I have long been dedicated to dispelling the old adage that the Flyers haven’t had a goalie since Ronald Reagan was President of the United States. Now, to be fair, the Flyers have not had a franchise goalie since the heyday of current GM Ron Hextall. But the myth that the Flyers goaltending is the biggest reason they haven’t won a Stanley Cup in 40+ years is merely an easy way for people to explain the drought.
As the Flyers exited the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, the old myth carried validity. Neither Brian Elliott or Michal Neuvirth played well enough to give the Flyers a real chance to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins. There are mitigating factors, as both goalies suffered late season injuries that left them at less than 100% and necessitated a deadline trade for Petr Mrazek.
The trouble is, the injuries shouldn’t have been a surprise. Neuvirth’s injury history is as long and detailed as “War And Peace”. He’s missed significant time in each of his four seasons as a Flyer, including two last season. The first led Flyers coach Dave Hakstol to start Elliott for the entire month of December and most of January. That may have contributed to Elliott’s own injury, as he isn’t Braden Holtby or Martin Brodeur style workhorse, but rather a guy who has been used in a tandem getting 45-50 starts a season.
Hextall decided not to upgrade the position over the summer. The fact that the Flyers have six goalies under contract was a factor, but quantity doesn’t necessarily make the position a strength. Elliott and Neuvirth were slated for the Flyers roster. Uber-prospect Carter Hart was expected to start in the AHL and gain experience while splitting time with Alex Lyon or Anthony Stolarz. Stolarz himself is coming off a lost season where he barely played due to knee injury.
The trouble is, now both Neuvirth and Lyon are hurt. The Flyers have yet to provide a timetable on the former and the latter is expected to miss 4 weeks. Elliott and Stolarz both spent the summer rehabbing and have looked rusty in the pre-season. Hart has not only been the Flyers best goalie, he’s been borderline brilliant. However, the Flyers seem to reluctant to rush Hart, unsurprisingly. Had the injuries to Neuvirth and Lyon occurred in December, after Hart had put up a few solid or better months in the AHL, It would be a different situation.
As things stand, Hextall and the Flyers have some options and they’re not all bad. They could start the season with Hart in the NHL. He’s got the skill, temperament and mental approach that a fast jump may be manageable, even if the Flyers prefer he start in the AHL. They could go with a tandem of Elliott and Stolarz, which I find worrisome, as both are rounding into form with the Flyers facing a daunting start on the road, battling three Western Conference playoff teams in their first four games. They could see which goalies hit the waiver wire as teams pare down their rosters. Goalies like Michael Hutchinson, Calvin Pickard or Curtis McElhinney will likely be available for the Flyers to claim. Hextall could also swing a trade, as he did for Mrazek, although I doubt they revisit that route after spending a third round pick for a few weeks of mediocre play.
In hindsight, it’s easy to fault Hextall. But it was a questionable decision from the get go. It’s not like Neuvirth or Elliott were iron men. They knew Stolarz had barely played and was likely going to need time to work his way into game readiness. Lyon was solid, but if an injury to a guy with 11 career games and a .905 save % throws your plan into disarray, then it wasn’t a great plan from the start.
That’s not a knock on Lyon, it’s just a Murphy’s Law situation. The trouble is, it wouldn’t take Nostradamas to foresee an injury to Neuvirth. Hextall has built a team that should challenge for the Metropolitan Division title. But relying on a goalie with Neuvirth’s injury history could end up being a fatal flaw-or force Hextall’s hand on promoting Hart before he wants to. Either way, Hextall only has himself to blame.