debatable whether we’re in doubt on Stolarz any more. While another full year in the AHL would be pretty frustrating for all parties involved, that may be the path we’re headed down.
In sum, Stolarz’s situation is as convoluted and confusing as that of maybe anyone else we’ll feature in this countdown, and there are glass-half-full and glass-half-empty ways to look at it. The fact that the team was basically willing to say in March of last year that it wasn’t prepared to have Stolarz in the NHL this coming season certainly isn’t a great sign for a guy with three full years of AHL experience already under his belt.
But it’s also important to remember that despite the up-and-down year that he just had, the Flyers have given Anthony Stolarz two public votes of confidence this summer, protecting him over a goalie whose NHL presence was/is stalling his development and then outright saying he may be NHL-ready in a different situation. The Flyers see something in Stolarz, and there’s still ample reason to think he could be a successful NHL goalie. He may just need another chance to show it.
How We Voted For Anthony Stolarz
How We Voted At No. 14
|Carter Hart||Scott Laughton||Felix Sandstrom||Carter Hart||Samuel Morin||Morgan Frost||Morgan Frost||Scott Laughton||Alex Lyon||Felix Sandstrom||Anthony Stolarz||Felix Sandstrom|
How The Community Voted For Anthony Stolarz
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