Brian Elliott

Why Ron Hextall believes in having goalie tandem for Flyers

Why Ron Hextall believes in having goalie tandem for Flyers

Sports could easily compile an endangered species list. 

In baseball, it’s the complete game pitcher.

In football, where have all the 300-carry running backs gone?

And in hockey, it’s the eradication of the 70-start workhorse goaltender.

Ten years ago, you knew exactly where to find one: New Jersey, New York, Calgary, Vancouver. But today, they’re almost nowhere to be found. 

Looking back at the 2007-08 season, amazingly, there were six goaltenders that racked up 70 or more starts that season — Martin Brodeur, Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff, Ryan Miller, Roberto Luongo and Henrik Lundqvist. You could expect to see those same names year after year. Luongo and Lundqvist had four straight seasons of 70-plus starts. Kiprusoff ripped off seven in a row and Brodeur was on a whole other level reaching 70 starts an astonishing 12 times in his career.   

By comparison, only six goaltenders have reached that mark in the past seven years, with Edmonton’s Cam Talbot being the last in 2016-17. Just like baseball general managers closely monitoring pitch counts of their starters, NHL GMs are working in the backup netminders much more in today’s game.

And who better to understand this shift in the crease than goalie-turned-GM Ron Hextall, whose personal high in games played was 66 in the 1986-87 season.  

“Fifteen, 20 years ago, there’d be 18 to 20 games where you said, ‘We’re going to win all those games,’ and you’d win 90 percent of them,” Hextall said. “Nowadays, there’s not one game where you go in saying we’re going to win tonight. That’s a change in terms of workload on a goaltender. There’s close games, no 7-2 games.

“For the most part, there are one- and two-goal games and you need to be at the top of your game every night, whereas back then, you didn’t have to be at the top of your game and still win.” 

This may explain, in part, why Hextall feels it’s vital to have a surplus of goaltending entering training camp next month. It may also be why the organization has closely monitored the rehab of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, who both elected to stay in Voorhees, New Jersey, this summer instead of recovering back in their home countries. 

The Flyers need two highly capable goaltenders this season to have sustained success.  

“Every game is demanding physically and mentally. You need two guys,” Hextall said. “You saw what happened to Montreal when (Carey) Price went down, and you need two guys. It’s a load and it’s a partnership.” 

As a whole, the numbers suggest goaltending has incrementally improved as the workhorse has been gradually phased out. Prior to the 2017-18 season, the league-wide save percentage was .910 or higher for four straight seasons, which had not happened since the days of the Original Six. Call it good goaltending or just the way the game has evolved over the past decade.    

“Checking is very good these days. Players don’t have a lot of time and space,” Hextall said. “They don’t have time to pick the corner. Goaltending is good. Checking is very good.”

In over 50 years, only one Flyer has hit that 70 mark in appearances, and of course, it was Bernie Parent in 1973-74, when the Flyers became the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup. 

The 2018-19 season may be the final one before the Flyers' cage belongs to Carter Hart, who many expect to be the franchise savior in net for the next 10-15 years. The previous franchise goaltender won’t expect Hart to carry that heavy workload either.    

“If you play a guy 70 games and he gets hurt, and now all of a sudden you’re picking a guy that you got pinned to the bench the whole year. ‘By the way, you’re our guy. Go get ‘em.’ That’s not fair,” Hextall said. “There’s a team element involved in this that people don’t talk about. To me, philosophically, that’s important.”

More on the Flyers

End to End: What is Flyers' biggest training camp storyline?

End to End: What is Flyers' biggest training camp storyline?

Going End to End today are NBC Sports Philadelphia's John Boruk, Tom Dougherty and Jordan Hall.

The topic: What is the biggest training camp storyline?

Boruk
Looking back at the 2017-18 preseason, much of the anticipation surrounded the three-way prospect battle among the young, talented defensemen of Robert Hagg, Samuel Morin and Travis Sanheim.

I don’t see a similar roster battle brewing as we inch closer to September. I expect some of the Phantoms forwards to make a strong push to make the team, but their role (if they make the team) will likely be as a fourth-line player.

So the anticipation surrounds the goaltenders, and the most commonly asked question I’ve been receiving is when will Carter Hart will be ready? The answer to which all depends on Hart himself and the preseason will serve as an early-season litmus test.

Let’s keep in mind it’s also a very important season in the careers of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, both in contract years and both looking to overcome injury-plagued seasons that rendered them not close to ready when the playoffs started. Elliott is the presumed No. 1, but when healthy and confident, Neuvirth is capable of making a serious push for playing time. 

If either Elliott or Neuvirth goes down with another injury, who steps in and fills that void and where is Anthony Stolarz in his progression? All of which makes for another intriguing (and yet redundant) storyline in the world of Flyers goaltending.

Dougherty
This is pretty simple.

Who is the third-line center?

The Flyers do not have a clear-cut favorite for their third-line center vacancy. Scott Laughton may have the inside track, but we can't rule out the team's prospects or even Claude Giroux returning to the middle. It will be the most intriguing camp battle this year.

We can move forward believing that moving Giroux back to center is the Flyers' last resort. It's an option, sure, but not the plan. My bet is that Flyers general manager Ron Hextall is betting on either Laughton or a prospect to prove they can take the reins.

But if Laughton doesn't show he can handle a more offensively-dependent role and none of the kids are ready, then moving Giroux back to center could be in the cards.

Much like the defensive position battle last September, the third-line center will have a few prospects attempting to show Hextall they're ready for The Show.

I'm going out on a limb and saying Morgan Frost will do just that — force his way onto the NHL roster.

Hall
How about Dave Hakstol's personnel decisions within the power play and top six?

I'm most intrigued to see how those shake out during camp and preseason action because the outcomes won't come easily.

These are good problems, though. With the addition of James van Riemsdyk, the Flyers' depth was bolstered, giving Hakstol and company much more to work with in 2018-19.

Does van Riemsdyk, who has developed a net-front prowess, jump right onto the first power-play unit? Or does Wayne Simmonds, coming off a wide range of injuries and eyeing a new contract, take back that role? Or is Nolan Patrick the sleeper to stick there after showing his skills in deep during the stretch run last season?

It will be fascinating to see how Hakstol experiments early, not only with the man advantage but also piecing together his top six, which is much more loaded.

People love to analyze the coach's decisions. It'll only pick up come September.

More on the Flyers

End to End: How should Flyers tackle their goalie situation?

End to End: How should Flyers tackle their goalie situation?

The topic: How should the Flyers tackle their goaltending situation?

John Boruk
I’ve been contemplating the goaltending quandary for the better half of the past month and how it might sort itself out. As we’ve discussed, there are six NHL/AHL caliber goaltenders at a table that seats just four.

For starters, we could have some clarity during the draft if general manager Ron Hextall makes a trade (or two) that would give the Flyers a draft pick, a prospect or a player that can help the team next season.

I expect Hextall to work the phones to find an interested team for Petr Mrazek, or inevitably he becomes a free agent on July 1.

Brian Elliott returns as the Flyers' No. 1 when 100 percent healthy.

Carter Hart is the future franchise netminder and he needs to play and play a lot, which is why you can pencil him in as the starter for Lehigh Valley to begin next season.

That leaves injury-plagued Michal Neuvirth, Anthony Stolarz (also returning from major knee surgery) and Alex Lyon. I just don’t see the organization parting ways with Stolarz (a 2012 second-round pick) until it knows with certainty what it has once he’s healthy.

I would take all five goaltenders into training camp come September and let the situation play itself out. There’s plenty of injury risk on this team so why deplete the position especially when you consider how last season unfolded.

Tom Dougherty
Guess what. As another summer approaches, we're left talking Flyers goaltending. Fun!

I don't know how the Flyers can go into next season trusting Neuvirth. He has another year left on his contract, but there are ways around that. Neuvirth is a talented goalie who can never stay healthy. He's unreliable and that's a problem.

The Flyers have a goalie numbers problem. Lyon and Stolarz are restricted free agents and Hart is turning pro. Unless Hart shocks all, he'll be with the Phantoms full-time.

If the Flyers' plan is to bring back both Elliott and Neuvirth, that leaves one spot open in Lehigh Valley and that spot belongs to Lyon. He earned another contract with his play down the stretch, in the AHL playoffs and his time with the Flyers last season.

It's hard to imagine a scenario in which Stolarz returns to the club. It's a shame because he lost his spot on the depth chart because of injury, but that's hockey. If Neuvirth comes back, it's safe to say one of the AHL goalies will see NHL time next season.

There's too much of an unknown with Stolarz's health to choose him over Lyon. Theoretically, both could come back. The Flyers own both of their rights. But I could see Hextall trading Stolarz to let him get a fresh start elsewhere.

If I was in charge, I would find a way to move on from Neuvirth and allow Lyon and Stolarz duke it out for the NHL backup job. The loser heads to Lehigh Valley to mentor Hart.

Jordan Hall
It's never a bad time to talk goalies in Philadelphia, right?

Currently, there's a boatload to break down.

I don't see a major problem heading into the season with Elliott and Neuvirth as your tandem again. If both are healthy — I understand that's a big if — they can be reliable and have shown that to the Flyers with stretches of play. Both goalies are on the final year of their contract, so you enter 2018-19 with those two as your guys and if they can't stay injury free, then the good thing is the organization has options.

Right now, it just feels like Stolarz is the odd man out. You can probably bet Hextall is working the phones a tad on Neuvirth, Stolarz and obviously Mrazek. A trade is more than possible, but Hextall won't decimate his depth just because the Flyers have a lot of players at one position.

Ultimately, I don't foresee any big surprises. Looks like Elliott-Neuvirth in Philly and Lyon-Hart waiting in the wings at Lehigh Valley.

More on Flyers' goalies

• Following 'gloomy' time, what's next for Elliott?

• Why Neuvirth's NHL career hinges on this offseason

Are Flyers next? How Hart won over his junior GM

• After incredible effort, Lyon solidifies case for contract