There is always something going on in the Philadelphia Flyers crease. After an abysmal 2021 season where the goalies struggled both on their own and in part to the atrocious team in front of them, Chuck Fletcher made a few changes. Brian Elliott and Alex Lyon, who have been with the organization since 2017 and 2016 respectively, were not re-signed and Martin Jones was brought in to replace Elliott, and Felix Sandstrom will be handed the reins in Lehigh. It’s a new trio behind a new defense and a fresh start for Carter Hart, all of which was desperately needed to help bury the 2021 campaign in the memory bank.
The coronation of Carter Hart may finally be in full swing. He has slowly but surely been dipping his toes into the NHL pool over the last few seasons, but there’s a good chance the training wheels are finally coming off. With a shiny new three-year, $11.9 million contract in tow, the expectations significantly rise for the 23-year-old.
The last three seasons have been learning experiences for Hart, who has gone through long periods where the struggle was absolutely real. In 2019-20, his issues came on the road. His home and away splits were almost unheard of. A borderline Vezina candidate at home (1.62 goals against average, .943 save percentage, 20 wins in 25 games and one shutout) while he was as bad as your local beer leaguer on the road (3.81 goals against average, .857 save percentage, and only four wins in 15 games). In 2021 his struggles were, well, everywhere. He finished the year with a 3.67 GAA, .877 SV%, and nine wins in 27 games. A knee injury ended his season early, and it was probably for the better.
His struggles have been traced to simply struggling through the pandemic, as most of us have. The isolation and an apparent split with his long-time sports psychologist effected his off-ice routine, and his on-ice play just never gained any traction. When it rains it pours.
But there has been far more positives in Hart’s career than negatives. He was borderline invincible during the 2020 playoffs, posting a 2.23 GAA and .926 SV% with two shutouts and nine wins in 14 games. Despite the overall numbers, he did have hints of brilliance during the 2021 season as well. Hart seemed ready to go during his media press conference after his contract extension, noting his offseason has been spent unwinding while simultaneously refocusing and getting ready for the season. He also noted the return of fans to the Wells Fargo Center as an inspiration for playing better, and there may be something to that based on his 2019-20 utter dominance in Philadelphia.
The Flyers needed a cheap backup goalie and, even with all the options out there, signed recently bought out Sharks goalie Martin Jones. Now eight seasons into his career, Jones is a veteran of 361 NHL games, but has struggled mightily for much of the past three seasons. He has three consecutive seasons posting a .896 save percentage with a goals against average that has progressively gotten worse, from a 2.94 in 2018-19 to a 3.28 in 2020-21. Jones, for better or worse, has been the guy for the Sharks during that stretch of horrible hockey. Aaron Dell and Deven Dubnyk have been his primary backups during that time. Not to mention the Sharks roster in general has been in a free fall ever since their Cup run in 2016. Jones was in net when the team made the Western Conference Final during 2019, where he once again posted a .896 save percentage and a 3.02 goals against average.
A theme of the Flyers offseason has been banking on their acquisitions to blossom in lesser roles than they were in on their previous team, and Martin Jones will be no different. He’ll be the clear number two behind Carter Hart and barring injuries or another collapse by Hart, there’s no reason to think Jones will see significant ice time. Looking at Brian Elliott’s starts over the past few seasons and during his four seasons he played 43, 26, 31, and 30 games respectively. Though his role was a bit different that what will be expected of Jones. Elliott served as a shield for Hart, taking the bullet when the situations became too tough for the youngster, such as road starts during 2019-20 and limiting his overall ice time during his struggles last season.
In an ideal world, Carter Hart will return to his natural form and Jones will be a solid backup who sees about 30 games throughout the season. Hopefully Jones will be at least decent as a backup, and won’t see an abundance of ice time unless an injury strikes Hart. To be fair to Jones, some of the best seasons of his career came when he was backing up Jonathan Quick in LA from 2013-2015, and his first few seasons in San Jose were acceptable as well. At his peak, he had a .918 save percentage and 2.27 goals against average. Yeah, he’s multiple years removed from that, but with a limited role and much better team in front of him than the Sharks provided, there’s no reason to think Martin Jones won’t at least be capable of holding down the fort once a week or so.
It was a bizarre start to the offseason when word broke that Sandstrom was headed back to Europe now that his entry-level contract expired, then only 24 hours later re-signed with the Flyers and decided to stay in North America for another year. Baffling circumstances aside, Sandstrom will have plenty of opportunity to succeed this year. Longtime AHL starter Alex Lyon has moved on and Kirill Ustimenko missed all last season after undergoing hip surgery. Ustimenko will be ready to go for the 2021-22 season, but after missing a full year of development, he more or less has to start all over again. There is Samuel Errson, who signed his ELC and will make his North American debut this season. While he is a highly touted prospect, the jump to North American ice isn’t always an easy hurdle, as we’ve seen with both Sandstrom and Ustimenko. As for Sandstrom, he was bounced between the AHL and taxi squad last season, but never suited up for an NHL game. He only played in 11 games for the Phantoms with so-so numbers (3.19 goals against average and .903 save percentage) but he played a bigger role than his numbers suggest.
There’s a good chance he re-signed with the Flyers under the circumstances that he would be their third-string option on the depth chart, which would roughly equate to being the AHL starter and getting the call first if an injury were to happen in the NHL. With Sandstrom being the only sure thing they have in the pipeline right now, he’ll almost undoubtedly fill that role out of the gate. One of Ersson or Ustimenko will back him up and the other will be given reps with the ECHL Royals in the meantime, but whether they would want the new guy or rehabbing guy to get the lion’s share of starts in Reading remains to be seen. Sandstrom’s predecessor Alex Lyon was regularly playing around 30 games a season, so expect Sandstrom to be handed a similar workload this year.
by: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
photo credit: thepointhockey.com / goldengatesports.com / phantomshockey.com