As we watch the Golden Knights steamroll through the Western Conference and to the Stanley Cup Final, it’s hard to not take notice of the play in goal of the red-hot Marc-Andre Fleury and wonder aloud about the Flyers’ own situation between the pipes going forward to next season.
The Flyers’ expected tandem in goal last season went far from expected to say the least, but there’s a case to be made for the Flyers to keep the status quo and bring back both Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth to man the net in once again in 2018-19.
Elliott was signed on July 1 of last year to a two-year, $5.5 million contract to pair with incumbent Michal Neuvirth. Neuvirth had received a two-year, $5 million extension that March. Flyers GM Ron Hextall retained Neuvirth in what he envisioned as basically a win-win: the deal gave the Flyers an eligible goalie for the looming Vegas expansion draft and gave him a fringe starter or backup at a manageable price in case the Golden Knights passed on the veteran.
Of course, Vegas would pass on Neuvirth, despite his connection to Golden Knights GM George McPhee (McPhee was GM in Washington when Neuvirth was drafted in 2006). That left the Flyers with the pair of Elliott and Neuvirth to man the net in 2017-18, or so they thought.
The tandem started just 60 of 82 games as various injuries would befell both goalies. Elliott missed nearly two months due to core muscle surgery in early March before returning just in time for the Flyers’ first-round series with Pittsburgh. Neuvirth, meanwhile, missed a month after Thanksgiving due to a lower body injury and then injured his groin in late March only to return during the Penguins series thanks to ineffective play from Elliott.
And when they were healthy, neither guy exactly lit the world on fire, but they at least more respectable than the tire fire that was Petr Mrazek.
Throwing away the outliers of Mrazek and Lyon, the veteran tandem of Elliott and Neuvirth posted a combined .912 save percentage, which was good for the NHL average in 2017-18. Now that’s not quite the .947 save percentage of Fleury that Vegas has ridden to within four wins of a Cup, but it could be worse (See Mrazek, Petr).
Part of the case against keeping the tandem intact for another season is that Elliott and Neuvirth have proven to be exactly average goaltenders in their careers and nothing more. Elliott has a career .913 save percentage while Neuvirth is a tick lower with a .912 mark. Teams with so-so goaltending have made deep playoff runs before (Hello, 2010 Flyers), which just means that Hextall will have to get creative in icing a roster built to mask an area that likely won’t be an outright strength but won’t be a disaster either.
Now of course, none of this matters if neither guy can stay healthy and requires a third and even fourth goaltender like last year, but you can’t always operate under the assumption that injuries will occur.
Both netminders did benefit from a Flyers offense than jumped from 20th in scoring to 12th in one year thanks to career years from the likes of Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier. But even while Giroux is (probably) headed for some regression next season, guys like Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom figure to be primed for more point production and the Flyers got essentially zero offense from the revolving door of bodies in their bottom six a year ago.
The Flyers’ defense was also much improved this past season and should continue trending upwards in front of any goalie. Shayne Gostisbehere made huge strides in his own zone, Ivan Provorov continues to progress as a top pair defenseman, and players better than Brandon Manning are on the way with Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers knocking at the door.
On top of all of this, there’s an estimated $17 million of cap space for Hextall to play around with this summer to add to his roster outside of the crease. He’s got a hole down the middle and could certainly make a run at either of the top pivots on the market in Paul Stastny, Tyler Bozak, or even John Tavares. Hextall could even use that cash to further strengthen his defense given the lack of a home run goalie heading to free agency come July 1.
And if the Flyers’ goaltending gets exposed as not being good enough next season, both Elliott and Neuvirth will be free agents and the net will be empty for Carter Hart if he’s ready. Even if Hextall spends some of the cap room this summer, he’s still stocked with picks and prospects teams with established goalies will desire in order to pry them away.
It’s not sexy by any means, but keeping things status quo in net and focusing on other improvements may be the best course of action for the Flyers right now.