Michal Neuvirth

Why Michal Neuvirth's NHL career hinges on this offseason

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Why Michal Neuvirth's NHL career hinges on this offseason

Michal Neuvirth, cloaked in all black with his hat backward, paused for a moment. He wasn’t sure if he was permitted to talk about what was wrong with his own body.

“I don’t know if I am allowed to tell you,” Neuvirth said last week.

The season is over and whatever in-season mandate the Flyers have about never disclosing to the public precisely what’s wrong with their players no longer applies. No more “upper-body” and “lower-body” injuries that lead to speculation and misinformation.

“My hips,” Neuvirth said.

With that, Neuvirth outlined his offseason game plan. He will have arthroscopic surgery on both hips. He’s staying in Philadelphia and then heading to Kelowna, British Columbia, for 10 weeks for training.

Then comes the most significant change, which, considering the player, might not be that big after all. Neuvirth will be switching trainers for the third straight year.

“It’s just not working out for me,” he said. “I know I can play in this league. I know I can be the difference maker. I just got to find a way to stay healthy.”

Neuvirth now turns to sports performance trainer Adam Francilia, who has worked with Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck and Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk, as perhaps his last resort.

Injuries have plagued Neuvirth throughout his career, especially with the Flyers. Neuvirth, in each of his three seasons in Philly, has been a constant on the upper/lower body report, and his games played have decreased each season, from 32 in 2015-16 to 28 in 2016-17 and 22 this year.

At some point, though, Neuvirth will have to stay healthy. He’s making the necessary adjustments this offseason, but on his third trainer in three years, the question will soon no longer be asked. If injuries continue to haunt him, he’ll no longer be trusted, in Philly or elsewhere. A reputation is hard to shake, and this one’s stapled to his name.

“It’s tough for me to say,” Jake Voracek said, adding he’s been lucky to avoid major injuries. “Everybody knows their body. If you are 30-years-old, you should know what to do to get better.”

Statistically speaking, Neuvirth was far better in 2017-18. After finishing 2016-17 with the worst save percentage among qualified goalies in the NHL, Neuvirth bounced back for a .915 clip.

Neuvirth started 18 games — back-to-back twice, and four straight games in February after Brian Elliott required core-muscle surgery. In that fourth start in February, Neuvirth suffered another “lower-body” injury. Then, the Flyers were forced to trade for Petr Mrazek, which brings us to the elephant in the room. Are they still comfortable with their tandem?

“I’m comfortable where we are as an organization with our goaltending,” Ron Hextall said. “I think Neuvy knows where he is at in terms of his career. He needs to have a big year next year. He needs to find a way to stay healthy. We fully support what he’s doing.”

Reading between the lines, Neuvirth’s spot next season isn’t a lock despite being under contract. Hextall views goaltending as tandems and gave a ringing endorsement for Elliott. To be fair, he said Neuvirth is a good part of a tandem too. But Hextall also sounded like he wanted to see a progress report on Neuvirth’s training program before making a decision.

Both Elliott and Neuvirth enter 2018-19 in the final year of their contracts as the Flyers wait for their kids to graduate. One can only hear Carter Hart is coming before it gets old, but the 19-year-old turns pro next season.

As for Neuvirth, he has to find a way to shed the stature as the guy who always gets injured.

“I can’t change the history. I can only change the future,” Neuvirth said. “I will do whatever it takes to stay healthy and help my team on a regular basis.”

His NHL career hinges on it.

Flyers GM Ron Hextall talks coaching staff, free agents, draft and more

Flyers GM Ron Hextall talks coaching staff, free agents, draft and more

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall spoke to the media at his season-ending press conference on Thursday. 

What exactly did he have to say? We decipher the GM’s answers right here.

Question: Will there be any changes within the coaching staff?

Answer: “The coaches will all be back. We’re still doing a little bit of evaluating on the entire organization, but yes (in the same roles). We’re not going to make a change to appease people because we’re suppose to. We’re going to make change to get better. We’re not going to do what makes us popular. I think Hak (Dave Hakstol) has done a really good job.”

Translation: Hextall believes Hakstol has done a solid job in his first three years and has worked well with the development of the young players and the prospects. Hextall also believes the penalty kill saw improvements over the second half of the season and the problems early on were more personnel related than the coverage systems that assistant coach Ian Laperriere implemented.

Question: Where do things stand with the pending free agents (Brandon Manning, Valtteri Filppula, Matt Read)?

Answer: “My conversations with most of those guys were the plan right now is not to bring you back. Things can change because we don’t know what happens over the summer. Filppula is one guy where he have interest and we’re going to see what happens here. The other guys, unless something changes, we don’t plan on bringing them back right now.”

Translation: Manning and Read have played their final games with the Flyers. If Hextall doesn’t find an upgrade through free agency, then they’ll explore a very team-friendly, one-year contract with the 34-year-old Filppula, who certainly lost a step this past season.

Question: Will goalie Carter Hart have a chance to make the Flyers next season?

Answer: “I’m comfortable where we’re at with our goaltending. Neuvy (Michal Neuvirth) had some injury issues. I’m excited about Neuvy’s commitment. We got our kids coming. We got the kids up at Lehigh. We feel very comfortable with where we’re at. In saying that, we need some growth.” 

Translation: Ideally, the organization would like to see Hart start next season with the Phantoms. However, Hextall refuses to put an absolute on any situation. If Hart lights up the AHL and proves to have a maturity and a game beyond his years, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could play with the Flyers nest season. Goaltending may be the toughest position to master for any 20-year-old. As a rookie, Hextall was 22 years of age and admitted he shed a few tears in 1986.

Question: Will the Flyers be a big player in free agency?

Answer: “If someone thinks that we’re going to add three players or four players this summer to make us the top team in the league, I don’t know where we’re going to get those players from, nor the cap space, nor anything else. You would like to find another centerman. Your goaltending, your D and your centers. If we could upgrade there, that would be great.”

Translation: John Tavares is a long shot. For starters, he may never make it to July 1 as a free agent and the Flyers won’t engage in a bidding war with other teams. Hextall is frugal and fiscally responsible. If they did elect to chase a big fish, then they might be more inclined to look at John Carlson, a right-handed defenseman. Still, even that’s a stretch considering how much he would command on the open market. Think smaller, affordable role players to fill in the gaps. 

Question: Will you buy out Jori Lehtera? If not, how do you justify his $4.7 million?

Answer: “There’s a lot of reasons why you just don’t buy a guy out. He makes a little bit more than maybe that role should make. Jori was a good role player for us. He’s a terrific human being. He works hard. He’s really, really good with our young kids. There’s a lot more to it than saying Jori Lehtera was playing center and playing eight to 10 minutes. The plan is to have him back.” 

Translation: This is a head-scratcher for me. The St. Louis Blues forked over a first-round pick just to rid themselves of Lehtera and his salary. There’s a lot of terrific human beings in the league who work hard. Those aren’t qualities worth paying top dollar for. It’s a production-based business and the bottom line is Lehtera finished wth eight points while averaging 10½ minutes of ice time and lacks the foot speed to keep up in today’s NHL.

Question: In terms of depth of the draft and having two possible first-round picks, what options does that give you?

Answer: “It’s a solid draft. We’ve seen enough players where it’s a good draft and we’re going to get a couple of good players if we make those picks. If you want to move up, I would envision the chance to move up. We’re a little bit more defined in terms of the pieces we have.” 

Translation: Hextall and his scouts have done a solid job in four years of replenishing their prospect pool, so now they’re in a position to get creative. Don’t be surprised if the GM makes major noise at the June draft in Dallas. He attempted to pull off a mega deal with the Florida Panthers in 2014 in an effort to land defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Hextall could get bold and he has the assets to make that type of move. 

Flyers' goaltending grades and outlook for next season

Flyers' goaltending grades and outlook for next season

Over the next several days, we’ll evaluate the Flyers at each position, give a regular season and postseason grade and provide an outlook for their roster status for the 2018-19 season. First up, goaltending: 

Brian Elliott

Regular Season:
(23-11-7, 2.66 GAA, .909 save percentage)

Playoffs: C- 
(1-3, 4.74 GAA, .856 save percentage)

Elliott seized the starting job at the beginning of the season and helped pull the team out of the depths of a 10-game winless streak. His quality start percentage of .476 was below league average, but he was solid in games when given a lead until he suffered a core muscle injury that required surgery in February. Dave Hakstol pulled “Moose” in two of the four playoff games he started in the playoffs.

Elliott admitted he needed to tear up the scar tissue once he resumed hockey activities to gain a full range of motion. A month ago, the pain was so unbearable it prevented him from putting on shoes and socks. He certainly wasn’t healthy in the six games he played in April, which contributed to his poor play and he’s still dealing with issues. He will spend the majority of his offseason in Philadelphia and expects to be 100 percent by training camp.

2018-19 outlook: Elliott has one year remaining on the two-year deal he signed in the summer of 2017 and will enter 2018-19 as the Flyers’ starting goaltender as long as he’s healthy.  

Michal Neuvirth

Regular Season: B- 
(9-7-3, 2.60 GAA, .915 save percentage)

Playoffs:
(1-1, 4.40 GAA, .847 save percentage)

How unreliable was Neuvirth this season? At no point did Neuvirth start three consecutive games as he was plagued with a multitude of injuries. Had the Flyers won Sunday, Game 7 would have been the first time. Neuvirth was solid in the Flyers’ Game 5 victory in Pittsburgh, but he wouldn’t have overcome the Flyers' defensive breakdowns over the course of an entire series.   

Neuvirth will have arthroscopic surgery on both hips and his injury frequency has now led him to hire sports performance trainer Adam Francilia, Neuvirth's third different trainer over the past three years. Francilia has been instrumental in the offseason conditioning of goaltenders Connor Hellebuyck and Devan Dubnyk. “It’s going to be hard for my family,” Neuvirth said. He will spend the majority of his offseason in Kelowna, British Columbia. 

2018-19 outlook: Like Elliott, Neuvirth is signed through next season and will likely start the season as Elliott’s backup. However, if the Flyers feel Neuvirth’s injury risk is too high, they may be more inclined to trade Neuvirth and bring in someone more reliable.

Petr Mrazek

Regular Season: C-
(14-13-6, 3.03 GAA, .902 save percentage)

Playoffs: No grade
(1 GP, 3.87 GAA, .857 save percentage)

With three wins in his first three starts, Ron Hextall appeared to have engineered one of the great goaltending heists in Flyers history. However, reality set in and Mrazek’s game quickly tanked. In his final 13 regular starts, Mrazek allowed three or more goals in all but two of those games and was he pulled in the second period in one of those two. His only playoff action came in relief of Elliott in Game 1.

While Mrazek stated in his exit interview he was able to show teams what he could do once he got a chance to play, he ultimately cost himself millions of dollars by slumping in March.

2018-19 outlook: Mrazek is a restricted free agent and the Flyers can qualify him at 105 percent of his $4 million salary for next season. No way that happens, so the Flyers can attempt to trade Mrazek to a team that will qualify him or he will become an unrestricted free agent July 1. 

Alex Lyon

Regular Season: B-
(4-2-1, 2.75 GAA, .905 save percentage)

Playoffs: No grade

With injuries to Elliott and Neuvirth, Lyon provided stability during a stormy period when the Flyers’ season could have gone off the rails. He earned his first win in relief on Neuvirth at Madison Square Garden, and for whatever reason, Lyon had considerably better numbers coming off the bench. He had a tendency of lunging for pucks and he looked unsettling at times, but still found a way to get the job done.  

2018-19 outlook: Lyon is the Phantoms’ starter in the AHL playoffs, but with the addition of Carter Hart next season and the impending health of Anthony Stolarz, there’s a chance Lyon could be third on the depth chart as the Flyers could have a rare surplus in goaltending at the minor league level. Don’t be surprised if Lyon is traded this summer to a team that may view him as an NHL backup or an AHL starter.