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: Between goalie prospects Alex Lyon and Anthony Stolarz, who gets the first call to the Flyers?
Unlike our recent round-robin discussion surrounding Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers, I think this one is a little more clear-cut. Stolarz proved last season he can be a competent backup capable of making the occasional spot start. Perhaps more than anything, his play in net was deserving of a few more starts after contributing to the Flyers' 10-game win streak, highlighted by his shutout over the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena in December.
Unquestionably, Stolarz is also the more coveted prospect of the two goaltenders. He was the third netminder selected in the 2012 draft and general manager Ron Hextall felt the need to protect Stolarz in the expansion draft, regardless of whether Vegas had more established goalies to choose from. I remember seeing Stolarz play an exhibition game a few years ago with the Flyers when his mobility was lacking, and I wasn’t quite sure he was athletic enough for a player of his size. Now it’s pretty obvious he has refined his game and his positioning in the five years since he was drafted.
On the other hand, Lyon signed with the Flyers as an undrafted free agent following a superb career at Yale University, and after speaking with him back in April, you quickly realize he’s also the smartest guy in the room ... in a good way. Lyon clearly gets it. He understands his place within the organization and admitted how impressed he was watching prospect Carter Hart, who came to Lehigh Valley for a brief stint at the end of this past season.
What makes this interesting for 2017-18 is, first, when will the Flyers need to make a minor-league call-up? And second, which of these two goalies will bounce back the quickest after suffering season-ending injuries? Stolarz tore the MCL in his knee, which required surgery, while Lyon also injured his leg, although not as seriously. If healthy, Stolarz will start the AHL season as the Phantoms' top goalie and it will be interesting to see how the workload will be split between the two netminders, but as of right now, Stolarz is next in line behind Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth.
Lyon vs. Stolarz will be a competition to keep tabs on all season. The winner gets another contract and potentially a shot at an NHL backup job in 2018-19 (read more about why here). Both signed one-year contracts July 15. It’s clear Hextall is pitting the two against each other one final time. He wants to see which one comes out on top. I’m betting on Lyon.
I don’t get the sense the Flyers are all that high on Stolarz. I’m not either. Hextall’s reluctance to even consider Stolarz as a backup this season is a telling sign. He’s repeatedly said this summer that if he had a Marty Brodeur type of a goalie, he would have considered Stolarz. Instead, they have Neuvirth, whose injury history is too rich to not have an NHL veteran as his goaltending partner, and Elliott, whom they signed July 1.
So it will be another season, his fourth, in the AHL for Stolarz, who turns 24 in January. Last season, Stolarz performed well in an extremely small sample size with the Flyers, but it wasn’t enough to change the minds of management. They don’t believe he’s ready. He played last season because of injury to others. It’s a safe bet those circumstances arise again.
Either Lyon or Stolarz will see some NHL action this season. Until Neuvirth proves he can stay healthy, we can’t count on him actually staying healthy. Stolarz’s AHL numbers haven’t screamed future No. 1 goalie. He’s not that. I don’t believe the Flyers see him as that, either. He’s an NHL backup with a 1-B ceiling.
That is not saying that I believe Lyon will be a No. 1 goalie, or that the Flyers believe this, either. Lyon’s overall numbers weren’t great in his first professional season, but they weren’t bad, either. I envision him improving this season and outshining Stolarz, who, quite frankly, had a mediocre campaign with the Phantoms last season. When Stolarz returned from the NHL in January, his numbers the rest of the way were not handsome.
Lyon finished his first pro season with a 2.74 goals-against average and .912 save percentage in 47 games at Lehigh Valley. Both figures aren’t that much off from Stolarz’s best season — 2.60 GAA and .916 save percentage in 2015-16 — and better than two of the three years Stolarz has played in the AHL. I think there is more potential with Lyon.
I’m higher on Lyon than I am Stolarz. The truth is neither guy is the goalie the Flyers are banking on being their franchise goalie. But in the Lyon-Stolarz debate, I’m taking Lyon.
As Hextall started building more and more organizational goalie depth, more and more luster was lost on Stolarz as the Flyers' goalie of the future.
The organization hasn't soured on him, but I don't think he's viewed as the franchise fit in net, especially with Hart and Felix Sandstrom waiting in the wings. And given the two-year contracts to Neuvirth and Elliott, Stolarz may never get a true shot at the No. 1 job or significant playing time with the big club — but his play can change that.
It's going to be a job audition all season at Lehigh Valley. Hextall is a huge proponent of competition, and he has it in place between the pipes with the Flyers' AHL affiliate.
I wouldn't count out Lyon here. This is a true battle with the Phantoms for not only playing time, but also for the chance to be summoned to the Flyers when needed. If Lyon outperforms Stolarz, the Flyers won't shy away from promoting the deserving candidate over the one who simply seems next in line.
When talking about Stolarz after the Flyers signed Elliott earlier this month, Hextall made it a point to say don't forget about Lyon. The Yale product is 24 years old and pretty polished. The 23-year-old Stolarz went into the offseason with a knee injury, is entering his fourth season at the AHL level and saw his goals-against average spike from 2.60 in 2015-16 to 2.92 last season.
Maybe the organization's patience is running thin on the 2012 second-round pick. Or maybe his opportunity just hasn't come yet. But Lyon is right there with him and I think he'll get the call, unless Stolarz shows a major jump in improvement.
I know what you may be thinking — it's July and the Flyers have their two goaltenders set for the upcoming season in Neuvirth and Elliott. So why on earth are we discussing the Phantoms' goalies?
I know what you're definitely thinking — it's Philadelphia, so it's always about the Flyers' goalies.
And the Stolarz-Lyon question is very much relevant for the coming months and later into the future. But let's focus on the coming months.
Neuvirth's historic litany of injury issues and missing extended periods of time is what makes this so relevant. Just ask Stolarz, who has gotten the call from Hextall multiple times over the last few seasons with Neuvirth's standard sittings on the injured shelf.
For whatever reason, the organization seems to have some sort of hesitation about the 23-year-old "Stolie." Yes, he was protected from Vegas in the expansion draft last month, but there still wasn't the trust in him to be the full-time backup to Neuvirth, hence the offseason signing of Elliott. And that was after a 2.07 goals-against average, .928 save percentage and that shutout in Detroit that John referenced above. But flash back to when Neuvirth was out of the lineup last November to January. Steve Mason still started 20 of the Flyers' 22 games in that stretch, even with Stolarz putting up the donut against the Wings. Why not give Stolarz more of a shot then? That could be the most telling sign.
While Lyon hasn't gotten his crack at the NHL yet, the Flyers have shown they like him. When he signed out of Yale at the end of 2015-16, the Flyers wanted him badly enough that they gave him a two-year deal when many others were only willing to give one year. When asked about the organization's young goalies during a conference call about the Elliott signing, Hextall went out of his way to praise Lyon. "The guy we all forget about is Alex Lyon. He's done a pretty good job down there, too," Hextall said at the time.
This could go either way. Calling up Stolarz first makes sense considering his NHL-level experience. But the gut feeling here is that now with a year of pro experience within the organization under his belt, Lyon, if healthy, gets the first call from the Flyers.