There’s a bit more excitement about the Flyers heading into 2019-20, but there’s also a massive elephant in the room —and a familiar one to the franchise.
Yep, we’re gonna talk about goaltending.
On the surface, there shouldn’t be an issue here given that prodigal son Carter Hart burst onto the scene a year ago as a 20-year-old. Hart more than held his own, given the circumstances, and ended up being the Flyers’ best goalie with team-best marks in wins (16, save percentage (.917%), and goals-against average (2.83). Granted he was the smartest kid in a very dumb class (Calvin Pickard, hello), but he arrived after a storied Canadian Junior career and enjoyed success in his first NHL action, despite a slew of things going against him.
First, there was the less-than-stellar start to his professional career in Lehigh Valley with the Phantoms. He posted a .902 save percentage to go along with a 3.05 goals-against average in 18 games before being called up to the Flyers due injuries and dreadful performances... among other things. After Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher made the call for Hart, the decorated youngster entered the lineup and almost immediately solidified the crease for a team trending in the wrong direction.
The combination of the coaching change and the presence of Hart helped ease two of the Flyers’ biggest problems, and the club made a run back to respectability shortly thereafter. Ultimately the Flyers waited too long to ax Dave Hakstol, and could very well have sneaked into the playoffs should that move and the promotion of Hart been made sooner. In the end, the Flyers didn’t make a miracle run to the playoffs but Fletcher and the new brass got a good look at Hart and were able to confirm that —while insanely young— the netminder had the ability to be a difference maker in the NHL and proved it during a small sample size.
That’s all very exciting until you realize that Fletcher’s offseason has largely set the Flyers up to contend for a playoff spot right now. He didn’t drop in excess of $7 million on Kevin Hayes to be a non-playoff team, and he sure didn’t spend capital to acquire veteran defenseman on the other side of 30 in Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun to play golf again come this spring. Time will tell if those personnel decisions were the right ones to get the Flyers back to playoff hockey, but one thing is certain is that there could certainly be a lot riding on the man wearing No. 79 between the pipes for the Flyers next season.
Perhaps too much.
Apart from adding a number two center (check), and reshaping the defense (also check), Fletcher’s big job this offseason was to find another goaltender to pair with Hart in some fashion. The smart bet was that he had already done so prior to February’s trade deadline by trading for Cam Talbot for the low price of the lightly used Anthony Stolarz. The match seemed strong given Talbot’s ties to Hart (they trained together a few times), and his proven ability to handle a slew of NHL games over the past few seasons in Edmonton with the Oilers.
But instead of re-signing Talbot to be some combination of Hart’s backup, Hart’s 1B, or even the bulk starter in case Hart faltered, Brian Elliott was re-signed to a one-year deal worth $2 million. The man who former GM Ron Hextall tabbed as his stopgap to Hart two seasons ago, is the same man who will be Hart’s running mate to start the season.
Philadelphia, we could have a problem.
Not only did Elliott just turn 34, he’s coming off of back-to-back seasons where he suffered major injuries requiring surgery. His injuries have been core muscle related, not like a broken finger or hand. These are injuries that are a direct result of his advancing age, and could put the Flyers in a precarious situation this season. Remember what happened after Elliott got hurt last year before Carter Hart? Yeah, the Flyers ran through a gauntlet of sub-par goaltending that planted them at the bottom of the standings and contributed to a hole they couldn’t dig out of.
Even setting aside Elliott’s sudden injury history, is he really good enough to carry the load for a decent stretch of time should Hart be either injured himself ineffective to the point that he needs to see the bench for a few weeks? As great as we all think Hart could be one day —and perhaps that day is sooner rather than later— it’s not uncommon to see really young goalies have super inconsistent stretches early on in their careers. All the great ones have gone through it, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see Hart endure some of the same struggles that guys like Carey Price, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Marc-Andre Fleury did during the early part of their stellar careers.
Can the Flyers, with their win-now personnel moves, really feel like they’re not gonna miss a beat if Hart isn’t Hart and they have to turn to Elliott? Ignoring his recent injury history, there’s also the .908 save percentage that the veteran has posted in 69 games with the Flyers over the past two seasons. While that was right around league average in that span (.906), is it enough for the Flyers simply to get average goaltending with the roster they’ve built if they want to return to the Stanley Cup playoffs?
Beyond Elliott the Flyers still have Alex Lyon as their starter in Lehigh Valley, and would figure to get the call up should an injury occur to either Hart or Elliott. Lyon was quietly very good for the Phantoms in 2018-19, posting a .916 save percentage that was good for top-ten status in the AHL. The issue is that Lyon has proven to be a quality AHL netminder, but owns a 3.05 goals-against average and an .894 save percentage across just 13 NHL games.
It seems like a broken record with the Flyers, but as always: this team is probably only going as far as the goaltending can take them —or hold up for. Even with Carter Hart finally here, and looking like a bright future, there’s still a bunch of questions in the crease for the Flyers heading into the season.
But isn’t there always?