[Ed. note: if you’re reading this now, you likely already know that the Flyers traded for Petr Mrazek on Monday night. How fun! This renders most of the below piece irrelevant, but it will remain here for your reading pleasure. Enjoy.]
At some point between now and February 26, the Flyers are going to add another goalie to their NHL team. This seemed likely to be the case from the moment that Brian Elliott was announced to be out for 5-6 weeks following an injury he suffered in Arizona on February 10; any doubt that the Flyers would need to make a move was put to rest this past Sunday, in New York City, when Michal Neuvirth was taken out of the game after the first period with a lower-body injury.
Whether Neuvirth will be ready to play on Tuesday against Montreal or not (we have no more information on the matter as of this time, though that in and of itself is an ominous sign, and there are unconfirmed reports of a groin pull, which would definitely keep him out for at least a short period of time), the Czech netminder has been a perpetually ticking time bomb in terms of injuries since arriving in Philadelphia three years ago. When you’re a team that’s in pretty-good-but-not-totally-secure playoff position, and when the only thing standing between you and an all-AHL goaltender tandem on your NHL team is a guy who, as BSH Radio’s Charlie O’Connor pointed out, has had more injured/sick months as a Flyers goalie than he’s had healthy months, you almost have no choice but to bring in some reinforcements.
So let’s discuss all of those potential reinforcements — first by looking at who the Flyers have available to them right now, then by going through all of the names that are out on the trade market that would make some degree of sense.
There are two goalies currently under NHL contract with the Flyers that are available for use at the NHL level. You already know one of them, while the other one is currently holding down the fort in Lehigh Valley.
Lyon, of course, is currently with the Flyers, and is as of this writing the only goalie with them that we happen to know is healthy and available to play hockey. He picked up his first career NHL win on Sunday in New York City, where he came in to replace the injured Neuvirth and stopped 25 of 26 shots over the game’s final two periods. Most realistic scenarios of the Flyers navigating their way through a Neuvirth injury involve Lyon in one of the team’s two NHL goaltender spots.
With that said, the question remains just how much the Flyers really trust Lyon. He was called up back in early December following an injury to Michal Neuvirth, only to stay glued to the bench while Brian Elliott played all nine games before Lyon was sent back to Lehigh Valley right after Christmas. He finally made his NHL debut in late January and got in three games during a spell in which the team was clearly displeased with Neuvirth, but was very unsteady in those games. Lyon was called up again on February 11 after Elliott’s mysterious injury suffered in Arizona, and it took an injury to Neuvirth in the fourth game after his getting called up for him to get some time in net.
Lyon, to his credit, doesn’t seem to be taking his current position for granted, telling Dave Isaac of the Courier-Post on Sunday that the Flyers could “trade for two guys and I’m sent down to Allentown tomorrow”. The Flyers seem to not like to lean too hard on their young goalies, but right now Lyon is the best in-house option they have.
The only other goalie under contract and readily available to the Flyers, Tokarski actually has some NHL experience to his name. Casual NHL observers may remember him from the 2014 postseason, when he was forced into action for the Montreal Canadiens during the Eastern Conference Finals after Carey Price was injured and Peter Budaj was bad. Tokarski played five games in that series and posted a respectable .916 save percentage, though the Canadiens were eliminated by the Rangers in six games.
Tokarski spent another season after that one as the Canadiens’ primary backup, but he’s been in the AHL almost exclusively since then — he spent time in Anaheim’s system before an early-season trade in which the Flyers swapped Leland Irving to the Ducks for him. His career NHL numbers are overall uninspiring (a .904 save percentage in 34 regular-season appearances), and as our own Brad Keffer pointed out on Sunday, he hasn’t exactly been making huge save after huge save for the Phantoms:
oop, hang on, forgot that I didn't transfer the game data for the 13th yet, this is more accurate. pic.twitter.com/natzVQJzKP— Brad Keffer (@brad_keffer) February 18, 2018
Essentially, the Flyers would be well-served to not make their primary AHL tandem this season (Lyon and Tokarski) their primary NHL tandem for any extended period of time, if they can help it. If he has to handle a start here or there in case of emergency, that wouldn’t be the end of the world, but the Flyers can and should look to upgrade on him as their current in-case-of-emergency option.
The other guys
If you’re at all curious about two other somewhat big names in the Flyers’ system, we’ll briefly mention them here:
- Anthony Stolarz, who was deemed out indefinitely back in September following an aggravation of his past knee injury and subsequent surgery, does not appear to be an option at this time. Hextall has reportedly stated that Stolarz may be able to play games some time in March, according to Bill Meltzer of Hockeybuzz and the Flyers’ website. However, even if Stolarz can return to the ice, it’s unlikely that he’d get time at the NHL level until he can get some time with the Phantoms, and even if he was “NHL-ready” by the end of that timeframe, Elliott could very well be back by then.
- Carter Hart, arguably the top goaltending prospect in the NHL and definitely the top goalie prospect on the Flyers, is the only remaining goalie in the system that is on an NHL contract. However, since Hart was returned to the WHL’s Everett Silvertips back in September, he can only join the Flyers on an emergency recall. Our understanding of that rule is that the Flyers would have to have only one goalie available and under NHL contract for Hart to be eligible for a recall, and that he would have to be sent back to Everett as soon as another goalie became available. In other words, if Elliott, Neuvirth, Stolarz, and one of Lyon or Tokarski were all unable to play, and if the Flyers hadn’t yet made a move to pick up another NHL goaltender, then the Flyers could add Hart until they’d made another move or got one of their original goalies back. Our guess is that the Flyers don’t let it get to that point.
If Neuvirth’s injury from Sunday is indeed one that will keep him out for any extended period of time, it seems quite unlikely that the Flyers would want to have Lyon and Tokarski as their two NHL-team goaltenders. And even if Neuvirth survives this scare and is able to play again soon, the point should already be made loud and clear that they should not rely on his remaining healthy for the rest of the regular season. Combine all of that with the fact that the Flyers have never seemed in love with the idea of playing Lyon a ton at the NHL level, and it’s hard to imagine them not making a move of some sort before the trade deadline, be that a trade or a free agent goalie signing. (Free agents, like trade targets, can be signed at any point up through the trade deadline; technically, they can also be signed after the deadline, but they will not be eligible for the postseason roster.)
This would be a clear rental from the Flyers’ perspective. There’s little incentive for them to bring in a goalie with any term beyond this season, given that Neuvirth and Elliott are both under contract for next season. (Unless they’ve decided that a buyout or trade of one of those two may be in the cards this summer, which at this point in time we don’t have reason to believe is the case.)
So who’s out there that:
a) is on a team that will likely be selling,
b) can reasonably be expected to handle at least a timeshare’s workload for the next month-plus, and
c) is a pending free agent this summer?
There are a few names that cleanly fit those criteria, and then some others that fit it a bit more roughly. Let’s go through the three that make the most sense first, and then we’ll run through other options.
Petr Mrazek (Detroit)
We’ll start with one that the Flyers have already been linked to: Petr Mrazek, the backup-turned-starter-turned-backup for the Detroit Red Wings. Detroit GM Ken Holland has apparently already asked Hextall for his thoughts on the 26-year old Czech netminder; the Detroit Free Press reported that the Red Wings, at some point last week following the announcement of Elliott’s injury, offered Mrazek to the Flyers for a third-round pick, and the Flyers declined. With Neuvirth potentially out, will Hextall give Holland a ring back? If he does, will that offer still stand?
Mrazek has been just-OK for Detroit this year, posting a .910 save percentage in 22 games as Jimmy Howard’s backup. A guy who once looked like the future in net for Detroit, he seems to have fallen out of favor there after a rough 2016-17 campaign (one that led to his surprisingly being exposed in the Vegas expansion draft). He’s a restricted free agent this summer. The way Detroit has seemingly given up on him does raise some eyebrows, and the fact that the Flyers already turned down one offer for him makes it seem like this isn’t the way they’ll go. But it’ll likely remain an option unless/until they make another move.
Robin Lehner (Buffalo)
The Sabres’ starting goalie and the Flyers have been very loosely and informally connected for a while now, ever since Shawn Simpson from TSN 1200 in Toronto tweeted about a possible trade there back in December. That seemed to be out of nowhere at the time, but recent reports — particularly, multiple mentions from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman about how he’s hearing that some teams think that the Flyers and Sabres might be up to something — make this a possibility at least worth discussing. Lehner, who the Sabres spent a first-round pick on three summers ago, is a fairly solid goalie who’s having a little bit of an off-year (in fairness, behind an atrocious Sabres team).
Like Mrazek, Lehner — who turns 27 in July — is a restricted free agent this summer; unlike with Mrazek, Lehner’s team hasn’t been giving off indications that it’ll dump Lehner off to the first team that will take him for whatever they’ve got in their couch cushions. With Lehner still under team control for next year and with the Sabres not having any obvious alternatives in net for next season sitting around, this may well be a situation where the Flyers would have to actually bid something of value to get their guy — if the asking price for Mrazek was a third-rounder, Lehner’s would have to be higher than that. Would Hextall be willing to do that for a rental? This seems like a direction the Flyers would maybe go in if they’ve decided that they’re going to move on from Neuvirth this summer, but otherwise it seems like a stretch that Hextall would give up what Jason Botterill is likely asking for here.
[Note: The above paragraphs were largely written before Monday’s news that Lehner was injured and listed as “day-to-day” by the Sabres; however, head coach Phil Housley indicated that the injury was not serious and that he should be back soon. We’ll assume that this would not prevent the Flyers from acquiring him.]
Chad Johnson (Buffalo)
... Lehner’s teammate in net could make sense as a rental. Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, a 31-year old journeyman who’s played on six franchises in his nine-year professional career, is in the middle of a rough year for the Sabres, having posted a .886 save percentage in 21 games (though, again, all numbers posted with the Sabres come with the caveat that they’re ... y’know ... the Sabres). Still, Johnson has a somewhat respectable track record as at least a backup-caliber NHL goalie, with a .911 save percentage in his career across 158 regular-season games. He backed up Brian Elliott in Calgary last season, for whatever that’s worth. He’s also a player Ron Hextall has shown something of a liking towards in at least one setting: Johnson was one of three goalies selected to Team Canada (which Hextall was in charge of) in the 2017 World Championships, and he played three games in that tournament.
Johnson’s on a one-year. $2.5 million deal, and as a veteran on the wrong side of 30 with an expiring contract, he seems like exactly the kind of player that Buffalo should be willing to give up for really whatever it can get. If Hextall is looking for a low-cost option, this may be the one that makes the most sense. It’s up to him to decide if he’s going to take a somewhat bigger swing for the fences than “backup goalie on the worst team in the conference”.
Slightly less-perfect fits
The three names above all are pieces that teams that are looking to sell and have contracts expiring this summer. Here, let’s go through a few other names that make some degree of sense and could feasibly be Flyers by the time the deadline has come and gone, but have a bit more of a roadblock in place for some reason or another.
Calvin Pickard (Toronto)
He’d make sense because: The third goalie in the Leafs’ organizational hierarchy behind Frederik Andersen and Curtis McElhinney, Pickard (25 years old) probably isn’t an NHL starter but has handled his own in stints as a backup at the NHL level and has a solid AHL resume. Also, like Johnson, Pickard was chosen by Hextall to Canada’s World Championship team, and was their main starter.
But: Would the Leafs want to help out a fellow Eastern Conference playoff contender? Not that the two are really fighting for positioning (Toronto is pretty well locked in to the third position in the Atlantic Division), but would they be eager to throw a lifeline to a Flyers team that needs one? With that said, if they can get over that speedbump without paying an exorbitant amount, this is an option that makes a lot of sense.
Antti Raanta (Arizona)
He’d make sense because: Raanta’s a 28-year old pending unrestricted free agent starting goalie on the worst team in hockey, and he’s good (and has played very well this season, to the tune of a .924 save percentage). That seems like a very sellable piece, and of all of the pending free agent goalies out there, he may legitimately be the best one.
But: Unless Raanta has told Arizona that there’s simply no way he’s returning next year (scorpions, am I right?), you have to think that GM John Chayka — who traded the seventh overall pick as part of a deal for Raanta and Derek Stepan last summer — will be doing everything he can to keep Raanta in the desert, and would have to be bowled away to deal him. As maybe the highest-upside option out there, this is probably the one that would come at the highest cost to the Flyers.
Jonathan Bernier (Colorado)
He’d make sense because: The Avs have a clear starter (when healthy) in Semyon Varlamov, and it may be wise for them to cash in if they can get something for their backup in Bernier, who’s a solid goalie that Ron Hextall is very familiar with from their time together in Los Angeles.
But: For one, Bernier is currently in concussion protocol, and it remains to be seen when he’ll be cleared (if at all prior to the deadline next week). On top of that, the Avs, against all odds, are in the middle of a playoff push, and they may simply think that the difference between Bernier and next-best-option Andrew Hammond is greater than whatever the Flyers or anyone else are offering for Bernier. Particularly since Varlamov, who missed most of January due to injury, isn’t exactly a paragon of good health in net.
Antti Niemi (Montreal)
He’d make sense because: Montreal’s season is over and they should be looking to sell off any pieces they can. Niemi, who’s already played on three teams this season, is almost certainly someone who can be had for fairly little.
But: He’s ... not very good any more. Niemi was very quickly dumped after brief (and bad) stints with both Pittsburgh and Florida this season. Things have gone a bit better for him in Montreal — he’s posted a .915 save percentage in eight appearances — but his overall track record over the past few seasons is ugly. We’re mentioning him here because clearly some teams have interest in him (he’s been on three of them this year, after all) and one shouldn’t rule out that the Flyers might as well, but the floor here would be very, very low.
Aaron Dell (San Jose)
He’d make sense because: Dell, 28, is a pending UFA who’s the clear backup behind an entrenched starter (Martin Jones) in San Jose. They’re about to lose him for nothing, and he’s got a very solid resume at the NHL and the AHL level. Plus, the Sharks are without their second- and third-round picks this summer, so while they’re still trying to go for it while Joe Thornton is around, it may be smart of them to add a future asset while they can. Also, Dell played under Dave Hakstol in North Dakota, so there’s some familiarity there.
But: San Jose is in the thick of the playoff race and probably isn’t looking to dump a solid backup when Jones has just been average. Truthfully, I just listed him here because Dell is on TSN’s Trade Bait list while many of these other names in this article are not, which leads me to wonder if they know something we don’t. Still, this doesn’t seem terribly likely.
He still lives in the area, right?
The options are there. We don’t know which direction the Flyers will go in, but it seems pretty clear that something is going to have to give pretty soon. For really the first time in Ron Hextall’s tenure as Flyers general manager, Philadelphia is going to be doing some buying at the deadline.