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Philadelphia Flyers 25 Under 25: Alex Lyon facing true make-or-break year

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With the Flyers’ goalie pipeline quickly getting very crowded, 2016-17 is probably Alex Lyon’s only chance to stake his claim as a potential part of the Flyers’ future.

Kate Frese / SB Nation

In the spring of 2015, the Flyers’ stock of goalie prospects consisted of Anthony Stolarz and ... not much else. We had seen their efforts in rebuilding their defense corps, but goaltending was an area that the Flyers needed some work in when looking at the long-term picture.

Fast forward three offseasons, and the Flyers’ goalie prospect group has depth that may be able to compete with that of any other team out there. ESPN’s Corey Pronman said last summer that the Flyers’ goalie depth is “ridiculous”, and then ranked three of the team’s netminder prospects — Carter Hart, Felix Sandstrom, and Anthony Stolarz — in the top 10 of his January mid-season goalie prospect rankings (which are here, sadly behind a paywall). They’re so stacked that the loss of Merrick Madsen — who’s posted back-to-back outstanding seasons at Harvard — in a June trade to the Arizona Coyotes was barely more than a blip on the radar.

The point is that the Flyers look like they’ve got a lot of talent in net. And with a lot of talent often comes a lot of competition and tough decisions.

The Flyers, barring something unforeseen, will spend this coming season with Michal Neuvirth and Brian Elliott manning the net. But serious questions could pop up as soon as next offseason. Hart will be AHL-eligible by that time, and the team is certainly raring to get him some professional ice time. Sandstrom is on a one-year contract with Brynäs in the SHL, and he very well could be looking to come across the pond following next season. And Stolarz, who re-signed on a one-year deal in July, is probably pretty close to NHL-ready, and if this next season goes well for him then the Flyers might just have to find a way to get him to Philadelphia next year. Basically, with only four spots up for grabs between the Flyers and Phantoms, things are going to get very crowded very soon.

Which means that if you’re a 24-year old who’s yet to quite establish himself as a pro, who’s also only under contract for one more season, and isn’t one of the three young goalies that fans are mentally penciling in to the Flyers’ 2019 opening-night roster, you’re going to be under some serious pressure to perform this season. And even if Alex Lyon — the oldest player on our countdown — may only have one professional season to his name, this coming year could well be his last one with the Flyers’ organization if it doesn’t go well enough.

No. 19: Alex Lyon

Position: G
Age: 24 (12/9/1992)
Acquired Via: Signed as an undrafted free agent on April 5, 2016
2016-17 League/Team/Statistics: Lehigh Valley (AHL) - 0.912 SV%, 2.74 GAA in 47 GP
Nationality: American
Ranking in BSH Winter 2017 25 Under 25: 17

Lyon was the Flyers’ prize in the 2016 undrafted college free agent sweepstakes, as they won the Yale junior’s services over a dozen or so other teams that were interested in him. The Flyers were even willing to immediately burn the first year of his two-year entry-level contract to get him to sign, a gesture which set him up for free agency this current summer.

Why were they so eager to bring in a then-23-year-old college free agent? Because, simply put, his track record was that of a goalie who’s been successful everywhere he’s been. In both the USHL and at Yale, Lyon consistently posted excellent results and above-average save percentages. He was a Mike Richter Award finalist (given to college hockey’s best goalie) in his sophomore and junior seasons.

Even with the crowded goalie pipeline, the appeal for the Flyers was obvious. Lyon cost them nothing but an entry-level contract, and in picking him up, they were able to get a goalie old enough to handle the AHL and hopefully be a reliable back-up to Stolarz, but still young enough to potentially be a legitimate prospect of his own. There was basically no risk in exchange for a potential reward.

But the flip-side of bringing in a goalie at Lyon’s age, in this system, with this many talented young potential future Flyers breathing down his neck, was that it felt like for Lyon to really prove that he belonged in the Flyers Goalie Of The Future conversation, he needed to be great, and needed to do so relatively soon. A then-almost-24-year-old with an NHL future should be good in the AHL, and with the situation the Flyers were in, an average-or-worse season could have had him losing ground in the team’s pipeline very quickly.

So how did his first year with the Phantoms go? Not bad. Lyon’s .912 save percentage was 18th among the 46 “qualified” AHL goalies last season, and he did that despite unexpectedly being asked to handle the de-facto “starter’s role” for the Phantoms. With Stolarz being called up to the Flyers so frequently last season due to injury problems, Lyon ended up playing in 47 of the Phantoms’ regular-season games, meaning that he ended up handling the ... lion’s share ... of the starts.

(Sorry. I’m sorry. I’m trying to remove it.)

A late-season injury to Stolarz also put Lyon in the starter’s role for Game 1 of the Calder Cup playoffs, but there he too would suffer an injury that took him out for the rest of the Phantoms’ series with the Hershey Bears. Lyon’s chance to really make one last good impression for the Flyers and their fanbase in his rookie year was unfortunately gone then and there (through no fault of his own, of course), as his and the team’s season came to an end in late April.

So all in all, Lyon’s first pro season was fine. It got him a one-year extension from the Flyers back in July, on the same day they re-signed Stolarz. The two will be the Phantoms’ goalies to start this coming season, and how they’ll split time remains to be seen. Ron Hextall said back in early July (after going out of his way to mention Lyon in response to a question about Stolarz) that the two would “battle it out”, and that’s exactly what should happen.

But in a lot of ways, it feels like the pressure may be on Lyon to really have a good year this year if he wants to be wearing orange and black (in some fashion) come 2018. Sure, the same could probably be said of the now-three-year-AHL-veteran Stolarz, but the Flyers have basically already said that they think he’s close to NHL-ready and that he’d maybe already be in Philadelphia if they had a more durable and proven No. 1 goalie at the NHL level.

No one has said or implied the same for Lyon, even though he’s a full year older than Stolarz. While Lyon was serviceable in his first pro season, he’s yet to have his real breakthrough as a pro, the way that Stolarz did in his AHL All-Star 2015-16 season. And that season for Stolarz came when he was 21, on the second year of a three-year entry-level deal, still clearly in control of the Phantoms’ net, and at a time when basically everyone still saw him as the closest thing to a Goalie Of The Future that the Flyers had outside of the NHL. Lyon might not have that kind of time within this organization and he definitely doesn’t have that kind of top billing, which makes this coming season all the more pivotal for him.

The fact that Lyon didn’t immediately come in and dominate the AHL the way he did the NCAA is totally understandable. It’s a meaningful, significant jump in competition, one that basically any goalie would have some degree of trouble with. That’s why writing him off before this season even begins is silly — he’s certainly still a legitimate goalie prospect, and a guy with his track record should get at least some degree of benefit of the doubt.

But after four straight outstanding seasons at the amateur level prior to last year, if you see him as someone with a future in this organization, then the expectation should be that Lyon makes that jump from “solid” to “very good” or even “great” this season for the Phantoms. If he does, then at the very least, he’ll have established himself not just as a solid AHLer but as a goalie who deserves to be in that long-term conversation with the Harts and Stolarzes and Sandstroms of the world. In that case, the Flyers would have one more tough decision to make in net next summer.

If he doesn’t make that leap, however, then the guy who was an elite college goaltender risks being labeled as a guy who excelled against younger players at the amateur level but couldn’t quite carry those skills to the pro level. In that scenario, the Flyers will probably bid him adieu next summer and gladly hand his spot on the Phantoms to Carter Hart. That may be harsh, but given the names in the Flyers’ system, it’s the reality of this situation. Even though he got here not too long ago, the clock is ticking on Lyon, and he’s the one who decides — with his own play — whether it runs out next June or if he gets to hit the reset button before then.

In short, we’re going to find out this season whether there’s a future for Alex Lyon with the Flyers’ organization. But while he’s still below three other guys in the Flyers’ goalie prospect pecking order, you probably don’t want to count out the guy who’s consistently stopped pucks everywhere else he’s been just yet.

How We Voted For Alex Lyon

Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
24 18 19 22 n/a n/a 18 17 14 18 22 19

How We Voted At No. 19

Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
Mike Vecchione Mike Vecchione Alex Lyon Morgan Frost Tanner Laczynski Tanner Laczynski Isaac Ratcliffe Pascal Laberge Pascal Laberge Connor Bunnaman Taylor Leier Alex Lyon

How The Community Voted For Alex Lyon

Ranking # of Votes
Ranking # of Votes
1 0
2 0
3 0
4 0
5 1
6 4
7 3
8 4
9 3
10 6
11 15
12 16
13 27
14 47
15 66
16 76
17 74
18 95
19 65
20 65
21 48
22 50
23 46
24 49
25 28
NR 246

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Previously on Philadelphia Flyers Summer 2017 25 Under 25: