For the longest time, the crease in Philadelphia was being turned over more than an unwanted Christmas gift. Robert Esche, Brian Boucher, Michael Leighton, Steve Mason, even short-timers like Rob Zepp and Cal Heeter saw time in net for the Flyers.
Those days seem to be over, hopefully.
However, we now enter a period in time where that same uncertainty in net for the Philadelphia Flyers is trickling down to their minor league affiliate in the AHL, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. After the dust settled on General Manager Chuck Fletcher’s first offseason at the helm, the Phantoms have four eligible netminders that could man the crease.
So who is their guy? Who suits up for a majority of their games? Let’s talk roles, and who will fit into those roles entering the 2019-20 season.
The floater will be tasked with playing minimal games at the AHL level, and only plugging in when needed at the NHL level. They will float between the leagues, performing spot duty when called upon. The best goalie for that job is Jean-Francois Berube.
Berube joins the Phantoms on a one year deal, having spent last season with the Columbus Blue Jackets AHL affiliate, the Cleveland Monsters. While there, Berube posted a 21-22-0 record with a .301 goals-against average and a .896 save percentage. His career stats aren’t much to look at, but he comes with experience. While non-waiver exempt, sending Berube back and forth between the AHL and NHL shouldn’t present much of a problem.P
The most interesting position, in terms of who gets it and why, is the starting goalie for the Phantoms. There are two guys who make their case for this position, but only one really has a claim, and it’s incumbent Alex Lyon.
With Lyon entering the last year of his current deal, he will be playing for his career here and should be afforded that chance. While the incoming duo of goalies from Europe offer an intriguing option in net for the Phantoms, Lyon has been a mainstay not just in the crease, but in the locker room as well. His stats are better than Berube, which makes him a better candidate to see more time on the ice than him. The two goalies coming in haven’t seen the ice in North America yet, which means they’ll need some time to adjust. This puts Alex Lyon in the perfect position to man the crease until that adjustment happens.P
Phantoms Backup Goalie
This position is another interesting case. There are two players who will be fighting for this spot, but one is already presumed the guy for it. Felix Sandstrom comes to Lehigh Valley by way of the SHL, a men’s league in Sweden where he faced men older than he. That is what gives Sandstrom the advantage over his counterpart.
Sandstrom will take less time to adjust to the AHL style of play because he has seen players of this caliber before, whereas his counterpart has not. Sandstrom comes fresh off a 10-8-0 year with HV71 Jonkoping, posting a .910 save percentage and 2.16 GAA. Those numbers are solid enough to earn him the job behind Lyon to start the year. By the end of the year, don’t be surprised if we see more of a tandem approach than a starter/backup type approach.T
Odd Man Out/Reading Royals Starting Goalie
The last man on the list is Russian-born Kirill Ustimenko. Ustimenko comes to the Phantoms via the MHL, Russia’s comparable to the CHL in North America. Ustimenko played 46 games for MHK Dynamo St. Petersburg last year. In those games, he posted a stellar 1.78 GAA and .927 save percentage. Ustimenko was the clear starter over fellow netminder Makar Chufarov and played up to the billing.
Ustimenko finds himself as the odd man out in this equation. Lyon’s playing for a contract, Sandstrom has the leg up due to experience, so Ustimenko needs to fit in somewhere. That somewhere is the Reading Royals. This isn’t the end of the world. It’s not a demotion, it’s actually better to get him some ice time in the ECHL as opposed to sitting him on the bench or in the press box at a Phantoms game.
Ustimenko can find his groove in Reading, and he’s afforded that time because of the emergence of Carter Hart, and the timeliness of Felix Sandstrom’s arrival in North America as well. He has the luxury of being able to craft his game at this level in a lower-pressure situation and take the necessary steps towards development without the added pressure of needing to constantly move up the organizational chain.
The uncertainty in the net in Lehigh Valley isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a sign of things to come. With the arrival of Sandstrom and Ustimenko, it makes things a bit more cloudy, sure. However, it also indicates that this franchise is heading in the right direction, and having this problem is much better than the previous problems the franchise has had with their crease.
Mandatory Credit: Alex McIntyre