Chuck Fletcher made a plethora of moves on the opening day of free agency this summer. Those moves didn’t necessarily move the needle. Instead, it bolstered an otherwise depleted Lehigh Valley Phantoms roster.
The Phantoms started July 1st with 4 defensemen under contract. When the day ended, they had double that amount. Not only did the blueline get a facelift, the goaltending position saw Jean Francois Berube join the ranks of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
With J.F. Berube now in the fold, the Phantoms could be entering the 2019-20 season with 4 goalies in the running for a spot on the team. Rookies Felix Sandstrom and Kirill Ustimenko make the jump to North America, joining the aforementioned Berube and incumbent Alex Lyon.
With 4 goalies and only 2 real spots to fill, where do each of these goalies fit within the organization?
Lyon is essentially a lock to be the starting goalie in Lehigh Valley next season. Lyon has started most of the Phantoms games since 2016, amassing 113 games played in those three years. He was the goalie of record for the longest AHL game in the league’s history, a 2-1 five-overtime victory over the Charlotte Checkers. Lyon recorded 94 stops on 95 shots in the multiple overtime thriller.
He’s become quite the fan favorite in Lehigh Valley, and rightfully so. Last year, he played in 39 games, posting a 2.74 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. Those same numbers happen to be right around his AHL career average as well.
With one year remaining on his contract, and an influx of young talent coming for his spot, Lyon will be playing for a contract this year. If Lyon is given the “Lyon’s” share of the net this year, he should be as solid as he’s been these past 3 seasons.
Jean Francois Berube
J.F. Berube is a 27-year-old AHL journeyman. The Phantoms will be the fifth AHL team he has played for in as many years. At 27 years of age, he doesn’t exactly figure into the future of the Flyers plans, does he?
This signing is as puzzling as any that Flyers General Manager Chuck Fletcher made this offseason. With two new options in net for the Phantoms, and the re-signing of Brian Elliott, why bring another goalie into the fold?
For starters, Elliott and his history of injuries is a concern, and Berube has professional experience. In 34 games at the NHL level, Berube has a 3.05 GAA and a .894 save percentage. Not the greatest numbers, but that’s why he isn’t in the NHL, right?
Berube’s signing seems more like an insurance policy in case Elliott goes back down like he did last year. Therefore, he presumably slots into the backup goalie role with the Phantoms.
The first of the European goaltenders coming to North America, Ustimenko has a very solid body of work from his time in Russia. Playing for the MHK Dynamo St. Petersburg, he averaged around 1.78 goals against while posting a .931 save percentage over 126 games over three years.
Ustimenko was a stud in Russia, there’s no two ways about it. He struggled a bit when it came to the playoffs, but he was a big reason why MHK was so successful.
One knock to Ustimenko is his age. Only 20 years old, he is the youngest option in net for the Phantoms. Berube is 27, Lyon is 26, and our fourth option is 22 years of age. If Ustimenko comes into training camp and blows the doors off of the Skate Zone, Scott Gordon and Company may have no choice but to keep him with the Phantoms. Otherwise, he finds himself honing his game in the ECHL with the Reading Royals.
Last, but certainly not least, Felix Sandstrom is primed to potentially nab a spot with the Flyers AHL affiliate this fall. Sandstrom doesn’t have the body of work like Ustimenko, but he has 2 years on him, making him physically more mature, and that could weigh heavily in the decision making process.
Sandstrom averaged roughly 2.38 goals against in his 52 SHL games, and around .908 for his save percentage. An upgrade over someone like J.F. Berube, but seeing how he adjusts to the North American game will likely determine his fate with the Flyers organization.
What fans could see happen is something similar to last year, where the Phantoms rode with three goalies. Anthony Stolarz, Alex Lyon, and Carter Hart all saw the ice with the Phantoms last season. That third goalie could be the contingency plan in case Elliott or Hart get injured with the Flyers.
Common sense says that the Phantoms will be riding with three goalies when the season rolls around. Two of those goalies will most likely be Berube and Lyon. The third spot seems to be up for grabs, and it’s going to be an entertaining battle between Kirill Ustimenko and Felix Sandstrom.
Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports