Philadelphia Flyers need an answer at goalie before season is lost

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(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia Flyers are struggling yet again with inconsistency from their goaltenders, and they could find their season slipping away because of it.

There are few positions in sports where a player can literally will a team to victory. The quarterback in professional football is widely considered to be the most impactful and most important position in all of sports. A quarterback is so essential to his team’s success that it becomes rare to see a franchise win a world championship without a quarterback playing at a moderately high level. There are exceptions, but again, they are rare.

Another position that has long been said to be so crucial to a team’s success is that of the goaltender in hockey, as Philadelphia Flyers fans can attest to. While the goaltender doesn’t account for much of the team’s offense the same way that a quarterback does, they do represent the last line of defense. When all else fails, the goalie is there to stand on his head, stack the pads, or make the diving glove save to keep his team in the game.

It’s a position that requires nerves of steel and cat-like reflexes, in addition to the shortest of memories. A great goalie is one that can shake off a bad goal and refocus, preparing for the next save opportunity. It’s a position that’s as much mental as it is physical.

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If you look back through the past 30-40 years of Stanley Cup winning teams, you’ll probably find an excellent goaltender on each of those teams. Sure, like football, there are the Trent Dilfer exceptions, that is, the rare occasions where the rest of the team is so good, that the team can prevail despite being average at the position.

But if you want to win a Stanley Cup, odds are, you will need to be better than average in net.

The Philadelphia Flyers have had a few legendary goaltenders wear the orange and black sweater, namely the great Bernie Parent, now-general manager Ron Hextall, and the late Pelle Lindbergh, who died tragically in a car accident before his career could reach the heights of greatness. But outside of those three men, the Flyers cannot honestly say they’ve enjoyed a long, rich tradition of top-notch goalie play year in and year out.

There were some bright spots, such as the enigmatic Roman Cechmanek, the aging John Vanbiesbrouck, and veteran guys like Marty Biron and Brian Boucher, but none of these aforementioned netminders ever played at a level high enough to bring the Flyers a championship.

There was Michael Leighton, whose heroic efforts to swoop in and save the 2009-10 season after Ray Emery went down with a hip injury led to that celebrated run at the Stanley Cup. But that’s basically where the story ends for Leighton, and it doesn’t do anyone much good to revisit up what happened in that final game.

Then there was the fascinating Ilya Bryzgalov era, where Paul Holmgren at least attempted to go out and get a big name goalie, gifting the talented but eccentric Russian with a 10 year, $50 million contract that turned out to be a giant flop. Flyers fans still have trouble ridding themselves of the image of Bryz ducking at an incoming wrist shot that whizzed by his head. It goes without saying that Bryzgalov’s time in Philadelphia was short-lived.

The Flyers just have never been a team that, outside of Hextall and Parent, possessed an elite level goaltender that teams had to worry about coming into a game. It’s arguably impressive that the Flyers remained such a consistently good franchise despite that fact.

So after enduring the last 30 or so years in which the Flyers have failed to develop a homegrown goalie prospect, one that could one day blossom into a franchise player, the team now finds itself at a crossroads of sorts.

On one side of the road, the side that appears to be farther away stands the organization’s number one prospect, Carter Hart. The former Everett Silvertip has long been considered to be the Flyer’s savior in net, the chosen one who will come along and help usher in a new era of Flyers hockey. One that hopefully culminates in a Stanley Cup.

On the other side of that road, however, sits the current Philadelphia Flyers organization and team that is off to quite an underwhelming start to the season after much hope that the team would be vastly improved coming into the year. The team’s poor start can be attributed to a number of things including poor starts, bad defensive zone play, and a porous penalty kill.

But one other issue that, unsurprisingly, continues to plague the Flyers is that of goaltending. The current trio of Brian Elliot, Cal Pickard, and Michal Neuvirth is currently, at the time of writing this piece, the lowest performing goalie group in the entire NHL. Collectively, this group has a 4.53 GAA and a supremely poor SV% of .824. These numbers aren’t just low; they are historically bad.

Elliot is trying to hold it together, but at 33, he’s just an average to above average goalie on his best nights. With a confident and defensively responsible team in front of him, Elliot is perfectly capable of backing a team to a win on most nights.

Unfortunately, that’s not been the case. And while much of the Flyers’ poor start doesn’t directly fall at the feet of the goalie group, they haven’t exactly been one of the reasons for optimism either. Sometimes you need a goalie to steal you a game. Right now, there’s no one on the Flyers who can do that. And now, with Elliot having been hurt at practice over the weekend (via Sam Carchidi,, the situation will get even cloudier.

Pickard is a career backup, and while he showed some promise in his first few starts, it’s not hard to see why Toronto had him fourth on their organizational depth chart. He’s fine, just not anything special. There’s a chance he remains on the roster moving forward, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Alex Lyon and Anthony Stolarz are also in the system, but both are returning from injury and fighting for playing time at the minor level along with Hart. Lyon has shown an ability to hold down the fort when needed, but Stolarz hasn’t really had the opportunity to play in any meaningful games. Organizationally, it’s a bit of a logjam with six goalies under contract and only four true spots.

It’s not an ideal position for Hextall, as he would probably be content with rostering guys he knows he can trust, but carrying this many goaltenders is a move that has been necessitated by the uncertainty surrounding all of the injuries at the position.

And that brings us to Neuvirth, the walking epitome of M. Night Shyamalan’s infamous villain “Mr. Glass”. It is absolutely shocking how little the Flyers have gotten out of Neuvirth since he arrived in Philadelphia. The oft-injured netminder has been plagued with injuries for the past several seasons. Every time he is healthy, it feels like it’s not long before he goes back down with another malady.

Neuvirth was hurt for parts of the 2017-18 season, and during that time much of the fan base had begun to grow tired of him. The thought coming into 2018-19 was that Neuvirth needed to come to camp healthy, and stay that way to keep his spot on the roster.

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, Neuvirth was hurt in camp and has only since returned for one game, before news broke on Sunday that the embattled Czech was heading back on IR (via Sam Carchidi, It’s been a genuinely unbelievable sequence of events for Neuvirth, who at this juncture, just cannot be relied on in any capacity and needs to be sent down and cut at the end of the season. The Flyers cannot spend any more time hoping and waiting for him to come around.

What’s frustrating is that Neuvirth has shown an ability to be a pretty good goaltender when healthy. In 2015-16, his first year with the team, Neuvirth started 32 games with a .927 SV% and 2.27 GAA.  Last season, Neuvirth only played in 22 contests, but in those contests he graded out reasonably well, ending up with a .915 SV% and 2.60 GAA. Not elite numbers, but pretty good nonetheless. That’s what’s frustrating about the Czech netminder. If he could only stay healthy, the Flyers could probably ride him as their number one.

That is obviously not the case moving forward, and Neuvirth’s latest injury should be all the proof Hextall needs to finally make the decision to move on. The Flyers’ goalie situation is becoming an embarrassment, and it’s fair to question how far this team can truly go with any of the netminders currently on the roster.

Bridging the gap to Hart was always going to require patience. Goalies just take longer to mature and adapt to the speed of the pro game. But the Flyers are seemingly at a crossroads regarding how they view the position of the goaltender with regards to the current team. Either Hextall believes this team can compete now and needs to help them do so via trade or call-up, or he views the team as still a year away from being a year away, and thus making a move right now is not part of the organization’s long-term plans.

Believe it or not, there are some things that Hextall can do as GM to address this situation now before it truly spirals out of control. It almost feels like he has to do something because to allow the team to continue with a rotating carousel of subpar goalies would be considered negligent and a disservice to his club.

One thing Hextall could do is look into making a trade.

The Nashville Predators just locked up Pekka Rinne to a two-year deal that will pay him $10 million, so they clearly view Rinne as their starter for at least a few more years. Hextall could inquire about the price for backup Jusse Saros, who showed some real promise during the playoffs last year when Rinne struggled.

In 26 games played last season, the 23-year-old Saros posted a .925 SV% and 2.45 GAA, pretty respectable numbers for a backup. Saros also has a pretty friendly cap hit at $1.5 million a year until 2021-22 when he will become a restricted free agent. Nashville could ask for a prospect and a young forward in return, so it would depend on what Hextall would be willing to part with in order to save this season and beyond. Saros would automatically become the Flyers’ starting goaltender until Hart proves himself ready.

Speaking of Hart, calling him up is another possibility at some point this season, but right now it’s virtually a non-option. Hart is struggling so far this season, but so are the Phantoms in general. Hart’s numbers are not pretty through six games. He’s carrying a 3.77 GAA with a .882 SV%. Not exactly what you want to see from your future franchise goalie, but it’s still early and certainly not time to panic about the youngster. That being said, his play would need to improve significantly for Hextall to even consider him this season.

Other notable netminders who have shown some promise this season include Darcy Keumper of the Arizona Coyotes, Linus Ullmark of the Buffalo Sabres, and Anders Nilsson of the Vancouver Canucks.

Hextall certainly should be having conversations with other GM’s at this point, even if the price is too high for a trade. Hextall has not been so willing to make trades in the past, and there’s little reason to believe he’d do that now. Again, it all depends on how Hextall views this current goalie situation. Odds are, he can’t feel great about it, and he certainly has to be out of patience with regard to Neuvirth.

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All in all, Hextall needs to decide if now is the time to make a move before the Flyers dig themselves into a deeper hole. They have played better on their west coast road trip, but they are still struggling in the defensive zone, on the PK, and with getting consistently good goaltending. Should the Flyers endure another injury or string of poor play from any of their goalies, Hextall may have no choice but to address the situation carefully but aggressively.