The Flyers have been looking for that evasive franchise goaltender ever since Ron Hextall last graced the net over twenty years ago. Now it’s Hextall who is in charge of finding a long-term answer in between the pipes. Since Hextall took over the role of general manager in 2014, he has been forced to ride stopgap goaltenders such as Steve Mason, Ray Emery, Michal Neuvirth, and Brian Elliott, while going through the process of finding a franchise netminder. Now, Hextall finds himself in a bit of a predicament – albeit a good problem to have – with many goaltenders under contract or under control of the team, including multiple prospects who are ready to turn pro.
So, who will be vying for a spot with the Flyers? Who could be sent packing and where will the rest of them wind up?
One thing that is fairly certain is that Brian Elliott will be one of the two Flyers goaltenders in 2018-19, as he will play out the final year of a two-year/$5.5 million deal he signed last summer. Before being placed on injured reserve in early February, Elliott provided solid – and sometimes great – goaltending in 41 appearances as the Flyers’ top goaltender, going 21-11-7 while posting a 2.72 GAA and a .908 save percentage. Elliott will be back in much of the same role he has played this season as a ‘1A’ option.
Most were extremely confused when Hextall signed Michal Neuvirth to a two-year deal worth $5 million last March, during one of Neuvirth’s worst seasons of his career. While Neuvirth’s numbers have improved this season – 2.61 GAA and .915 save percentage in 21 appearances – it has been much of the same from Neuvirth: inconsistency and constant injuries. This has been the story for almost all of Neuvirth’s nine-year career, and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon.
As aforementioned, Neuvirth is on a two-year contract that will expire after next season. For the time being, he will have a $2.5 million cap hit for the Flyers in 2018-19. Rumors speculated earlier this season that the Flyers were done with Neuvirth because of his inability to stay on the ice, but nothing has materialized just yet. The Flyers could possibly move on if Hextall chooses to buyout Neuvirth’s contract, which would cost the Flyers $1.5 million over the next two seasons, or he could move him in a trade if there is any possible interest.
With plenty of goalies waiting in the wings and Neuvirth’s injury history, there is a good chance Neuvirth could be in his last season with Philadelphia.
Much like Neuvirth, Mrazek has been consistently inconsistent. At times, he looks like he couldn’t save a beach ball, but he has also singlehandedly won the Flyers a few games since joining the team in early March. You can see why Hextall initially turned down the Red Wings offer of Mrazek for a third-round pick, as the 26-year-old netminder still has many technical flaws in his game and, if it weren’t for an injury to Michal Neuvirth, Mrazek would still be in Detroit.
With Mrazek on the last year of his contract and set to be a restricted free agent, Hextall will probably look to an in-house option to back up Brian Elliott. Unless Mrazek wows the Flyers over the final stretch of the season and possibly helps the Flyers make a run in the playoffs, Hextall will likely part ways with Mrazek, which will allow the Flyers to keep their conditional 2019 third-round pick that would have been sent to Detroit if Mrazek re-signed with Philadelphia.
After impressing in limited starts with the Flyers towards the end of last season, Stolarz re-signed with the Flyers on a one-year deal, setting himself up for the most crucial season of his young career. Unfortunately for Stolarz, he didn’t make it to training camp, as he suffered a meniscus tear while getting into his car. This was the second meniscus tear of the 24-year-old Stolarz’s career and it has kept him off the ice until just a few weeks ago, when he was assigned to the ECHL Reading Royals for a rehab stint, where he fared very well. Now, Stolarz has re-joined the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and will likely get playing time in the near future.
This freak injury could cost Stolarz dearly, as this season was supposed to be the year he proved himself worthy of staying with the Flyers long-term. He would have likely been called up before Alex Lyon and given the chance to start with Elliott and Neuvirth both going down for over a month.
Now, Stolarz, who will be a restricted free agent this summer, will have to hope Hextall still believes in him enough to re-up his deal to give him another chance to possibly earn a spot with the Flyers, or to be the Phantoms’ number one, giving him the opportunity to show that he can be the answer to the Flyers’ never-ending goaltending carousel.
The biggest beneficiary of the injuries to Elliott and Neuvirth has been Alex Lyon, who has played fairly well in his first 11 appearances with the Flyers – posting a 2.75 GAA and a .905 save percentage. Lyon has been called upon multiple times in relief of Petr Mrazek, and given the Flyers a fighter’s chance. Like Stolarz, Lyon is also an impending restricted free agent. Since signing with the Flyers after his last season with Yale in 2016, Lyon has spent much of his time with Leigh Valley, where he has made 75 appearances, including two playoff starts. Lyon was an above-average goalie in the AHL and has filled in well with the Flyers, but has shown that he has much to learn, especially when playing against great teams like Pittsburgh, where he was pulled after two periods last Saturday.
Whether Lyon stays or not will depend on multiple variables; the most notable one being if Anthony Stolarz returns to the team, as well as what the team plans to do with Felix Sandstrom – who signed his ELC on Monday – and top goaltending prospect Carter Hart, who is in his last year of junior eligibility and will be turning pro next year. It is almost guaranteed that Hart will be one of the two goalies in Lehigh Valley next season, so that leaves one spot for either Alex Lyon, Anthony Stolarz, or possibly Felix Sandstrom, if the team decides not to loan him back to his junior team.
Since being selected by the Flyers in the third round of the 2015 draft, Sandstrom has split time between Brynas IF and HV71 in the Swedish Hockey League. The 21-year-old Sandstrom also made 11 appearances in last year’s World Junior Championships, where he posted a 1.98 GAA and .928 save percentage and took home the award for best goalkeeper in the tournament.
The timing of this signing is a bit odd, as Sandstrom had another year of junior eligibility left and if, he were to stay in the SHL next season, it would burn a year off his ELC. We won’t know exactly where Sandstrom will end up until Hextall decides what to do with the plethora of goaltenders he has to choose from.
The crown jewel of the Flyers’ goaltending prospects – and of the team’s entire prospect pool – is Carter Hart. He has shown that he is the real deal since the Flyers selected him in the second round of the 2016 draft. The 19-year-old Hart has dominated the WHL during his four full years with the Everett Silvertips, taking home back-to-back WHL Goalie of the Year Awards and becoming one of the top prospects in all of the NHL.
Hart has also appeared in the last two World Junior Championships, where he collected a silver medal in 2016 – registering a 2.38 GAA and a .906 save percentage in four starts – and a gold medal in 2017 – posting a 1.81 GAA and a .930 save percentage in six starts.
Hart is in the last year of his junior eligibility and will undoubtedly be signed to an entry-league contract in the near future. He will likely spend next season in the AHL with Lehigh Valley before his eventual call-up to the Flyers.
Hart is the Flyers’ most prestigious goaltending prospect in quite some time, and Hextall will most definitely give him time to mature in the AHL, but he will have a lot riding on Hart panning out and being the Flyers’ answer to a never-ending franchise goaltender search.