The Philadelphia Flyers are about to be at a goaltending crossroads. While superstar-in-the-making Carter Hart has taken the reigns as the unquestioned starter, the depth behind him for the immediate future is unknown. Brian Elliott and Alex Lyon are on expiring contracts and aren’t locks to come back.
The goaltending market during the 2019 free agency is actually pretty deep compared to the last few years, and it should give the Flyers a good opportunity to improve their depth in the crease.
Even though Brian Elliott has served as a solid backup for the past three seasons, he is about to turn 35 and has seen his fair share of injuries over the last two calendar years. The biggest issue with Elliott isn’t directly his fault. Carter Hart has missed time with injuries in both seasons of his early career and any time Elliott gets thrown into the starting job, the thought of his durability is the first thing that comes to mind. Finding someone who is a little younger, with proven staying power should be high on the Flyers priority list this summer.
On Wednesday, the Flyers dealt J.F. Berube to the Rangers. He had a 2.56 goals against average and .906 save percentage in 29 games for the Phantoms this season, which is fairly pedestrian. While he was probably brought in as a “veteran” goaltender in case a rash of injuries broke out like last season, he hadn’t been recalled by the Flyers and didn’t take the starting role away from Alex Lyon either.
The move coincided with Kirill Ustimenko being recalled to the Phantoms from the Reading Royals. Ustimenko has a 2.40 GAA and .919 SV% in 31 ECHL contests this season. He also played one prior game with the Phantoms where he recorded a .927 save percentage.
Ustimenko will join Alex Lyon in Lehigh Valley to finish out the season. The Phantoms are a long-shot to make the playoffs, so they might be more inclined to start Ustimenko down the stretch to see what he brings to the table during multiple starts.
Ustimenko moving up to the Phantoms leaves the starting role in the ECHL to other goaltending prospect Felix Sandstrom. Sandstrom has struggled during his first pro season, registering a 3.36 GAA and .886 SV% in 20 games in Reading. Those numbers are a bit misleading, as he has been much better lately after a bumpy start to the season, so giving Sandstrom more consistent ice time should help further his development.
Alex Lyon will probably will remain the Phantoms starter, at least until they are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Currently sitting with a 2.64 GAA and .913 SV%, he has been a useful AHL level goaltender for the Phantoms over the past four seasons. The issue is, after multiple NHL stints, he has not risen to the occasion of earning an NHL backup spot. Through 16 NHL games, Lyon has recorded a 3.15 GAA and .893 SV% and, while that is a small sample size, the numbers haven’t been impressive enough to give him more ice time. Now that his contract is coming to an end, it’s possible the organization could look to find another veteran goaltender as a third string option incase of injury at the NHL level.
So if the Flyers choose to not re-sign Elliott or Lyon, that essentially leaves openings for the NHL backup role, and at least one AHL spot. The free agent goaltending market is pretty saturated, which will give the Flyers plenty of options to fill their openings.
As for the NHL backup role, there are a three prime targets the Flyers should pursue- Jacob Markstrom, Thomas Greiss, and Jaroslav Halak.
There have been rumors Markstrom may return to Vancouver, but with Thatcher Demko on the roster and Mikey DiPietro in the AHL, the Canucks may not be in a hurry to bring Markstrom back on a long term contract. As of this article, he has a 2.74 goals against average and a .918 save percentage through 42 games. The 30-year-old has played in 60 games in each of the past two seasons, which could make it difficult to convince him to take a backup role, but if the Flyers are serious about locking down the crease, a Hart/Markstrom tandem would be the way to go.
Thomas Greiss has become a staple backup goaltender for the New York Islanders over the past five seasons, but with the signing of Semyon Varlamov this past summer the Isles have their starting goalie locked up for three more years. Greiss is a career backup, having only played 40 or more games three times in his 12-year NHL career. The 34-year-old is coming off of a three-year, $10 million contract, and given his numbers, he could be asking for a similar $3.3 million average.
Jarloslav Halak is well on his way to posting back-to-back .922 save percentage seasons as a backup for the Boston Bruins. The soon-to-be 35-year-old has only seen 27 games this season, much lower than his 40 starts last season, or 54 with the Islanders in 2017-18. His current contract pays him $2.75 million a season, a number that could be even lower on his next deal given his age.
As far as AHL goalies go, there are quite a few options. Garret Sparks, Maxime Legace, Louis Domingue, and Scott Wedgewood would all be interesting options that have posted solid numbers for the their respective AHL teams, and have some NHL experience.
It’ll be interesting to see how the AHL opening is handled. There is even a possibility they move Sandstrom up to tandem with Ustimenko in Lehigh Valley, or an older veteran goaltender to serve as the “third string” guy incase of injury at the NHL level, like Domingue or Wedgewood, or a younger AHL level journeyman like Legace or Sparks.
There’s a lot to be excited about when talking the Flyers goaltending. While Ustimenko or Sandstrom might still be a couple years away from the NHL, the fact both are moving up the ranks is a huge positive. Carter Hart owns the Flyers crease, and probably will for the next decade. Finding a good backup will be crucial for the Flyers overall success moving forward, and with Chuck Fletcher at the helm, there is a comfort that the best move will be made.
By: Daniel Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
photo credit: lehighvalleyphantoms.com