By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
What would the Philadelphia Flyers be without a goalie controversy? As the 2017-18 season starts to wind down, it’s time to start looking at what next season will hold for the Flyers. While there are plenty of battles among forwards and defensemen, the real question is what will the goaltending look like?
As of the writing of this article, Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth are the only two goalies signed for next season. While Carter Hart is set to make his jump to the AHL, that leaves one AHL spot open for the taking. Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple. Three of the goaltenders in the Flyers system are restricted free agents, and two are unrestricted. Petr Mrazek, Anthony Stolarz, and Alex Lyon are all RFA’s come summer and that leaves big questions surrounding the future.
It seems as though the only goalie guaranteed to be a Flyer next season is Brian Elliott. “Moose” has struggled to earn the full-time starting gig wherever he has played, but he took the starting reigns in Philadelphia and never relinquished them. While his numbers are pedestrian at best (.908 SV% 2.72 GAA) he made the big time saves, something the Flyers have lost since he went down with an injury in mid-February. Elliott is signed through next season and is essentially serving as a stop-gap while the Flyers wait for their prospects to be ready.
Petr Mrazek was acquired from the Detroit Red Wings ahead of the trade deadline to provide a veteran starter role after Elliott and Neuvirth went down with long-term injuries. While he hasn’t provided the stability that was expected, he has come as advertised. Through 12 games with the Flyers he owns a .885 SV% and 3.27 GAA with one shutout. His numbers with Detroit were better, but his style of play has remained the same. Mrazek’s biggest critique has been his lack of consistency, as he goes from a red-hot starter to a fringe NHLer from game-to-game.
Anthony Stolarz was one of the Flyers cherished prospects for a while, but recently the shine has seems to have worn off. Stolarz tore his meniscus before the start of the 2017-18 season and has gone on to miss almost the whole year. While he is working back to an AHL start, let’s focus on the 2016-17 season.
Stolarz played 26 games for the Phantoms during that season finishing with an .911 SV% and 2.92 GAA. He served two separate stints as the Flyers backup goalie due to injuries to both Neuvirth and Mason, seeing action in seven games and putting up decent numbers (.928 SV% and 2.08 GAA with two shutouts). That said, his status with the big club was called into question as he spent far more time on the bench than he did playing, even though he performed well when he got the call.
Which brings us back to his injury. The question regarding his value to the franchise is still left in limbo as there is no way to tell what kind of role he would’ve served in wake of the injuries to Elliott and Neuivrth. With prized prospect Carter Hart on the horizon, Stolarz could become expendable as he isn’t the top prospect anymore.
Alex Lyon went undrafted but thanks to his standout seasons at Yale, he signed an entry-level contract with the Flyers in 2016. Lyon was thrust into the starting role for the Phantoms during the 2016-17 season when Stolarz was recalled by the Flyers. This year, he was again asked be the starter due to Stolarz’s injury. He’s posted fairly similar AHL numbers over the past two seasons (.912 SV%, 2.74 GAA in 2016-17 and .911 SV%, 2.83 GAA in 2017-18).
Lyon finally got a chance to make his NHL debut this season due to Elliott and Neuvirth injuries and yet again rose to the occasion. With ten NHL games under his belts (six starts) he has recorded a .914 SV% and 2.49 GAA and continues to grow as a player. The major question is has he passed Stolarz on the depth chart?
That’s where the future gets a little foggy. Michal Neuvirth is about as injury-prone as a player can be, and it seems as though the organization has caught on. Does he finish the last year of his contract backing up Elliott and his inevitable injury giving Lyon or Stolarz ice time? Or does the team either trade him or buy him out and sign Mrazek as the backup? Or do one of Lyon/Stolarz take the backup role? And which one of the Lyon/Stolarz duo is favored anyway?
As of right now, it is probably safe to say Mrazek will not be re-signed as he has not turned heads like the team has hoped. Making it even less likely is that as a restricted free agent currently making $4 million, the club will have to tender him an offer worth $4.5 million to retain his rights.
Even with Mrazek out of the picture, that doesn’t solve the problem.
While the thought of moving on from Neuvirth sounds ideal due to his injury history, when healthy he has been reliable as a backup, which makes his situation particularly frustrating. Mrazek doesn’t seem to pose a threat to his backup role, and considering the continued preaching of patience from Ron Hextall, it is possible that neither Lyon nor Stolarz makes a push to be the full-time NHL backup.
Due to Stolarz missing the season with an injury it’s hard to tell if the worry of him falling out of favor with the organization is true or not. His benching could have had Hakstol’s finger prints all over it and may not necessarily reflect how Hextall sees him, but if that’s the case, he still has to essentially start over to come back from his injury. Not only that but has Lyon’s emergence and the stud known as Carter Hart pushed him down the depth chart?
Speaking of Carter Hart, he is ready to make his leap to the Phantoms and should immediately make a splash. They may not want him to make the leap to a full-time starting role but rather split minutes with someone. Even if that’s the case it shouldn’t take long for him to earn the lions share of the minutes, and that raises yet another flag.
If Hart quickly earns the Phantoms starting role, and Neuvirth keeps the backup role, that means one of Lyon or Stolarz would be left as the AHL backup. Considering the caliber of both, that’s not ideal, but it would make calling them up during Neuivrth’s inevitable injury easier.
Personally, My guess is Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth are the Flyers goalies next season while Lyon and Hart patrol the crease for the Phantoms. I think Stolarz has the higher ceiling between the two, but Lyon has shown to be extremely adaptable to whatever situation he has been thrown into. What does that mean for Stolarz? Well they could always trade his rights this summer as there are plenty of teams that would want a potential future starter which could land the Flyers a fairly high draft pick.
One goaltender that hasn’t been mentioned is prospect Felix Sandstrom. Unfortunately his season has been derailed by a hiatal hernia injury. The original plan was for the just-turned-21-year-old to head to the states after this season, but considering he has played just 18 games in the 2017-18 season there is a possibility he stays in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) another year to regain his footing before making the jump to America. His immediate future is unknown, but the longterm goal is still for him to eventually be Carter Hart’s backup in the NHL.
All in all the Flyers goaltending situation is complicated right now as the changing of the guard hasn’t been as smooth as desired. The future is bright but the path to get to the dream tandem of Hart and Sandstrom is still multiple years away. In the meantime it’s up to Hextall to make some hard choices to keep the team competitive, keep the more developed prospects growing, and keep the up-and-coming youth ready to take adequate roles.