VOORHEES, N.J. — When Flyers general manager Ron Hextall played, the former goaltender always viewed his partner and himself as a part of a tandem. Or so he says 18 years later.
By studying Hextall’s goaltending decisions during his time in his current post, his philosophy has become indisputable: draft a ton of goalies and tandems are imperative.
Hextall has drafted five goalies in the four drafts he’s been in charge, signed a college free agent (Alex Lyon) and the Flyers currently have nine netminders in their organization.
The effectiveness of platoons played a factor in the Flyers’ biggest free-agent move of the summer and immediate future in net. Brian Elliott welcomes tandems. Steve Mason didn’t.
Elliott will partner with Michal Neuvirth for the next two seasons in Philadelphia, but then what? We all expect one of the Flyers’ highly-touted prospects to be here in three years.
Whether that’s either Carter Hart or Felix Sandstrom, two goalies drafted by Hextall with bright futures, or either Lyon or Anthony Stolarz will be determined in the next two years.
Hart and Sandstrom are the two prospects everyone expects to compete for the No. 1 job when they’re seasoned enough to be in the NHL, but the question turns to their role.
Does Hextall envision either Hart or Sandstrom taking a stranglehold of the No. 1 job, while the other either serves as the backup or gets squeezed out of the equation?
You can bet on that being the case.
“The goalie dictates that,” Hextall said last Friday during development camp at Flyers Skate Zone. “You still need two goalies. I never want to have a backup that you say, ‘OK, he’s a 10- or 15-game guy.’ What if your guy gets hurt, where do you go? It’s always a tandem.
“You need someone capable of playing 30 games. Fifty-thirty, that’s a tandem. Fifty-five-twenty-five, that’s a tandem. The goaltender will dictate the games to some degree.”
On Day 1 of development camp last Friday, Hart and Sandstrom were paired together during the first goalie session at 8 a.m. and the second in the afternoon.
If the vision going forward includes them splitting time between the pipes, it doesn’t hurt that the goalies were positioned two stalls from each other at camp.
It also doesn’t hurt that they were at development camp last summer and they’ll likely be together again next summer. Building a rapport now should pay off in the long run.
“I was here last year with [Sandstrom],” Hart said, “so I got to know him pretty well. We were on the same volleyball team for the Trial on the Isle. We didn’t have great partners.
“I don’t know who they were. I don’t want to say any names. I think we finished last.”
Hart, who turns 19 next month, received a taste of pro life at the end of last season, when he joined the Lehigh Valley Phantoms largely as a spectator in the AHL playoffs, though he did back up once.
The 2016 second-round pick will spend the 2017-18 season in the WHL with Everett before making the jump full-time professionally in 2018-19 when he’s 20 (see story).
As for Sandstrom, the 20-year-old had the option to jump overseas this season to play at Lehigh Valley with his contract with Brynäs IF expiring after last season.
Instead, the Swede decided to re-up for one more year with Brynäs, while his teammate, winger Oskar Lindblom, opted to come to North America full-time. Lindblom is expected to make the Flyers’ roster in training camp, but beginning the year in the AHL is an option too.
“I’m in a good position at home in Sweden,” Sandstrom said. “I get to play a lot. Really like my goalie coach there, too. I’m in a good position at home. No reason to rush. I think I need one more year to develop more and be even more ready to come over here.”
Leaving Sweden didn’t really compute much for Sandstrom, a 2015 third-round pick who in 2016-17 posted respectable numbers for Brynäs in his second full season in the SHL.
There is a numbers game in Lehigh Valley with Lyon and Stolarz, both restricted free agents. There wasn’t much playing time available with the Phantoms.
In 46 regular-season games last season, Sandstrom compiled a 14-7 record, 2.25 goals-against average and .908 save percentage with two shutouts. During the postseason, he had a 2.83 GAA and .901 save percentage in 13 games as Brynäs lost in the finals.
Sandstrom reiterated his desire to play in the NHL and “be a reason why the Flyers win games” at development camp. With the logistics, it just didn’t make sense this year.
When he does come over — as it is with all European players — the rink will be his biggest adjustment. The smaller rink creates for different angles for goalies. It takes time to adjust.
“It’s a different type of game with the rinks,” Sandstrom said. “More shots, more straight to the net. I like that. I think I can handle that. It’s pretty good. I’m a pretty good skater, too.
“It’s more often that they shoot from places [here], where, in Sweden, they often don’t shoot. Because when you go on the boards here, it’s a scoring chance. If you shoot from there in Sweden, it’s not as dangerous.”