One of the unintended consequences of the Flyers wasting so much time when it comes to preparing a battle plan to move forward with is the contracts they’re letting run out, and in the case of 24-year-old goaltender Carter Hart, his current $3.9 million cap hit could more than double the next time he sits down for negotiations during the 2024 offseason.
He signed his current contract in the summer of 2021 and, at the time, was the richest goaltender contract coming off his ELC, a record he held for about three hours until the Rangers signed Igor Shesterkin signed a whopping $22.6 million extension later the same day.
Now, that contract extension looms large for the Flyers, who are stuck in a salary cap spider web thanks to the bang up job Chuck Fletcher has done as GM, and considering the unknown number the league-wide cap will sit at during the summer of 2024 makes things even harder to predict.
While Hart is the franchise goaltender, the next man up could be forming his resumé as we speak, and that’s 23-year-old rookie Sam Ersson.
He made the jump to the AHL last season, but missed all but five games with a groin injury he eventually underwent surgery for. Ersson returned and has been a shining star for the Phantoms with a .910 save percentage and 2.72 goals against average in 18 games played, both stats are among the best in the AHL.
He earned his first NHL recall before Christmas 2022 when Hart was injured and Sandstrom missed time with an illness and played five NHL games so far with a 4-0 record along with a 2.30 goals against average and .924 save percentage as well as recording one shutout. He appears earmarked to earn an NHL spot full time sooner rather than later.
But if Ersson’s play continues on the trajectory it’s on, paired with the contract uncertainty of Carter Hart, one has to wonder if there’s a chance a changing of the guard could happen over the next few seasons.
While Ersson has succeeded in a small sample size, it paints a bright future for the Flyers, who now appear to have an embarrassment of riches in net, with at least two top young goaltenders and potentially a third as well.
Felix Sandstrom, who is the current backup, has struggled a bit during his first NHL season. He’s got just a 1-6-1 record with an ugly 3.37 goals against average and .888 save percentage. While the lackluster team around him has definitely contributed to his stumbles, Ersson’s emergence has thrown the current depth charts into disarray.
Sandstrom is currently on a conditioning assignment in Lehigh after only playing twice since American Thanksgiving and when he returns, it’s when the decisions will have to be made. Sandstrom would need to clear waivers to be sent to the Phantoms full-time, meanwhile Ersson is waiver exempt. Though Ersson has clearly been the better of the two, so do they risk losing Sandstrom or just return Ersson as they continue to assess the battle between the two?
There’s still a wildcard in all this, and it’s 26-year-old Ivan Fedotov, who signed an entry-level deal with the Flyers last summer shortly before being abducted by the Russian military before he could flee for North America. Theoretically, he should be released from his military duty during the 2023 offseason as he’s 26 years old and served his minimum one year of required time, but it’s also Russia, so it’s quite possible he’s never allowed to make the jump to the Flyers.
Even though he was a dominant force in the KHL over the last few seasons, there’s also no guarantees he would’ve found success on North American ice. He’s a proven force in a good league, but a complete crapshoot when trying to assess the future of the goaltending. Though if he makes it out of the motherland and still has NHL aspirations, it could be well worth the risk to offer him another contract and to try again, especially if they move on from Hart.
If they do choose to dangle Hart in the trade scene, doing it ahead of the 2023 draft could be interesting. Both Cup-caliber and bottom dwelling teams would line up for his services, and potentially adding another top 10 pick in addition to other assets is a pretty hard pass, especially with Ersson seemingly ready to make the jump. Hart is the team’s best trade chip without question, and with the Ivan Provorov rumors starting to swirl, one has to wonder if there’s a full scale teardown in the immediate future?
There’s not exactly many examples of a franchise 24-year-old goaltender hitting the trade market. Roberto Luongo in 2006 may be the most recent example, though he was 27 when that deal happened. It was a deal crafted around Todd Bertuzzi for the Panthers. It was a great deal for the acquiring Canucks, meanwhile the Panthers got all of seven games out of Bertuzzi before back surgery sidelined him for months and he was dealt to Detroit before he returned.
Admittedly, it should be far too early to have this conversation about trading Hart, but if Ersson can continue to play at a high level both in the AHL and NHL for the remainder of the season, it’s a story that will pick up steam sometime within the next calendar year. The Flyers should feel no pressure to be forced to move Hart and can’t rush themselves into a deal this offseason if the market isn’t there, but if they’re finally embracing a rebuild and are infatuated with Ersson, Hart could get moved sooner rather than later, and at this point, there’s a good chance he himself would welcome a change of scenery to a competent team. Hart would come with a high price tag in any trade, but considering they seem to be sitting pretty when it comes to depth in the crease, there’s a return out there that could very well be unquestionably worth it, it’s just a matter of whether or not a team wants to pay up.
By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
photo credit: nhl.com