Let’s begin this with an acknowledgement of the obvious: Brian Elliott has played in two full games in this hockey season, along with a relief effort in a third when Carter Hart was pulled from a game in Edmonton. That is not enough time to draw meaningful conclusions about any facet of a hockey team (not that we haven’t tried already this year), and it’s extremely not enough time to evaluate a goalie in any serious way.
With that, let’s also bring up something else obvious: Brian Elliott has played some damn good hockey in both of his starts so far this season. His first start just happened to coincide with the worst effort of the season so far of the skaters in front of him, as he stopped 35 out of 37 shots in a loss in Calgary. And in his second start, just this past Monday night, he turned aside a number of good chances from the Vegas Golden Knights, particularly early in the second period as the boys in orange were holding on to a 1-0 lead, and he gave them just enough leeway to break the game open with four more goals in the second en route to their best win of the very young season.
Through these seven games, Carter Hart and Brian Elliott have split the goaltending workload at a roughly two-to-one rate, with Hart getting five starts (and Elliott two, plus the one relief appearance). Though Hart came in with the high expectations — and did manage to get the Flyers’ first shutout in a while in the team’s home opener against New Jersey — there’s no denying that Elliott has performed better in his limited minutes so far than Hart has.
So is there a goaltending controversy? Is Elliott poised to make some big leap in his third season and be the linchpin for this team, picking the team up where Hart seems to be struggling?
No. There’s not, and he’s not. And it’s really important that the folks in charge for the Flyers know that — not just for their own sakes, but for Elliott’s, too.
The relationship that Brian Elliott and this team have had during his two-plus seasons with the team can really be boiled down to the following, which we have seen play out several times since then: Brian Elliott is a competent, maybe even outright good 1b-to-backup goaltender in the NHL, and the Flyers’ insistence/necessity that he be more than that has really tanked any chance he had at being a sustainably productive goalie here.
- In Elliott’s first season with the team, he got out to a bit of a rocky start in October, but righted the ship the following month. As soon as it became clear Elliott was able to play at a competent level, then-coach Dave Hakstol played him in twenty-five of the team’s twenty-six games between November 9 and January 6. Not long after, in early February, Elliott left a game in Arizona during a shootout, needed core surgery, and didn’t play for two months (worth noting, his injury was deemed a “five to six week” injury).
- Elliott was then deemed healthy in time for Game 81 of that season, at a time when new acquisition Petr Mrazek was playing some absolutely dreadful hockey and the only other real option was Alex Lyon. Elliott came back just in time to help the Flyers win their final two games of the season and make the playoffs, but clearly did not have much left in the tank for their first-round series against Pittsburgh and was pulled twice in four starts before Michal Neuvirth took over for Games 5 and 6.
- Throughout the following training camp, then-general manager Ron Hextall seemed to make multiple references to the fact that Elliott (who had hip surgery during the offseason) was not yet 100 percent, and it seemed like he just barely beat the clock to be “ready” for the start of the regular season after making a late debut in the preseason. Despite this (and again due in no small part to injuries suffered by Michal Neuvirth and the existence of Calvin Pickard), Elliott played in five of the team’s first six games and 14 of their first 19, at which point he left a game against the Devils with an apparent injury. Hextall would tell the media the following day that they expected said injury to keep him out for about two weeks. Instead, that injury would cost Elliott three months.
- When he was deemed healthy, Elliott had appeared to lose his starter’s net to Carter Hart, but his first two appearances were first-period relief appearances following rough performances by Hart against Tampa and Montreal. Elliott performed well in those games, leading the Flyers to then play him in seven out of the next eight games on the schedule (on top of those two he’d already played most of in relief of Hart) while Hart recovered from an injury he had suffered. Despite some valiant efforts, Elliott’s play fell off towards the tail end of that run (not that it mattered much at that point as the Flyers had already been more or less eliminated from the playoff race).
The cycle has repeated itself multiple times in his time with the Flyers. Elliott shows some competence, particularly at a moment where the Flyers desperately need it (due to poor performance or injury by other goalies). The Flyers, seemingly out of options, play Elliott as much as they possibly can, and while it works for a little bit, eventually and inevitably things crash, most often due to an injury Elliott suffers. He is then deemed unable to play with said injury for some defined period of time, then typically needs more time than was originally listed. When he is finally deemed ready to play, he ... shows some competence, just in time for the cycle to start again.
So let’s sum up Brian Elliott’s Flyers career with a meme, because I’ve been told memes are a great way to get points across on the web.
Here’s the head-scratching thing: none of this should be particularly surprising. Elliott was 32 when he came to the Flyers and will turn 35 when this season ends in April. And it’s not like he ever had some lengthy track record of being a workhorse — when we were looking at potential Flyers goalie targets in the summer of 2017, our biggest question about Elliott was ...
Can he handle a starter’s workload if necessary? Here’s the real wild card. Elliott was indeed fantastic in St. Louis before being unimpressive in Calgary. But he never played much more than half of the games in a given regular season with the Blues — his 49 games played with Calgary this past season were the most he’s had in a regular season since his Ottawa days of many years ago. He’s dealt with some minor injury problems in the past (chief among them, a lower-body injury in 2015-16 that took him out of play for a month) but for the most part he’s just never been given a starter’s kind of workload. He may be able to do it, but it’s a risk to assume that he can at 32 after years of not doing so.
At the end of the day, due to poor choices made elsewhere in net (i.e. giving Michal Neuvirth a two-year extension in 2017 and not having a third goalie in the AHL that they trusted), the Flyers had to lean on Brian Elliott to do something he’d never really done. And as soon as they got some reason to believe it might just work out this time, they tried to stretch it to its extreme, to predictably unsuccessful results.
This seems like the kind of issue that could be prevented by having a projected starter in net that you trust. One that is durable and can be counted on to play multiple games in a row without breaking, and one whose talent and ability you know you can rely on. Someone like that would allow the Flyers to just play Elliott 30ish times a year — and presumably never doing so seven or nine or 25 times in a row — which should allow him to play at the level we know he can play at when he’s not overworked, as we’ve seen in his appearances so far this season.
Do the Flyers have that guy?
Well, I got some bad news for you: if the Flyers don’t have that guy, none of this matters anyways.
And that fact, in a roundabout way, is what may hopefully force the Flyers into playing Elliott as much — and as little — as they should be.
There are two realities at play here, both of which sound somewhat ominious on their own but may actually work together in a twisted sort of way. The first is that which we’ve already discussed: Elliott shouldn’t play more than a quality backup’s workload at this point, and should probably not play more than two games in a row unless there is a dire emergency. If the Flyers try to play him more than that, something bad will probably happen. If they don’t, we’ve got good reason to believe it might just work out.
The second overarching theme here is this: Carter Hart’s gotta get his games. Even if he has a couple of rough ones, like he did against Edmonton and Dallas, it is crucial that this year be a successful experience for him, and the best way for that to happen is for him to stay in action. That’s not to say he should never get pulled or the team should be afraid to take him out for a game or two if he’s playing poorly — which is why I can live with Alain Vigneault giving Elliott a second consecutive start, which he’ll get tonight in Chicago — but if he’s in a funk, you’re not going to snap him out of it by having him ride the pine for extended periods of time.
While there’s something to be said about easing a 21-year old (even one who played half of last season) in to a starting role in the NHL, Hart hasn’t played fewer than 47 games during the regular hockey season since he was 16 years old. If you want to keep him in a rhythm, he should reliably get more starts than his backup, and he probably shouldn’t miss more than two games in a row.
“But what if he’s playing poorly for a long period of time?”
Then we’re screwed anyways.
Seriously — try and draw up a realistic version of this season where Carter Hart is bad and the Flyers win anything of significance. It does not exist. If Hart has his struggles, the options are to let him try and play through them or hope that Elliott, who has shown over two years that he cannot handle the load for an extended period of time without injury, can do ... exactly that. The former option — hoping Hart digs his way out of any holes he falls into — has both a higher floor and a higher ceiling than the one that we pretty much already know is not going to work.
But again: this can all work out! The Flyers need to be cognizant of what Elliott is capable of and what Hart needs, they need to plan things out as such, and they need to be willing to not waver from that plan if and when some adversity hits (which it inevitably will, and arguably already has). If they let Hart be the guy when they need to, and lean on Elliott simply as a trusty backup — which, again, is the only way this is going to work — then they may just have a quality goalie duo to work with throughout the year.
And while one could argue that this — goaltending — is an area in which the Flyers do not deserve the benefit of the doubt, it’s also fair to give this new coaching staff a blank slate and let us judge them not on what Dave Hakstol and (to a lesser extent) Scott Gordon did, but instead what they do. Vigneault has managed tricky situations with big-name starting goalies and quality backups in Vancouver and New York, and he’ll get another chance to do so here. Additionally, the front office will likely have some say here, and they know the parties at hand — Chuck Fletcher knows his future here is probably pretty securely tied to Carter Hart’s, and as the guy who re-signed Elliott this past June, he has to know what his backup is (and probably isn’t) capable of.
So no, it’s not a huge deal that Elliott is starting two games in a row, nor is it a huge deal that Hart had two bad games. But the Flyers need to keep their eye on the big picture in net with the two guys they’ve got. And if they do? Who knows, maybe goaltending will actually be a strength this year.