We’re currently living through a very rare time in Philadelphia Flyers’ history. No, not the team being historically bad with absolutely no direction. Instead, we’re talking about a good problem to have- an abundance of goaltending talent!
Over the course of the last decade or so, the Flyers have done a very good job in drafting goaltenders that have shown that they can be potential NHL-caliber talent. Though because of it, there’s now a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario developing in Philly. There’s only so many spots in the crease to be had, and with only Carter Hart as the established young veteran of the bunch, the battle for the fresher faces to prove themselves is underway.
Carter Hart had a bounce back season in 2021-22 after an atrocious 2020 season. Even though his numbers weren’t anything to write home about (3.16 goals against average and .905 save percentage) he gave the team a chance to win every night, they just failed him more often than not. He’s firmly entrenched himself as the starting goaltender until further notice.
Felix Sandstrom has risen to the occasion over the last two seasons as the Phantoms go-to starting goaltender, though his treatment during the dying days of the Flyers’ campaign was slightly baffling and clouded up his future. Martin Jones was not traded at the deadline and Hart was run into the ground until he was physically unable to play. Even when Hart got hurt, Jones still saw the lion’s share of the starts, with Sandstrom being an emergency recall on a game-by-game basis to ride the bench. He only saw five games of NHL action total, with four coming in April. The fact that, for whatever reason, the organization was hesitant to give him NHL minutes doesn’t seem to bode well for his future.
That being said, he’s the only one with substantial North American experience, with Fedotov and Ersson having little to no ice time under their belt. Sandstrom is 25 and a pending restricted free agent after signing a one-year deal last year.
Samuel Ersson made the jump to North America last season with plenty of hype from his days in Sweden. Unfortunately, he never really got a chance to show his stuff during the 2021-22 season, as a lower-body injury limited him to just five games with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. He will return next season and presumably get his shot once again to earn his claim in the AHL.
Seven years after he was drafted by the Flyers 188th overall, Ivan Fedotov, who will turn 26 in November, will finally make the jump to North America as he signed a one-year entry-level deal. He’s coming off a Gagarin Cup victory in the KHL, as well as being a finalist for goalie of the year. He also impressed at the 2022 Winter Olympics playing with the Russian Olympic Committee with a 1.61 goals against average and .943 save percentage in six games. His impressive accommodations in Russia have built some serious hype for his impending NHL debut, but until he actually arrives in Philly and plays in a game or two, it’s important to temper expectations. Not every player makes a clean jump to North American ice.
Kirill Ustimenko originally got the jump on Sandstrom during their rookie seasons in 2019-20, but the pandemic ended his AHL promotion early and a hip injury during 2020 set him back even further. When the 2021-22 season started he was at the back of the line with Sandstrom emerging as a real option and Sam Ersson making the jump to North America. Even in the absence of Ersson, who missed almost the entire season with an injury, Ustimenko only saw eight games of AHL action last season, regularly being passed over by veteran journeyman Pat Nagle and a myriad of ECHL and PTO goalies. He’s 23 years old and a pending restricted free agent.
At this point, it doesn’t seem like an impossibility to see Martin Jones return next season given his favorable ice time this year. Even if it’s not Jones directly, another washup up veteran could take his place.
There’s no doubt Hart is the starter, but beyond that it’s anyone’s guess. Fedotov may be soft penciled in as the backup next year, but as noted, his performance on North American ice will ultimately determine where he starts the season. His one-year ELC may put pressure on the organization to utilize him properly in fear of him fleeing back to Russia if they don’t.
Sandstrom’s future will be interesting as well. Does he re-sign with the team? If he does, does he challenge for the backup role, or is he once again sitting third string behind Hart and Fedotov? Does he re-sign at all if there’s no clear path to the NHL?
Ersson still seems earmarked as the guy of the future for the Flyers, but his injury set him back a full season. If he returns to the Phantoms’ crease in full health during 2022-23, a better scope of his future will be available.
Ustimenko feels like the odd man out in terms of competing for an NHL gig, though would be an adequate depth piece for the organization if the injury bug strikes again.
As for Jones, his decade of NHL experience is by far the biggest positive he brings to the table. In a situation where NHL experience is scarce with the gaggle of youngsters, having a veteran like Jones around may be favorable for a backup role in the NHL. Even if Fedotov is an enticing option, until free agency comes and goes it’ll be hard to believe they move on from Jones and don’t replace him with another veteran.
It may very well be the first time in Flyers history that they have a handful of goalies 25 years old or younger that will all be competing for an NHL gig in the very near future. Hopefully the ensuing battle will force competition to be high and as a result, everyone gets better. In the long term it means some real peace of mind if at least one of the kids develops behind Hart, and in the short term, we’ll get to see some of the brightest young goaltenders in the world battle it out for ice time.
Seems like a win-win situation for a franchise that has been starved of real goaltending talent for a majority of their existence.
By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
photo credit: shutterstock.com