One of the oldest and most revered maxims in the NHL – a league that doesn’t invent new ones very often – is that a team with two goaltenders has no goaltenders. It doesn’t always work that way in the regular season these days, not with the schedule and travel demands of the modern game, but in the playoffs a team needs a horse it can reliably ride into the depths of May and June.
As the Flyers continue to build slowly toward contention, not to mention merely making the postseason, general manager Ron Hextall admitted by his actions during free agency that his team isn’t close to solving its goalie conundrum. The Flyers have time to sort it out, but don’t expect the current combination of Michal Neuvirth and Brian Elliott, a 32-year-old just signed to a short-term contract, to still be around when they do.
It isn’t as if Hextall had many better options when the free-agent period opened July 1, or whether this was the moment in the team’s development to take a bigger plunge if there had been. But for all the future excitement of selecting center Nolan Patrick with the second pick in the draft, the addition of Elliott to replace Steve Mason was only a minor key note for the present.
Mason could have been re-signed, but the Flyers haven’t been sold on him since he played poorly in the brief 2016 playoff appearance, and he clearly didn’t like sharing the job with Neuvirth and sometimes let his frustration show. Hextall might not have been making a point when he called Elliott a “good team guy” after the two-year, $5.5-million signing, but the Flyers do put a lot of value in keeping one’s thoughts to oneself.
“I’m not going to sit and compare Brian to Mase. I can tell you we’re extremely excited to have Brian,” Hextall told reporters after the deal was completed. “He’s a very competitive guy, and he has a really good work ethic. He played in a tandem in St. Louis prior to Calgary, so he’s played very well in a structured system.”
The plan is to platoon Elliott and Neuvirth, at least as long as Neuvirth is healthy, which is never a given. Neuvirth hasn’t played more than 40 NHL games in a season since 2010-11 with Washington. As Hextall said, Elliott has done this dance before and maybe it’s not his preference, but he did sign the contract.
“I’ve kind of been in the same type of situation my whole career,”’ Elliott said to reporters. “Obviously, I want to play as many games as (I) can. … I’m assuming that if you’re going to keep winning, you’re going to stay in the net.”
Well, sure, but the Flyers aren’t built for sustained winning just yet as they retool under Hextall. The team hasn’t won a playoff series in the last five seasons, and is mediocre in almost every offensive and defensive team statistic, a middle-of-the-road club with little depth that tends to get run over when the back end of its forward and defensive lines are on the ice.
In any case, sinking huge bucks or a long-term commitment into a goalie right now makes no sense. For one thing, good ones are only rarely on the market. Montreal just locked up Carey Price, who was about to enter his final contract year, to an extension that binds them until 2024.
The free-agent crop in front of Hextall, not counting Mason, included guys like Ryan Miller (36 years old), Jonathan Bernier (career underachiever), Antti Niemi (34), Anders Nilsson (five teams in five years) and the like. Given the company, Elliott was a perfectly reasonable and economical choice.
So what’s the answer? Down the road, the Flyers are hoping that one of their recent draft picks – Felix Sandstrom, Carter Hart or the just-drafted Kirill Ustimenko – can turn into something. Hart is coming off a very good season in the Western Hockey League (1.99 GAA, .927 SV%), but he’s just 18 and it’s the WHL. They are also watching the Phantoms tandem of Jersey boy Anthony Stolarz and Alex Lyon. Both are still relatively young. There hasn’t been anything yet to suggest brilliance is on the way, although that could change.
It is a position that requires patience to develop. Hextall, if nothing else, has revealed himself to be a patient man in his job, and few hockey executives understand as well the difficulty of goaltending. He also is well-versed in the franchise’s struggles to find the right goalie to replace Bernie Parent.
Hextall is a hockey guy through and through. He knows that a team can’t compete at the highest level in the NHL without a goaltender. And he also knows that a team can never get it done with two.