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Anthony Stolarz has been solid so far. Does that mean anything?

Let’s not get carried away with it, but a strong game from Stolarz on Saturday has given Flyers fans hope that he can be at least a solid stopgap.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins
“Not sure what you’re smiling about, buddy. I think I just took your job.”
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest on-ice storylines coming out of this past weekend of Flyers hockey was the play of one Anthony Stolarz, who picked up his first NHL win in almost two years on Saturday night in the team’s win over Pittsburgh. Through three games — a relief appearance in the blowout loss in Toronto, the come-from-ahead loss against Ottawa, and then Saturday’s win — Stolarz has a save percentage of .912, stopping 83 of the 91 shots he’s faced.

The fact that Stolarz is playing in the NHL this quickly has to be something of a surprise to most observers. He missed most of the 2017-18 season following two surgeries on his left knee. This past fall, he was sent back down to the Phantoms before the regular season began despite the team needing a backup for Brian Elliott and despite his playing pretty well in training camp and the preseason. And as recently as earlier in November, Stolarz was pretty clearly third in the AHL team’s two-man goalie rotation behind Carter Hart and Alex Lyon.

Yet here he is, now, with the Flyers, and he’s been ... solid. And that has inspired some excitement on what exactly this means for the Flyers:

As a person who hates fun and is incapable of enjoying anything, my first reaction to the hype that’s been building around Stolarz is that there’s a lot of excitement over three games in which a guy was, again, fine. That’s said with no disrespect to Stolarz — it’s awesome that he’s back at the NHL level this soon at all, let alone that he’s here and playing at an adequate level for a team that desperately needs adequacy in net — but maybe I’ve grown too cold and dead inside by what’s happened so far this season to think that anything good might happen.

Still, let’s give it a shot. Below is an argument between me and myself on whether or not I should be optimistic about Anthony Stolarz, based not just on what we’ve seen so far but on what we know about him as a prospect in general. My optimistic self is in bold, because God invented bold-type font for us to express strong feelings, while my pessimistic voice-of-reason self’s responses are in normal type. Enjoy.

So we have a goalie now, right? That’s what this means?

You’ve been watching this team for how long, now? Come on. You’re better than this.

Am I, though?

Fair point. Anywho, no, that’s not what it means. Stolarz has played in three games. Two of those games were losses; one of them was a relief appearance, and in the loss he started he really wasn’t very good. I mean, are we forgetting the part of that Ottawa loss where the comeback began because Stolarz lost track of the puck as it was sitting on his own leg, and it kicked right out to Brady Tkachuk?

But that Pittsburgh game! They don’t win that game without him!

Sure! And also the Flyers don’t win the game against Arizona early in November without Cal Pickard, and no one’s writing love letters to him. Don’t let one game cloud your judgment on a guy. We’ve been burned before.

It’s not just one game. For the most part, he’s looked good in the time he’s played since being called up.

Across 91 shots faced — 91 shots faced — he’s posted a .912 save percentage. That’s … fine, I guess.

NHL league-average save percentage is .909 so far this season. He’s above that!

Is that really where we are as a team and a fanbase right now? That the fifth goalie we’ve tried using this year posting a save percentage across three appearances that’s three-tenths of a percentage point higher than league-average is legitimately exciting news?

I think we both know the answer to that question.

I just don’t want you to be hurt by your own sense of hope. Hope is dangerous. Never have it, I always like to say.

OK, so ”we have a goalie now” is probably an overstatement. But if we acknowledge that we’re living in a world where Carter Hart clearly isn’t ready for the NHL yet and Brian Elliott’s health is probably going to be a question mark for the rest of this season, then we need some other goalie in whom we can have at least some semblance of confidence that he’ll stay healthy and provide adequate performance, Stolarz is clearly the best bet we’ve got so far.

You’re saying our best bet for someone that’ll stay healthy is the guy who missed basically all of last season because of his twice-operated-on left knee?

That’s exactly what I’m saying, yes. He is undeniably a more reliable option than Michal Neuvirth and Alex Lyon at this point.

Now that you mention him, isn’t Lyon a relevant precautionary tale here? Set aside the “health concerns” with him because those don’t really worry me (he got injured once in the preseason, and to the best of my recollection that’s it), but a lot of folks seemed to think coming into the season that he was the clear third-goalie/call-up option for when someone inevitably got hurt (other than Hart, who we again will assume is off the table). It took literally one period of horrid play in that Buffalo game before Thanksgiving for him to become more or less an afterthought. Are we sure Stolarz is better than him? Are we going to be making Flyers goalie jokes again the second Stolarz has a game like that?

I mean, yes, we’ll always be making Flyers goalie jokes until we die. But also: yes, we’re sure pretty sure Stolarz is better than Lyon. Remember, Stolarz was still an actual goalie prospect before that second knee surgery in September of last year. He was 14th on our 25 Under 25 that summer, only behind Hart among the team’s goalie prospects. He not only has a solid AHL resume, but he also has actual NHL time to his name, NHL time that he fared pretty well in (he had a .928 save percentage in seven appearances in the 2016-17 season). Just because he had to take a year and recover from injury doesn’t mean he forgot how to play goalie.

Sure, and it’s awesome that a guy who went through what he did last year and was more or less left for dead as a prospect because of it (he was ranked 25th when we did the 25 Under 25 in the winter, and was nowhere close in last summer’s version) is getting another chance to make it. I just think we should pump the brakes on any sort of proclamation that Stolarz is the stop-gap they’re looking for, let alone any kind of Answer in net.

But he’s earned the right to try over Neuvirth, right?

I guess? I mean, we know Neuvirth is good when healthy, but—

“When healthy”. And I thought I was the one making jokes.

You’re the one feeling optimism about the Flyers. You are the one making jokes.

But in seriousness, let’s try and figure out the short-term future here. Set aside the near-inevitability that Neuvirth will get hurt again at some point. If you’ve gotta pick one of him or Stolarz to win a game in the near future, as the Flyers will every game night between now and whenever Elliott gets healthy, how much should the Flyers be leaning on the unproven commodity over the one they know a bit more, in a season where they can’t afford to lose much more ground?

They don’t have much of a choice but to roll with the unproven commodity, do they? That’s the thing. That’s what has made this situation so hopeless. You can’t set aside that near-inevitability because that’s exactly what it is. Stolarz might well be the same, an injury liability to the point where he can’t feasibly be leaned on for anything important. But right now he’s not that, and the Flyers owe it to themselves to both keep him on the roster over Neuvirth when Elliott gets healthy and to see what he’s got in him before they make a big trade for a goalie (which it certainly seems like they want to do).

That just seems like so much faith to put in a guy who was a complete and total afterthought at this time two weeks ago.

Well, just because he was an afterthought doesn’t mean he should have been. Wouldn’t the most Flyers thing of all be for the answer they need to be right under their nose all along?

No, the most Flyers thing of all would be for there to be no answer because life is a meaningless void.

This is true.

Wait, no it’s not. The most Flyers thing of all would be for Stolarz to keep playing well for a few more games, for the Flyers to lose those games because the offense suddenly dries up, and for Stolarz to then get hurt because Dave Hakstol took a goalie with a bad knee and started him 11 games in a row or something like that.

No. None of this negative energy in my life. I’m going with optimism. Stolarz 2K18. Or at least Stolarz 2KUntilHartIsReady. Or, like, at the very least, Stolarz 2KAsABackupOrPlatoonWithBrianElliottForTheRestOfThisSeason. Let’s ride this train until it veers off the tracks.

Honestly, it’s probably the best play for the Flyers in the short term. If they can manage his and Neuvirth’s workload reasonably such that one of them doesn’t become a sure bet to get hurt before Elliott returns, it’s worth a shot. And at this point, you may as well keep him over Neuvirth. In fact, given that the GM that acquired and liked Neuvirth is now out of the building and the one who drafted Stolarz is still around, I wouldn’t in the slightest be surprised if this happens.

But honest-to-God optimism? Don’t say I didn’t warn you about that.

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