The Flyers are going to be good this coming season, we think. But how good? A legit contender? The same team they were last year? A bubble team? Worse? Every team faces some questions that will determine just how good they’re going to be, and we’ll be looking at 10 key ones between now and puck drop on January 13.
For the first time in what seems like extremely Squints from the Sandlot voice forever, the Flyers do not have at least some kind of question mark in the crease heading into a season.
And that’s because — well — Carter Hart is really, really, good.
However, Hart’s mere presence doesn’t ultimately mean that the Flyers are indeed absent of questions in the crease — though he does significantly decrease the usual tension surrounding the teams’ goaltending situation.
Those questions are for a couple of factors, but not ones you’d expect.
For one, the 2020-21 NHL regular season will be a 56-game sprint to the Stanley Cup playoffs inside a truncated timeline of a little under four months. The Flyers will play back-to-back nights eight times in the coming season and have a handful of other two games in three nights scenarios to deal with.
Though phenomenal, Carter Hart simply can’t play all 56 games — and that’s where Brian Elliott comes into play.
A grizzled veteran, the 35-year-old returned to the Flyers this offseason on a one-year deal as GM Chuck Fletcher sought to keep Hart’s backup at a manageable cap number with the pandemic forcing the league down to a flat-cap year. Elliott played to an .899 save percentage in 31 games last season and posted a 2.87 goals-against average — buoyed by a pair of shutouts. The advanced metrics weren’t pretty either with a -8.02 GSAA (goals saved above average) mark.
But armed with an essentially capped out club and better veteran options not willing to play for free (go figure), Fletcher turned back to Elliott to entrust as Hart’s backup once again this season. Ideally you’d have liked to see Fletcher improve that spot and ease the workload to ensure that Hart is rested for the big games while still getting above-average results, but the Flyers weren’t the only team getting the squeeze thanks to COVID-19.
Not only is Elliott on-call in the absence of Hart, but so will largely unproven AHL stalwart Alex Lyon, who’s the de-facto No. 3 goaltender for the Flyers this season as the NHL implements protections against having a Domino’s delivery driver suit up for a game.
Sportsnet’s Chris Johnson had the details, which leaves Lyon as the man should he be needed for whatever reason.
NHL teams are required to carry at least three goalies at all times this season, between the active roster and taxi squad.— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) December 20, 2020
Lyon’s numbers at the NHL level are what you’d expect from a career AHL goalie: .893 save percentage, goals-against well above the league average at 3.15. He’s also played in just 16 games, and it’s not as if the Flyers haven’t had opportunities in the crease over the course of Lyon’s time with the organization.
That’s not an ideal tandem behind Hart, who has proven himself to be one of the best young netminders in the NHL since his call up a few years back. This leaves the Flyers in quite the pickle if something were to happen and he were to miss any length of time during the shortened season.
The hope is that Hart stays healthy and ends up playing the bulk of the schedule given that he’s young enough to take the workload and is markedly better even on little rest that either Elliott or Lyon behind him. But given how the pandemic has rocked the sports world, it’s fair to wonder if the Flyers have enough behind Hart to survive such a circumstance.
Elliott, a former Jennings Trophy winner in St. Louis, has had a fine career — and has reinvented himself multiple times over in the process — but make no mistake, the Flyers will be in serious trouble if he’s needed to play more than eight to ten games this season.
Perhaps Elliott has more gas left in the tank and the Flyers are good enough in front of him — or Lyon — to tread water without their No. 1, but we’re sure that’s a scenario that Fletcher, Alain Vigneault and Co. would rather not see play out.
It’s a good bet that the Flyers will go as far as Carter Hart takes them.