What to do in net, Part II: The case for shaking things up

The second of the two-part series argues for change between the pipes.

The other day I wrote about the Flyers’ goaltending situation and argued for keeping the status quo, that bringing back both Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth was the best thing for GM Ron Hextall and the team at this juncture.

On second thought, screw it. Let’s blow this whole thing up, gang.

This is a team on the rise with young talent like Nolan Patrick, Travis Konecny, and Oskar Lindblom ready to join standout veterans Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Wayne Simmonds. There’s Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim on the blue line and more exciting prospects in the wings like Morgan Frost and Phil Myers. Heck, there’s even a stud goalie prospect for the first time since Sergei Bobrovsky (Hello, Carter Hart).

The Flyers are rounding into a contending team pretty much everywhere but in goal, where they’re pedestrian at best…for now.

Elliott and Neuvirth had their fare share of injuries last season, no doubt, but when they did play they weren’t much to write home about. Their combined .912 save percentage was right at the league average and was inflated a bit by Neuvirth’s .915 save percentage in 22 games. Of goalies who played at least 22 games, Neuvirth’s save percentage ranked 22nd while Elliott’s .909 save percentage was 36th. The pair also combined for just two shutouts, or one less than Petr Mrazek provided in his 15 starts which were largely terrible.

Numbers for goalies can also be deceiving because they can be affected by how the team plays in front of them; the Flyers for instance had the 29th-ranked penalty kill that almost certainly didn’t do their netminders any favors. The numbers reflect that as there was a sharp decline in the save percentages for both veterans at even strength vs. on the penalty kill.

Save percentages

Player EV Sv%PP Sv%

As you can see those are some large disparities, and while the blame can very well shift back to the Flyers’ penalty kill, the goalies aren’t immune either.

Of goalies who played at least 22 games, Elliott and Neuvirth were ranked 51st and 52nd in  save percentage on the penalty kill. Some of the NHL’s other bad penalty kills had bad goaltending as well, but not many as bad as the Flyers.

Tampa Bay had the fourth-worst penalty kill but Andrei Vasilevskiy posted an .865 save percentage while the Lightning were shorthanded (.929 at even strength). The Canadiens had the second-worst penalty kill but Carey Price carried an .849 save percentage and the Islanders were the worst penalty kill in the league and Jaroslav Halak posted a .863 save percentage as their main goaltender during the season.

Sure the Flyers’ penalty kill was bad, but neither Elliott nor Neuvirth provided much resistance as the last line of defense. The Flyers haven’t had a penalty kill ranked better than 19th in three years, and perhaps the easiest way to see a quick turnaround is to get better goaltending. Last year tells us that neither of these two guys are likely to help turn things around anytime soon, and their careers speak to them being nothing more than replacement level.

Looking around the league, there are plenty of goalies who posted strong save percentages at even strength while providing more that the Flyers’ combination did in other situations. Elliott and Neuvirth were a little above average at even strength and almost literally the worst on special teams.

Given performance, and the fact that both are on the wrong side of 30 (Elliott is 33, Neuvirth is 30), it’s time for Ron Hextall to shake up the room so-to-speak and overhaul his goaltending. Carter Hart is by all accounts a stud prospect, but most prospects are far from sure things and goalies tend to be even harder to project. There are many more Jack Campbell’s and Mark Visentin’s of the world than there are guys like Vasilevskiy, Price, and Marc-Andre Fleury who were high picks and developed by their teams.

With the Flyers surging to a surprise playoff berth this season —and a good mix of productive veterans and emerging young players— now is the time for Hextall to find better goaltending. Both Elliott and Neuvirth are signed for one more season at manageable (and moveable) contracts, and Hextall has plenty of cap space to afford a true difference maker in the crease.

But that’s where Hextall will have to get creative, as the free agent market looks rather bleak. The options are aging veterans like Halak (33) or Kari Lehtonen (34), or someone like Jonathan Bernier, who is more of what the Flyers already have. There are some intriguing options such as Robin Lehner and Philipp Grubauer, but both are restricted free agents who would require an offer sheet, or a trade, and aren’t proven commodities.

That means that making a splash would have to come from the trade market, where there are some intriguing options.

Pekka Rinne is in the last year of his deal in Nashville that carries a $7 million cap hit, but the Predators have Juuse Saros waiting in the wings. Could Rinne’s lackluster playoff (3.07 GAA, .904 Sv%), the presence of Saros, and the Preds’ rumored John Tavares chase make the veteran available? He’d represent an immediate upgrade in net for the Flyers and is signed for just one more year in case Carter Hart progresses. A swap involving Rinne and one of the Flyers’ current netminders could give Nashville a cheap backup and the extra cap space they need to get another piece elsewhere if they feel that Saros is ready.

What about Antti Raanta in Arizona, where the Coyotes seem to shake things up pretty often? He’s signed for three more years at $4.25 million per year, and was outstanding with a 2.24 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage on a last-place team. He likely wound’t be cheap, but finding good to great to franchise-type goalies isn’t easy and he’d make an instant impact.

Circling back to Grubauer, with Braden Holtby leading the Capitals to a berth in the Stanley Cup finals and signed for two more years, could the Flyers pry the young netminder from their division rivals? He’s 26 and has only played 101 career games, but he’s posted a 2.29 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage in those games. Trading with a division rival is a rarity, so this would cost plenty but he’s probably better than what the Flyers have and with upside.

The Flyers are on the cusp of becoming a true contender, and finding better goaltending would only accelerate that process. It’s time for a change, because more of the same just won’t cut it going forward.