The benchmark of a truly sound National Hockey League hockey team comes down to the man that plays between the pipes. The goaltender is the position that the rest of the team feeds off of. Is there a big, dramatic save that keeps your team in the game? Is there consistent goaltending that helps supplement your team on a winning streak? When a star goal scorer is out, the defensive front has to manage to find a way to keep your team in the game. Yes, there are three lines of defenders who are playing on ice at any given time in a game, but only one goaltender. In hockey, one of the biggest positions to invest in is the man who keeps the puck out of the back of the net.
The Philadelphia Flyers have been fortunate enough this season to find their future in Carter Hart, a twenty-year old phenomenon that has revitalized a team off to yet another slow start. The big question in the future is who is the rotating goaltender to contribute to the growth of Hart? Look no further than the remaining player who has kept the Flyers in games against perennial, formidable opponents. The goalie that should be rotating with Hart next season is Brian Elliott.
The Philadelphia Flyers have set a new franchise record this season in the amount of different goaltenders who have started games. That alone is not anything to really be happy about. Eight different goaltenders really speaks volumes about the lack of consistency and general health regarding the players taking up the roster spots on the team. As I had mentioned so far, two of those goaltenders were Carter Hart and Brian Elliott, but more on those in a bit. Let’s talk about those other six that have started in net.
Calvin Pickard, who is now with the Arizona Coyotes, was 4-2-2 as a Flyer with a 86.3% save average. Then there is Anthony Stolarz, who was the goaltender that I didn’t want the Flyers to trade, but is nevertheless on the Edmonton Oilers. He was 4-3-3 as a Flyer with a 90.2% save average.
Cam Talbot started one game as a Flyer this season, is 1-0-0 with a 91.8% save average. Given the small sample size, it isn’t a large enough body of work with the Flyers to commit to starting him over Elliott.
The biggest disappointment in net has been Michal Neuvirth this season, posting a record of 1-4-1 and a 85.9% save average. He has also been riddled with injuries over the last few seasons, so he is as good as gone at the end of the season. Follow this is the regression at the NHL level of Alex Lyon, who is 0-1-0 with a 80.6% save percentage. Lyon is not at the level of Hart by far, but is a guy that the Flyers would place back down with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms to recall with other future goaltending prospects.
The final starter in a Flyers uniform this season has been Mike McKenna, who also went 0-1-0 with a 83.3% save percentage. Those are a lot of stats to be thrown around, but let’s now take a turn to disect the two candidates that I think should be considered to be the two goalies in Philadelphia for next season.
The odds on favorite to be the starting goaltender next season for the Philadelphia Flyers is Carter Hart. There are a couple of reasons that help me jump to that conclusion, one in terms of contract and the other in terms of performance. For starters, Hart is under contract with the Flyers for the next two seasons at a very cheap price ($700k in 2020 and $750k in 2021.) Looking at the performance side of the game, Hart’s record in his first season of exposure at the NHL level is 13-8-1 with a 91.7% save average. For a twenty year old goaltender who just made his debut this year, that is more than stellar. In that record is an eight game winning streak, which exists in another great stat line of ten wins in eleven starts. Looking at the teams that Hart has played against, he has tallied seven wins against teams with winning records versus eight losses against teams with a winning record. There is a lot to be happy about with a goaltender so young and on such a team friendly contract. What is still necessary is veteran leadership and talent to back up and get wins when it counts.
Now, for the case to bring back Brian Elliott! Elliott is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2019 season. That being said, here are a short list of the other candidates and how they compare to Elliott’s 2019 campaign. Ryan Miller is going to be 38, which is five years the senior of Elliott. Is the gamble worth it? I don’t find it to be. However, Miller is $750k cheaper than Elliott. Elliott has played in just a handful more games than Miller and compiled a 91.6% save percentage in comparison to Miller’s 92.7% save percentage. While that looks attractive, we have to remember that less games played does help save percentage statistics.
The only other option that compares to Elliott’s save percentage is Robin Lehner at age 28, five years the junior of Elliott. To consider this, we have to think that the New York Islanders, who are in the midst of making the playoffs, are going to tinker with their goaltender rotation. I would think not out of the gate, especially because Lehner is still young and is $1.25mil cheaper. That would be a steal for the Flyers if he is available, but the odds of that happening are not in the favor of Philadelphia. In head to head comparison this season as well, the Flyers have the Islanders number. This is with Elliott goaltending as well. Lehner has the same save percentage as Miller. Being realistic and understanding that the Islanders more than likely wouldn’t want a goaltender like Lehner just walking over to a division rival, those are the only two goaltenders set to become unrestricted free agents that have a better save percentage than Elliott.
As a rotational goaltender who could see the same contract next season, I think it would be a smart idea to sign Elliott back to a two year contract which would just about equal to what is he getting paid this season. That kind of deal would set Elliott up to mold Carter Hart as the superstar goaltender for the Flyers by the time a new contract is needed. The Flyers sign Hart to a hearty contract in 2021 and Elliott will get his send off. By that time, we would be speaking of new upcoming prospects who would be coming in to back up Hart under his learning tree.
Earlier, I touched on Alex Lyon, who I think would be the candidate by 2021 to be the back up for Carter Hart. I say this mostly because Lyon has shown he can play at a high level in Lehigh Valley with the Phantoms, but he also has the most experience at the NHL level of any Philadlephia Flyer goaltender prospect. Another prospect, who could have the potential to steal the spot from Lyon to rotate with Hart in a couple seasons would be Felix Sandstrom. Sandstrom was a third round pick in the 2015 NHL draft. Currently, Sandstrom is playing in Sweden, but the Flyers are still very high on the prospect’s potential. This brings me back to the other prospect who is no longer a Flyer, Anthony Stolarz. I absolutely thought this was his rise before he was sent to Edmonton. Something just felt right about having two young goaltenders in Hart and Stolarz in the Flyers rotation this season. However, the way that the Flyers have been persistently battling for a playoff spot is not only a nod to Stolarz’s time in Philadelphia and Hart’s contributions, but it has a lot to do with the veteran savvy of Brian Elliott.
After this season, the dance of what to do with the back up role at goaltender will be a huge storyline for the Philadelphia Flyers. Carter Hart is our guy, I think that much is clear. However, I recall when Brian Elliott was a younger goaltender for the St. Louis Blues and won a Stanley Cup. We in Philadelphia have a goaltender who can help craft Hart into quite possibly one of the most reliable goaltenders since the turn of the millennium.
I’ve watched as Sergei Bobrovsky was a Flyer and we let him go and decided to overpay Ilya Bryzgalov. All that Bobrovsky has done was went and won a couple Vezina Awards for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Steve Mason stepped in and had his moments as a good goaltender in Philadelphia, but that was also aided by a then healthy Michal Neuvirth. This time, we have a chance to make a run. Elliott is someone that I can commit to while Hart is growing in the NHL. Bring back “Moose” for 2020!
Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports