To those not familiar with the way the matured version of Ron Hextall thinks, it always seemed an oddity that a former No. 1 goaltender would be content with entering an NHL season without a clear No. 1 goaltender, content instead to man the position with two middle-market entities as he has with Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, and as he once had when Steve Mason was here.
Doesn’t seem that odd now, does it? Not after Tuesday’s news that Elliott would be sidelined between five and six weeks after undergoing what the team termed “successful core muscle surgery” Tuesday afternoon in Philadelphia.
What’s unsuccessful core muscle surgery?
You don’t want to know.
“I’ve got a high level of confidence,” Hextall said when asked about the reality of that timeline, in which Elliott would return sometime over the last two weeks of the regular season. “First of all I believe in our training staff. I believe in our doctors and I believe in our player. The player is most important. I know Brian Elliott is a warrior. He’s going to do everything he can to get back. It won’t be the pain threshold that keeps him out longer than he should be. If something comes up, something comes up. But it won’t be him.”
That’s all bravado and good, but no one is calling Claude Giroux, Shayne Gostisbehere or Nolan Patrick wimps, and each struggled far longer than five to six weeks to regain their level of performance. Hextall’s own career dipped and was curtailed by recurring core problems during a time in which there were no specialists such as William Myers treating the injury as a muscle issue and not an organ injury.
Myers performed Tuesday’s surgery, and presumably it is his timeline the Flyers are using. Elliott had been hampered by the injury since just before the all-star break Hextall said, but when he fell to the ice during the Flyers improbable shootout victory over Arizona Saturday night, the die was cast.
Enter Neuvirth, who stopped all three shots he faced in that shutout, then slammed the door on the NHL’s best home team, the Vegas Golden Knights, with a 38-save 4-1 victory Sunday. Neuvirth was back in the nets Tuesday, and with unproven Alex Lyons his backup, is destined to be leaned on heavily over the Flyers’ last 26 games.
“There’s a good level of confidence in both of our guys,’’ Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said Tuesday after the morning skate. “…When you can have Michal Neuvirth step in and do the job that he did in Vegas and has done the majority of the season for us, it’s an area of strength.’’
“When you have two goalies able to step up when you need them to, your confidence – being comfortable on the ice – it’s better,’’ Flyers captain Claude Giroux said.
The Devils, on the other hand, are feeling the hardship of their lack of depth at the goaltending position. Cory Schneider, in the third year of a seven-year deal that pays $6 million annually, has missed the last nine games and is not expected to even resume skating again until next week. The Devils’ nosedive, in which they had lost eight of their last 11 and four in a row entering last night’s game, coincides with that absence.
Their current options are two longtime backups – 30-year-old Swede Eddie Lack, who was in the nets for Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the Bruins, or 28-year-old Keith Kinkaid, who made 44 saves in a 6-1 loss to Columbus on Saturday in his 20th career start.
Combined, the salaries of Elliott ($2.75 million annually through 2018-19) and Neuvirth ($2.5 million through 2018-19) do not add up to the salary the Devils are on the hook for through 2021-22 for Schneider. Already 31, he averaged 62 games over the three seasons previous to this one – all of which ended without a playoff appearance.
The Flyers, meanwhile, soldier on, banking on Elliott’s eventual recovery or the continuance of good Neuvy. Neither is the safest of bets. But for now, at least, you’d rather have Hextall’s hand than that of New Jersey general manager Ray Shero.
But that doesn’t imply a hold. Although he did not say it, exploring a trade for goaltending depth was likely why the severity of Elliott’s injury was not disclosed over the last three days. The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 26, less than two weeks from now.
“I can’t say I’ll go with the 23 guys on our roster right now because I don’t know what might come up,” Hextall said. “I’ll repeat what I always say: If we can make our team better at any position we’ll look at it… That said, we like our team, we like what we’ve done. In saying that we’ve got to keep pushing. Neuvy is very capable. He’s played some very good games for us this year. Some other ones haven’t been that great. But if he can get on a roll right here and get some consistency and do a good job for us, we’ll be fine.”