In the wake of a 3-0 loss to New Jersey on Thursday night and an apparent injury to goaltender Brian Elliott (who left the game early after a Kyle Palmieri wrap around goal) we are forced to wonder “what exactly is the Flyers plan in goal?” There are certainly questions in other places and issues that need to be resolved, but goaltending and the availability of goaltenders seems to be the gift that keeps on giving.
Perhaps Elliott’s current injury is a minor one, but this isn’t our first injury related rodeo. Elliott missed significant time last year and Michal Neuvirth has raised the stakes, going from “regularly reinjured” to making “unavailable” something of an artform. Calvin Pickard, who appears to be the only healthy goaltender on the Flyers at the moment, is an insurance policy the team cannot afford to lose, but he is, for all intents and purposes, a backup goaltender on a team that needs some high-octane play right now.
NHL teams in the modern era often use U.S. Thanksgiving as an unofficial predictor of playoff possibility, because it’s been notoriously unlikely that teams sitting outside the playoffs by late November can overtake those who are in a playoff spot. Though teams have done it - including the Flyers - most can’t make up the ground and even fewer do it if they’re outside looking in without a starting goaltender. Needless to say, any long-term injury to Elliott (who has played reasonably well), now or in the future, would be potentially damning, especially with the Flyers sitting at 9-9-1 (which is 3pts and a game in hand behind the final wildcard spot).
The Flyers’ plan in net, quite simply, needs work. Ron Hextall likely committed to his current tandem goaltending strategy in an effort to save money and potentially clear the way for a young netminder to come up through the system. Theory and execution have unfortunately failed to align. Despite Brian Elliott’s admirable effort, the Flyers finished 2017-2018 with the 22nd best team save percentage and currently sit 31st (or dead last) in the NHL this year. Injuries, again, seem poised to play a major role in those figures.
Every team loses a goalie from time to time and injuries happen, but the Flyers should have been able to anticipate the potentially calamitous nature of their tandem based on nothing more than previous track record. It wasn’t that Elliott or Neuvirth were lacking talent, it was that they lacked the pedigree to suggest that talent would be available with extensive regularity.
Elliott was almost always a tandem goaltender before signing in Philadelphia. Although steady, Elliott had platooned with other goalies and hadn’t played more than 49 games in a season since 2010-2011. Michal Neuvirth, who could occasionally catch fire, bounced around with short stints with a number of teams, having not played in 40 or more games since 2010-2011. In short, the two goalies Ron Hextall brought in were not just guys who could work in a tandem, they were goalies who, very much, needed to work in a tandem. Unfortunately, due to injury, that’s rarely been possible in Philadelphia.
Some will look at these numbers and suggest its Dave Hakstol’s fault for overusing Elliott or not trusting Neuvirth and perhaps last year that was true, however, the same cannot be argued in 2018-19. Though he’s played Brian Elliott in 14 of 19 games, which puts him on pace for 60 games played (well above his reliability threshold), what alternatives has he been given? Michal Neuvirth has essentially missed the entire season and Calvin Pickard was an early-season waiver claim. A coach who is coaching for his job and given those options, be it Dave Hakstol or someone else, is going to push the limits. Failure, at least in this case, would be failure by design.
So what’s next? Are there solutions to be had in 2018-2019? Obviously the easiest and most practical solution is Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth regaining their health and form. Given the track record of the past two years, to say nothing of the last two months, we can only wait and see if that’s a legitimate possibility. Unfortunately, due to the factors in play, regaining only one of these goaltenders is likely to lead to an immediately repetition of the same problem by virtue of overuse and there in lies the continued problem.
Could the Flyers pursue a trade? Perhaps, but the year is young and I suspect no GM will be in a hurry to give up a starting-caliber goaltender until they’re sure they’re out of the playoffs themselves. In short, if either Elliott or Neuvirth are lost for significant time, there may be a collection of band-aids needed to hold things together until something can actually be done.
What about Carter Hart? It’s easy to look at the Flyers and assume 20-year-old Carter Hart is the heir apparent and the solution to all their problems, but when? This year? I suspect not and with good reason.
Hart has won virtually every junior league honor a goaltender can win and his ability to put up video game like numbers in terms of save percentage and goals against speaks for itself. Hart is a tremendous prospect, but he’s also one the team can ill afford to rush. In short, we can’t make Hart ready simply because we need him to be ready.
For every Carey Price-like goalie who starts in the NHL at twenty years old, there are many who don’t see significant time, let alone a full-time starting job, until they’re twenty-two or older. Frederick Andersen, Pekka Rinne and Martin Jones are among those who took a slower road to the NHL, to name just a few. In addition, almost every young goalie works as the 2nd half of a tandem that includes a proven, high-end NHL starter, which helps them ease their way in. Hart shouldn’t be looked at as an emergency patch. Hart, even with all his talent and promise, should be looked at as a potential long-term solution.
It wouldn’t just be optimistic to hope Carter Hart could enter the picture as a twenty-year-old number one goaltender, it would be dangerously optimistic. Hart has shown he’s still learning and adjusting to the quality and pace of professional hockey and that’s entirely okay. His numbers with Lehigh Valley prove the adjustment period is real. In his first professional season, Hart has a 4-2-1 record with a 3.28GAA and .893SV%. While he’s recently strengthened those numbers, rushing him may further complicate things and likely won’t yield the desired NHL results.
Next year doesn’t get any easier, because it’s hard to predict the success or availability of your goaltenders when you, in fact, have no signed goaltenders. Brian Elliott, Michal Neuvirth and Calvin Pickard are all set to head to free agency in 2019-2020. Carter Hart and Alex Lyon will remain in play, with Lyon set to earn NHL money whether he’s in the NHL or AHL. This would seemingly, more likely, point to Lyon in the NHL and Hart as the full time AHL starter, but who starts in the NHL?
Even if Carter Hart or Alex Lyon can come in and start a small portion of games next year the Flyers will still need a veteran and more than likely, one who can be counted on as a true starting netminder. In the past, under Hextall, the Flyers have avoided goalies like Ben Bishop, who fit that mold, presumably to avoid blocking youth. While they certainly haven’t blocked the youth, that tactic hasn’t helped them on NHL ice. That plan, also potentially devised to save money and assets, has neither saved them money nor assets. While it’s hard to believe, in the past 2 seasons they’ve paid more (against the cap) to goaltenders than they would have paid Ben Bishop and they’ve also traded away a higher pick (3rd round) for 17 games of Petr Mrazek, who failed to provide quality netminding.
So, what could the Flyers do now and given their previous aversion to more proven starters, will they do it? My guess is yes to both questions. The Flyers will almost certainly try to acquire a goaltender via trade or in unrestricted free agency in July.
Sergei Bobrovsky, a potential unrestricted free agent, seems to have already predetermined he wants out of Columbus, but decisions that seem certain in November sometimes change before July. If he officially decides he wants out, it’s unlikely Columbus would let him walk for free, meaning a trade would be required to garner his services. Sergei Bobrovsky has established himself as one of the NHL’s premier netminders, meaning the cost, in terms of assets to acquire, likely won’t be cheap, especially if the goal is to pry Bobrovsky loose before the trade deadline. Bob is also unlikely to sign a short term or low dollar contract, which also means the Flyers may view any talk of acquiring Bobrovsky as a non-starter, unless they’re willing to go off course on their current philosophy in net.
Other potential unrestricted free agents who may hit the market on July 1st, 2019 are goalies such as Semyon Varlamov, Cam Talbot, Robin Lehner, Keith Kinkaid, Mike Smith and Jimmy Howard, with Varlamov being another name that could draw interest from the Flyers. Would the Flyers consider bringing back Elliott? I can’t say I’d be surprised if they did, but I would suspect they’d only do so if he doesn’t miss significant portions of this season and Carter Hart appears ready to take 30-35 NHL games away from him. Even then, an Elliott and Hart tandem may not be viewed as strong enough to match expectations for a team that needs to contend very soon.
Expectations, be they for Hart or the team itself, are very real. Those expectations can’t be taken lightly. The Philadelphia Flyers haven’t won a Stanley Cup in the past 43 years and many of the natives are pounding at the gates wondering when their beloved team will challenge again. Goaltending has frequently been the scapegoat for the team’s failure to win hockey’s ultimate prize and while in many cases there have been bigger issues, it’s safe to say that with no NHL caliber goaltenders signed next year the Flyers will certainly need to address this issue to have a chance to contend.
The core of this team has held up well, but, as they often say, Father Time is undefeated. The Flyers are placed in a position of being juxtaposed between the need to win and the need to wait for their best asset in net. Something will have to give, but exactly what remains to be seen.
The Flyers were hoping a tandem could work and sure, it’d be easier if Carter Hart could become Carey Price, but even Carey Price needed time to adjust to NHL shooters and playoff pressure. Even the most well thought out plans sometimes fail or require amendment and that’s where the Flyers may find themselves soon. In order to take the next step, Ron Hextall and his team are going to have to find new solutions to a more than 43-year-old problem with an ever-ticking clock.