Bernie Parent, Pelle Lindbergh, Ron Hextall, Anthony Stolarz? Come on now, let’s not get carried away. The first three names mentioned, all-time Flyers greats. The fourth, a longshot to even make the opening night roster for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Anthony Stolarz was selected with the 45th pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. The second round is a very high spot in the draft to take a goalie. Goalies typically fall to the 3rd and past rounds, but the scouts saw something in Stolarz. Was it his massive six foot six inch frame, similar to that of Ben Bishop? Maybe it was the fact that he posted a .920 save percentage with the Corpus Christi IceRays of the North American Hockey League the year before the Flyers drafted him. Was it because of those numbers that the Flyers essentially reached for a goalie in the second round, or was it their need to put a bonafide number one guy in the crease, and soon?
The Flyers had just spent some “Humongous Big” money on Russian goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Later on, the Flyers traded Bryz’s backup, Sergei Bobrovsky, for three draft picks. One of those picks became Anthony Stolarz. We all know how the Bryzgalov saga played out in Philadelphia, and we still aren’t sure if he is welcome within the city limits. Bobrovsky went on to win the Vezina Trophy with Columbus the very next season, his first with the Blue Jackets. What did that leave the Flyers? Philadelphia had also dealt away Michael Leighton to Columbus in the deal that brought over Steve Mason. Mason was a reclamation project, and for the most part, he did pretty well. While all this was happening, and the never ending goalie carousel in the city of brotherly love came to a slower pace, Stolarz was backstopping the London Knights with a 25-5-2 record in the 2013-2014 season. He posted a .953 save percentage and 2.52 goals against average. So, that begs the question, where does that put Stoli the goalie in regards to the hierarchy of Flyers netminders.
For starters, literally, you have Michael Neuvirth who posted a career low in save percentage, aside from the few games he spent in an Islanders jersey. You also have his platoon-mate Brian Elliott, who thrives in those types of situations. Essentially, you have two goaltenders completely capable of being exceptional in net, but also are more than capable of laying an egg each time they grace the crease. What we have in these two gentlemen is the tandem that will prevent young talent like Anthony Stolarz, Alex Lyon, maybe even Carter Hart or Felix Sandstrom from breaking into the big leagues. Given, Sandstrom has already agreed to play one more year for Brynas in his home of Sweden, and Hart is all but certainly staying with his team in Everett, unless he absolutely stuns the Flyers scouts this offseason. Regardless, we all know how Hextall views his youngsters. He is all about letting them develop rather than bringing them up potentially too early and stunting their growth.
However, what is preventing one time glowing prospect Anthony Stolarz from breaking through that glass ceiling? He was once regarded as the goaltender of the future for the organization. After a few drafts where the Flyers selected some pretty stellar netminders, Stolarz has become a bit of an afterthought. Is his time up? Did it run out when Hextall decided to give him a little competition, or was this Hextall’s plan all along, to give Stolarz competition to make him that much better?
“I think Anthony Stolarz has improved every year in the American Hockey League.” This was said at a July 2nd presser held by Ron Hextall, after he had already solidified Stolarz’ fate as an AHL-er next season with the signing of Brian Elliott. When asked why, Hextall responded at that same press conference, “With Neuvy’s track record of injuries, we didn’t feel comfortable with bringing Stolie in at this time.” Not the greatest vote of confidence for a guy that, in seven games with the Flyers last season, went 4-2-1 with a .928 save percentage and a 2.07 goals against average. Wait, he also recorded a shutout in one of those seven games. Yes, that is a small sample size, but Jordan Weal didn’t play in that many games at the pro level last year, and he impressed enough with his eight goals and four assists in twenty three games, and only after recording no points in his first fourteen games, to sign a two year deal with an average earning of $1.75 million dollars. No, there is no analytical way to compare what Weal did to what Stolarz did. They both impressed many, but the only one that matters is the man watching the games from the suite upstairs, and Hextall liked Weal enough to keep him up with the Flyers.
So Stolie gets sent back down to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, a team he is very familiar with. Him and Alex Lyon split the crease duty there, with Lyon carrying more of the load that Stolarz. Could this spell the end for Stolarz? Well, it doesn’t help that at the junior level, Hextall has Swedish netminder Felix Sandstrom and former CHL goaltender of the year Carter Hart waiting in the wings. Hextall has said to be very high on these two prospects. What happens in a few more years when these two outstanding goalies reach the level where they can’t compete in junior any more, and need to make a name for themselves at the professional level? You have to figure either one or both Elliott and Neuvirth will be gone, maybe Lyon and Stolarz move up and succeed them in Philadelphia. Will it be the same up there as it was in the AHL with Lyon being the primary guy, or will coach Dave Hakstol stick with his method of platooning his goaltenders, which worked out real well with former netminder Steve Mason, now of the Winnipeg Jets…
Safe money is on Stolarz being called up to plug in as the backup for when Neuvirth goes down with an injury, and we all know he will. When he gets called upon to perform at the professional level, he can perform. He has filled in admirably when needed, and his stats back that up. Don’t be surprised if Hakstol wants to get a look at a young Alex Lyon in net either. This is the future of the Flyers, and the coaches need to know what to expect from guys who are playing for their squad.
Next offseason is where things will get very interesting. Felix Sandstrom will have played his last year with Brynas, and will be headed overseas to lend his services to the Phantoms. Sandstrom is an outstanding competitor, having played at the junior and world level. He can be a key fixture in net for the foreseeable future in Phialdelphia, but that leaves at least one odd man out. Between Elliott, Neuvirth, Lyon, Stolarz, and Sandstrom, there are really only four spots available. Barring any trades, one seems to be destined to be left behind and forgotten about. At this point in time, without any kind of player movement, it seems Stolarz is that odd man out.
As stated before, the youth movement is in full swing for the Flyers. Fans are enthralled with excitement at the thought of the youngsters making it to the pro roster and putting their mark on the ice. What people seem to forget is that there are other prospects, albeit a little older, that are still developing. Stolarz is one of those guys. He came on a bit slower, but Hextall had that luxury to be able to keep him down and let him develop at his own pace. Seemingly, that is all lost now because all the talk is surrounding the young prospects and the guys who are coming up with other stud prospects like Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim.
The year Stolarz was drafted was the same year the Flyers spent their first round pick on Scott Laughton. Laughton spent some time up with the Flyers, and stuck around for a good part of a season, along with a few games this past season. He was sent back down essentially to be groomed to be a fourth line center, something the Flyers can definitely use now that Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is a Las Vegas Golden Knight. Point being, Laughton got his chance and made something of it, and will now find himself entrenched in a battle with newcomer Mike Vecchione for the fourth line center position. Now, where is Stolarz’ chance? Were his seven games this past year his chance to shine? Did he not prove that when called upon, he can answer the bell and deliver an inspired performance? In this writer’s opinion, Stolarz is more than capable of serving as a backup to a guy like Michael Neuvirth or Bryan Elliott. But hey, what do I know, I’m not some nerd sitting behind a keyboard, punching away and researching stats, drafts, peak ages of goalies, which happens to be, on average, around the age of 25 (two more years, Stolie…)
So let’s look at it this way. From what it seems like, Hextall drafted Anthony Stolarz to be the next guy to take the goalie reins. Somewhere along the line, Hextall must have thought that Stolarz might not be that guy, so he brought in Alex Lyon. After that, he brought in Sandstrom and Hart. Right now, the Flyers have some incredible depth at the goalie position. If these prospects play up to their potential, it’s going to make Ron Hextall’s job incredibly difficult to try and choose which netminder will control the crease for the Flyers. I don’t envy that man’s job at all. So no, Stolarz’ time in Philadelphia hasn’t really happened yet, discounting the time spent up last year. Will he get his time? Absolutely. Will it come at the right time for him to be able to shine? It may not, but that’s up to him and only him to be the one that convinces the right people to let him take over seemingly never-ending carousel that is the net at the Wells Fargo Center.
Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports