After posting the NHL’s worst save percentage (.880) and allowing the most goals in the league a season ago, the Flyers are once again leaving their goaltending situation to chance in 2021-22.
Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher has worked hard this offseason to try and improve his roster — adding defensemen Ryan Ellis and Rasmus Ristolainen via the trade market and dumped the offensive-minded Shayne Gostisbehere for cap space. Heck, he even swapped out a major defensive liability at forward in Jakub Voracek for the more defensively responsible Cam Atkinson.
But while Fletcher took care of items off his offseason checklist, one of — if not the most important — boxes went unchecked until yesterday’s signing of Martin Jones to a one year, $2 million deal to backup Carter Hart.
Yes, that Martin Jones — who contributed largely to the NHL’s second worst save percentage a year ago out in San Jose (.891). The Sharks allowed the league’s second-most goals, just one below the Flyers.
Jones, 31, was in net for 102 of those goals and endured a third-straight season of sub-.900 save percentage work — earning a buyout of the six-year, $34.5 million deal he scored from the Shark back in 2017. Jones sure didn’t reward the Sharks for their investment, posting a remarkably bad -45.1 goals saved above average (GSAA) since signing on the dotted line.
Fletcher was forced to turn to the veteran buyout option after being spurned elsewhere in the free agency goalie market for a backup behind the soon-to-be 23-year-old Hart.
Braden Holtby was also bought out, but found the identical deal as Jones in tax-free Texas with the Stars. The Devils overpaid for Jonathan Bernier, James Reimer chose the Sharks, Jaroslav Halak headed up to Vancouver to play behind Thatcher Demko, Antti Raanta joined Frederik Andersen in deciding to play behind the Hurricanes’ stifling roster, and Laurent Brossoit ended up in Vegas.
The cards fell as they did and Fletcher was left to the scraps.
This wouldn’t be as big of a deal if Hart didn’t just suffer through his worst season ever while guarding the crease — posting an .877 save percentage and a -22.6 GSAA — as the Flyers’ goaltending literally kept them from playoff contention. But not only did Hart struggle numbers-wise, but he struggled mentally in 2020-21 as well. He inexplicably drew the ire of his own coach at one point and was unable to perform, leaving the net up to veteran Brian Elliott last season for far too long of stretches.
The results costed the Flyers a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup and damaged the once-immaculate confidence of their goaltending prodigy, keeping around the same support system that helped break down the 22-year-old around to oversee the task of building him right back up.
And even though the expectation is that Hart bounces back and returns to the form we saw in his first 74 NHL games (.915 save percentage, 2.59 goals-against average), what happens if there are repeat struggles for the youngster in just his fourth NHL season — and into the 100’s in terms of career games played?
While not many of the open market options would likely suffice in terms of 2021-22 should Hart falter, surely they’d have had better resumes leading into it than Jones — who hasn’t been anything other than a negative value netminder in each of the last four years. Would committing slightly more money behind Hart been of more value to the Flyers as insurance for a better option, especially after Fletcher invested so much future capital to improve the club in the short-term?
And perhaps the Jones signing is also indicative of how the goaltending fraternity views Hart, with veteran options potentially turning down the chance to play in Philadelphia due to presence of the youngster who looked every bit of the next franchise goaltender just 28 games ago. Goalies like Riemer and Raanta could have looked at Hart and decided that the net would be less crowded elsewhere, while the ever-solid Halak decided on Vancouver being a picturesque last stop before retirement.
Though Jones’ recent work has indicated that he’s simply not very good, Fletcher could also be banking on a relationship from the goaltenders’ past to help jumpstart his game.
That’d be Flyers goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh, who worked with Jones in Los Angeles when he broke out behind Jonathan Quick in a backup role before being traded for a first-round pick and scoring a big contract in San Jose.
And while that’s lot of stock to place in a coach to revive a career that has gone off the rails in a big way, and over a large, large sample size — it’s a bold bet that Fletcher is making behind Hart.
It’s a bet that he hopes just applies to exactly that — the backup goalie. If Hart is Hart as the Flyers’ brass thinks he is, then the potential dumpster fire of 20-ish games behind him is far less concerning. But as we saw a year ago, nothing is a sure thing and if Hart falters again, the Flyers — and Fletcher — are going to be praying that Jones can muster up some of the magic he had years ago.
Fletcher hasn’t been shy to play his cards this offseason, but this is one play that seems like it’s going to need a lot of help to hit big and could have enormous consequences if it doesn’t.
It’s the Flyers and goaltending, so why wouldn’t it be anything other than chaos?