Throughout the offseason, we’ll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.
Going End to End today are CSNPhilly.com reporters John Boruk, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.
The topic: How should the Flyers employ their two-goalie system?
Ah, Flyers goaltending … a topic that’s always relevant in Philadelphia.
If you follow me on Twitter you would know I certainly didn’t hold back in my assessment and feelings of Steve Mason, who I thought was a middle-of-the-road goaltender despite above-average athleticism for a player of his size. So when general manager Ron Hextall elected to pass on Mason for a cheaper, less drama-filled Brian Elliott, I was all for the move considering it’s a transitional signing before one of the younger prospects is NHL ready.
The history of Flyers goaltending suggests you will need two and very likely three capable goaltenders to make it through an 82-game schedule. Over the past 20 years, would you believe only one Flyers goaltender has made 60 or more starts in a season? Mason started exactly that number in 2013-14 when he finished seventh in Vezina Trophy voting.
Considering Elliott has started 50 or more games only once in his 10-year career and Michal Neuvirth’s career-high is 44 starts in 2010-11, I don’t expect either netminder to be a steady workhorse. Elliott endured a significant “lower-body injury” in February 2016 that took him out of action for a month while Neuvirth was also placed on the long-term injury list with a knee injury back in November. How the starts are divided will depend primarily on health.
If he can stay relatively injury free, then I believe Elliott will receive the majority of starts after a bad start with the Flames last season. He struggled out of the chute while he adjusted to life as a new father. Elliott was dismal through November (13 starts) before he found his stride from December through March propelling the Flames into the postseason with a 23-6-2 record.
Neuvirth, on the other hand, never seemed to get on track despite a stellar 2015-16 year with the Flyers. He had a chance to seize the No. 1 job in late February but failed to do so following back-to-back games against the Capitals and Penguins when he surrendered eight goals in those two games. Neuvirth seems to thrive more when he’s the guy pushing an established No. 1 goalie, as opposed to being the lead horse. Hextall brought him back knowing he needed to expose a goalie in the expansion draft while electing to protect Anthony Stolarz.
So here’s how I see the starts being divided up for the 2017-18 season:
Elliott — 48
Neuvirth — 27
Stolarz/Alex Lyon — 7
Neuvirth has never started more than 29 games in two years with the Flyers. He's never played more than 32 games, either. Yet, the Flyers were comfortable signing him to a two-year contract extension and move on from Steve Mason, a much more reliable goaltender. Neuvirth will be part of a tandem again this season with his partner being Elliott.
I don't see Neuvirth staying healthy again. Until he proves that he can, we can't expect him to play more than 32 games this season. That's not a lot of games. I see the Flyers' goalie situation playing out with Elliott carrying most of the load by default, and either Anthony Stolarz or Alex Lyon seeing NHL action this season too. I just can't trust Neuvirth to stay on the ice. I do, however, expect Neuvirth to be better than his 2016-17 showing.
There was not a single qualified goaltender in the NHL with a worse save percentage than Neuvirth's .891 last season. He can't possibly be any worse this season. (Can he?) Unlike last season, where I saw Mason as the clear-cut No. 1, the separation between Elliott and Neuvirth is not that far apart. I view Elliott as a cheaper Mason, which he is. He's not as good as Mason and he costs about half as much as the former Flyers' goalie.
Before his only season in Calgary — one that was filled with inconsistency — Elliott starred in a tandem role in St. Louis. I don't believe the Flyers will see the Elliott from his Blues day. I think we can expect somewhere in the range of a 2.50 goals-against average and .915 save percentage from the 32-year-old goalie. Not great but not terrible, either.
For me, the Flyers' biggest question this season is their goaltending situation. As long as Neuvirth bounces back to what he was his first season in Philly and Elliott can at least duplicate — if not improve — his numbers from last season, they should be a playoff team.
Neuvirth will get every opportunity to handle the heavier load of playing time.
It will be up to him to hold it.
Of course, he has a track record of injuries. He first needs to prove he can stay healthy, then second show he's far better than how he performed last season.
But there was a real sense of motivation from Neuvirth when he spoke after the 2016-17 campaign ended. He was not happy with himself and admitted there was "extra pressure" because of the contract year and "all the speculating of who's the guy, who's not the guy."
Neuvirth is no longer facing those pressures. I believe he'll come into training camp not only determined but also clearheaded and focused. I think we'll be surprised by the 29-year-old and see more of the 2015-16 Neuvirth, the goalie that went 18-8-4 with a 2.27 goals-against average, .924 save percentage and was terrific in the playoffs.
In writing that, it's hard to predict Neuvirth will stay injury-free when he hasn't shown he can in the past. That's why Elliott was such a wise signing by the Flyers. He's an experienced and dependable goalie who will get his time between the pipes.
Neuvirth should be better, but Elliott will be good, too, because he's had success in all roles. Given what we know about both, expect around a 50-50 split and true tandem in net.
The Flyers obviously believe in Neuvirth. If they didn't, they wouldn't have given him that two-year contract extension last March in the midst of yet another injury-plagued season as Mason held the fort down without any sort of long-term security.
That's enough proof right there that the organization clearly sees him as the No.1 guy coming into the season. The Flyers wanted him. They didn't even want to risk letting him hit the free-agent market.
But there will always be an "if" attached to Neuvirth because of the injury concerns. Thanks in large part to various lower-body issues, Neuvirth has started just 29 and 24 games in his two seasons in Philadelphia. In his career, he's only started more than half the amount of games in a season once, 2010-11 in Washington when he started 44 of the Capitals 82 games. So just once in his nine seasons in the league has Neuvirth started more than half of his team's games.
While the Flyers like Neuvirth, Hextall and staff knew they needed a more reliable option behind Neuvirth than Anthony Stolarz or Alex Lyon or any other young goalie in the system. That can't help but be the mindset when you know the goalie you like just can't stay healthy. Hence bringing in Elliott and his veteran presence as free agency kicked off in July.
To me, there is no doubt that the Flyers' net belongs to Neuvirth when the season gets underway and it's up to him for how long he keeps it. If he can play a consistently solid game in net and, most importantly, stay healthy, there's no reason Dave Hakstol shouldn't allow Neuvirth to take the lion's share of the workload.
But there's that word again when it comes to Neuvirth — "if."
And it's gotten to the point now where the reality is we basically have to prepare for Neuvirth to miss an extended period of time or two with an injury. It's almost like it's built into the schedule anymore.
So I expect Elliott to get his fair share of time in the Flyers' net, too. A two-time All-Star, he's a seasoned pro who has played the platoon role before in St. Louis and knows how to handle all the intricacies that come with it. He'll be ready to step in for those extended periods Neuvirth is known to miss. Elliott has been on that rollercoaster before and it won't phase him if he plays 10 games in a row or has to sit for eight more. He's a pro.
How do I see this playing out this season?
My gut tells me to expect about a 60-40 split in favor of Neuvirth if — there's that word again — he stays healthy.
But that number could easily shift in favor of Elliott (and possibly even more) sooner rather than later.