Goaltending was never going to be the Philadelphia Flyers’ strong suit this season. That much we knew coming into the campaign.
Last season, the Flyers’ crease was composed of Brian Elliott, Michael Neuvirth, Petr Mrazek and Alex Lyon. The not-so-fearsome foursome finished with a combined .907 save percentage, which was one of the more mediocre marks in the NHL. And with Elliott and Neuvirth returning this season, and Lyon expected to be high on the list of call-ups, the expectation was that on some nights — maybe even most nights — Philadelphia would have to win in spite of their goaltending. But it’s hard to imagine anyone foresaw the Flyers’ netminding being quite as bad as it has been through one-third of the 2018-19 season.
On Wednesday night in Calgary, Philadelphia appeared to have a 5-3 victory all but sewn up. With less than 90 seconds remaining and a two-goal lead to work with, though, the Flyers managed to watch a sure-victory slip through their fingers. A seeing-eye shot from Rasmus Andersson, a rebound attempt from Sean Monahan and a net-front tap-in from Johnny Gaudreau later flipped the script. The Flames skated away with a 6-5 overtime victory, and Flyers with a sense of bewilderment at dropping a contest that had all the makings of a good road win.
The loss was indicative of what has been true almost since the start of the season for the Flyers: they’re not getting the saves when they need them, and finding help in goal has become of paramount importance if they’re to have any chance of turning this season around.
True as it may be that the Flames’ three successive goals are hard to blame on Philadelphia netminder Anthony Stolarz — those rebounds could have been cleared and traffic in front meant he had little chance to get his eyes on Andersson’s blast — it doesn’t change the fact that, following Wednesday’s game, the Flyers now boast the league’s very-worst combined SP. Between Stolarz, Neuvirth, Elliott, Lyon and Calvin Pickard, who was picked up off waivers early in the year and later waived by Philadelphia, the Flyers have received a combined .883 SP out of the keepers who have taken the crease this season. To put that into perspective, the next-worst combined SP is the Florida Panthers’ .892 mark. The Flyers are dead-last in the league by nearly 10 points.
In the interest of fairness, it should be said that not all five goaltenders have been wholly responsible for Philadelphia’s shortcomings. In fact, Brian Elliott has been fine, and compared to a number of other starters throughout the league, you could argue that he’s actually bordered on good. His .911 save percentage is four points above the league average and puts Elliott in 17th-place among the 32 goaltenders with at least a dozen games played, ahead of keepers such as Connor Hellebuyck, Devan Dubnyk and Marc-Andre Fleury. The issue hasn’t necessarily been Elliott’s play, though. Rather, it’s his inability to stay healthy. He hasn’t played since Nov. 15, and the Flyers’ crease has been an utter disaster in the time since.
To wit, since Elliott fell injured, Philadelphia has trotted out Stolarz, Pickard, Lyon and Neuvirth. The combined performance? A league-worst .850 SP. That’s not going to win many hockey games.
The good news, of course, is that Elliott is nearing a return. But the bad news is that the veteran keeper hasn’t played so over-his-head outstanding since his arrival in Philadelphia that it inspires confidence he can steal games and propel this club back into a post-season position. And that means now, with the window for this team to make the playoffs this season closing at a rapid rate, it has to be on newly minted GM Chuck Fletcher to dive into the playbook of the man who hired him, Paul Holmgren, and make a bold move on the trade market. He has to acquire a goaltender, and he has to do so fast.
Fletcher has a track record finding such help between the pipes, too. Arguably the single-best goaltending acquisition of the past few years came when Fletcher orchestrated the Minnesota Wild’s acquisition of Dubnyk from the Arizona Coyotes for a third-round pick. At the time of the Dubnyk acquisition, he had a .916 SP in 19 appearances for the Coyotes shortly after the mid-season mark. He was the clear second-stringer behind Mike Smith. Brought in by Fletcher, though, Dubnyk promptly turned things around for Minnesota, propelled the Wild to a post-season berth and earned Hart Trophy and Vezina Trophy consideration. He’s remained a stalwart for Minnesota in the years since.
Having lightning strike twice and making another crease-saving pickup will be exceedingly difficult, however. That’s not to say there aren’t a few netminders with potential to be that goaltender for the Flyers. But there are a few schools of thought.
The first would see Philadelphia pursue a relatively cheap netminder with upside and potential to be the fix not just now, but for at least a few seasons. For that, a pair of options come to mind: the San Jose Sharks’ Aaron Dell and Buffalo Sabres’ Linus Ullmark.
With the Sharks are locked into a long-term deal with Martin Jones, Dell could be expendable and dangling him out in front of a Flyers team that needs goaltending might be one way for the Sharks to get a decent piece for the backup before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in two seasons’ time. Has he been outstanding this season? Not quite. His .901 SP in 10 appearances would only narrowly put him ahead of Stolarz (.889 SP) in terms of performance, but Dell does have a career .917 SP in 49 starts and 59 games played.
Like Dell, Ullmark is stuck behind Carter Hutton and it appears it will remain that way for the foreseeable future given the three-year deal the veteran netminder signed in the off-season. Ullmark’s .912 SP is better than that of any other Flyers keeper and one wonders if he wouldn’t be able to flourish in Philadelphia. The 25-year-old still has some notable upside, and if the Flyers were willing to flip a pick and a backup-calibre goaltender the other way, it might be enough to at least get the ball rolling with Buffalo. It would seem the future of the crease is on its way in the form of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, which means Ullmark could be expendable down the line, anyway.
Then, there’s the true, veteran stop-gap option. And would anyone fit the bill in that role quite like the Detroit Red Wings’ Jimmy Howard? The soon-to-be 35-year-old is drawing interest around the league for good reason. He has a .923 SP through 22 games and has one of the best overall goals saved above average (GSAA) marks in the league, 11.1, which is a measure of performance as compared to league-average keepers. Given the bulk of the crease is headed for free agency, re-signing Howard could be an option at season’s end and he could be useful in the interim as Philadelphia awaits the rise of projected future starter Carter Hart, who has only just begun his pro career down in AHL Lehigh Valley. The reported first-round pick price tag is the only drawback here, but the Flyers have a well-stocked cupboard that might allow them to part ways with a high pick.
And finally, there’s the swing-for-the-fences possibilities, however unlikely they may be. The Columbus Blue Jackets, for instance, know that they may not be able to retain the services of Sergei Bobrovsky. Is it possible that he could reunite with the Flyers? It’s going to cost a lot — we’re talking high-round picks and prospects, particularly given Philadelphia is a division rival — but Bobrovsky could be an answer today, tomorrow and into the future. But if that doesn’t work, would it be possible for the Flyers to persuade, say, the New Jersey Devils into moving one of Cory Schneider or Keith Kinkaid? Or how about the league-basement Chicago Blackhawks into moving Corey Crawford, whose contract will expire in two seasons’ time? All will require some serious returns, but possibly ones that an anxious Flyers front office would consider as the season slips away.
No matter how the goaltending situation is addressed, though, it’s clear Philadelphia needs to do something soon. Few things can sink a season as quickly as poor goaltending, and the Flyers’ fate won’t change unless the play between the pipes changes first.