Goaltender Robert Esche played 132 games as a Flyers from 2002-2007. During that time he carried the Flyers to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2004.
Born in Whitesboro, New York on January 22, 1978, he started his career in the CCHL for the Gloucester Rangers. Esche was drafted in the OHL Priority Draft in the 10th round in 1995 by the Detroit Whalers. He split time in net with future AHLer Mike Minard. He was later drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes in he sixth round in 1996.
Esche took the reins as the starter for the Whalers the following season, playing 58 games with a 3.81 GAA and .878 SV%. He was selected to represent Team USA at the 1997 World Juniors but didn’t play thanks to starter and Flyers prospect Brian Boucher.
Esche’s final season in juniors was his best, playing 48 games registering a 2.88 GAA and .896 GAA. He was again selected the represent Team USA at the World Juniors playing four games, winning two.
The following season, Esche joined the Coyotes on his entry level deal. He was sent to AHL Springfield where he was on fire out of the gate, earning the AHL all-rookie team honors for the 1998-99 season. He played three games in the NHL, but failing to register a win.
In 1999-00 Robert Esche picked up where he left off the season before, tearing up the AHL before being recalled by the Coyotes to play eight NHL games to finish the season. Esche was once again selected to represnt Team USA, this time at the IIHF champinship, apprearing in two games.
Esche earned his roster spot with the Coyotes to start the 2000-01 season, backing up Sean Burke. He played 25 games during the season, and 22 games the following season, as Burke was a dominate force for the Coyotes.
After years of playing backup in Pheonix, the Coyotes traded Esche and Michal Handzus to the Flyers for Brian Boucher and a third round pick on June 12, 2002. He was quick to develop a relationship with head coach Ken Hitchcock, whom he has called his favorite coach of his career. Esche would also cherish his time with then-goaltending coach Reggie Lemelin who helped mature his game.
During the 2002-03 season, his first in Philadelphia, He formed a deadly duo with starter Roman Cechmanek. Esche would post a 2.20 GAA and .907 SV% in 30 outtings. The tandem would share the William Jennings Trophy with New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur.
Roman Cechmanek was traded during the summer after another horrid showing in the playoffs, leaving Esche as the number one guy. Jeff Hackett was signed to back him up, but would be forced to retire due to vertigo. The Flyers re-acquired Sean Burke but unlike their days in Phoenix, Robert Esche was given the role as the starter. Robert Esche would go on to post the best season of his career in 2003-04 posting a 2.04 GAA and a .915 SV% in 40 NHL games.
Esche would keep the momentum of a strong season going into the playoffs. He out-dueled Broduer in the first round and he topped another legend Ed Belfour and the Leafs in the second round. A series of injuries on the blueline ended what was a solid run for the Flyers in the playoffs. Eric Desjardins, Marcus Ragnarsson, and Kim Johnsson were all hurt forcing the Flyers to use Danny Markov and Vladimir Malakhov as their top pair on the blueline. The Flyers managed to take the Lightning to seven games in the Conference Final before they bowed out after a competitive series.
The lockout forced the Flyers to totally adjust their roster to fit to the salary cap, leaving them in a lesser position then they were during their playoff run two seasons before. Esche had a series of hip surgeries which would ultimately lead to the end of his NHL career. The Flyers would go 45-26-11 during the 2005-06 season but lost to Buffalo in the first round. Esche played 40 games during the season but only posted a 2.97 GAA and .897 SV%.
Robert Esche would play only 18 games for the Flyers during the 2006-07 season registering a miserable 4.32 GAA and .872 SV%, giving way to Antero Niittymaki taking the starting role from him. The Flyers managed to post an NHL worst 22-48-12 record. The organization made a flurry of trade including former Sabres goaltender Martin Biron, making Esche expandable.
The Flyers would roll with the Biron/Niittymaki duo into the 2007-08 season and did not re-sign Robert Esche. He would go to Russia to play in the last season of existence of the Russian Superleague, playing 18 games with Ak Bars Kazan. The RSL was rebranded as the KHL where Esche played 104 games over three more seasons, two with SKA Saint Petersberg and one with HC Dinamo Minsk. Esche became one of the top goaltenders in Russia during that time, leading to minor interest from NHL teams but he never returned to the NHL.
Esche would appear three more times internationally representing Team USA at the 2006 Olympics only playing one game. He would play at both the 2008 and 2009 World Cup of Hockey where he helped the United States finish fourth in 2009.
Now 33 years old, Esche would sign in Switzerland for the 2011-12 in what would be his last as a professional. He played 40 games for the SCL Tigers before calling it a career.
Today, Robert Esche is the President of the Utica Comets, the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks.
By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
Photo credit: chatsports.com