Looking back throughout Flyers’ history, and especially the last couple decades, one of the biggest holes the team has struggled to fill was goaltending. A motley crew of random bodies were called upon to quite literally save the day, and one after another failed. Then the Flyers drafted their savior Carter Hart in 2016 and he has been a beacon in the dark ever since. Though lately, the Flyers have a new name emerging as a potential star in the making and that’s 23-year-old Sam Ersson.
Ersson missed all but five games last season after undergoing groin surgery, so the 2022-23 campaign serves as his rookie season in North America, and he has been turning heads with his play. He’s been one of the top goalies in the AHL with a 2.68 goals against average and .911 save percentage, and has posted even better numbers during his seven games in the NHL (2.37 GAA and .918 SV%) winning five of his seven appearances.
He was first called up in late December when Sandstrom was dealing with an illness and remained up when Carter Hart missed a couple weeks with an injury, but has since been returned to the AHL, much to the chagrin of the fans who were enjoying their new goalie’s efforts.
Ersson’s demotion back to the AHL was twofold, he was waiver exempt and Felix Sandstrom was not, as well as just the overall playing time he’s going to get in Lehigh versus riding the bench in the NHL. Ersson is very much the shiny new toy and because of the interest in him among the fans, it appears as though many forgot Carter Hart is even apart of the equation.
Felix Sandstrom hasn’t been bad per se, but his numbers aren’t anything spectacular. He’s got just a single win in 10 games this season, but has been given almost exclusively the second half of back-to-backs against superior opponents. His play has been relatively average, something you’d expect of a backup goaltender, and it gets even further overshadowed when both Carter Hart and Sam Ersson have been playing out of their minds for a majority of the season.
In order to call up Ersson, they’d have to put Sandstrom on waivers. The 26-year-old has just 15 NHL games under his belt with a combined 3.38 goals against average and .895 save percentage, relatively pedestrian numbers at face value. Though he’s still a young goalie with a decent amount of AHL success, so it’s no guarantee he’d make it through waivers. Is it a big loss? Possibly. Even if Hart and Ersson are the superior goalies, they are also the only two names in the system that are worthwhile. Troy Grosenick is the only other noteworthy name between the pipes and he hasn’t played since late October with an injury. Pat Nagle and Nolan Maier have been splitting time as the backup in Lehigh in his absence and neither are under NHL contract. If Hart or Ersson go down with injury after losing Sandstrom on waivers, they’re screwed.
From a fan perspective, we’ve seen this song and dance before. Demand for a player to get sent down, ultimately get lost on waivers, get angry at Chuck Fletcher for “losing a player for nothing” then complain endlessly when said player has success with his new team. Rinse and repeat. Also, calling Ersson up to ride the bench and play once every two weeks versus him playing three times a week with the Phantoms also doesn’t make sense from a development perspective. It’s like last season when folks got angry that Morgan Frost was sent down after training camp and Nate Thompson made the roster. Frost playing fourth line minutes in the NHL was not better for him than playing top line minutes in the AHL just so everyone feels better that he’s technically on the main roster. It’s the same situation with Sandstrom and Ersson.
Now, it’s possible the long-term plan is to phase out Carter Hart and ultimately roll with Ersson as the starter sometime over the next year or two, but that’s a major risk. If Ersson does indeed develop into an everyday high-end starter, trading Hart is a conversation that could be had, but that time is not now, though it may not be too far off either. Hart’s due for a new contract at the end of next season and could very well look to double his current $3.9 million cap hit. Something that the cap-strapped Flyers may or may not be ready to deal with.
The problem is, history shows most teams don’t get rid of their trusty starter, but rather eventually part ways with their star backup when the money demanded by the player no longer is feasible from the team. Frederik Andersen in Anaheim, Martin Jones in LA, Philipp Grubauer in Washington, Cam Talbot in New York, Darcy Kuemper in Minnesota. Even the Flyers did it with Sergei Bobrovsky back in the day.
But it just doesn’t feel like a long enough timeline to truly establish Ersson to a point where Hart is expandable. Even if Ersson was recalled today and played every game between now and next year’s trade deadline, that still isn’t a big enough sample size to truly coronate him good enough to move Hart.
Now, there is a positive in calling up Ersson, and it boils down to cutting Hart’s starts by a decent margin to keep him from self destructing via injury like he has the last few seasons. They play him until he’s sufficiently run into the ground and gets hurt was the norm under the last couple coaches, And given the fact the Sandstrom has played just three NHL games dating back to American Thanksgiving, it’s pretty clear they don’t intend on slowing down with Hart anytime soon. Though if there’s more trust in Ersson from the coaching staff than there is with Sandstrom, maybe they’d be more likely to give Hart some regular breaks rather than one every three weeks.
Having a couple really solid young goalies is a good problem to have, and something the Flyers haven’t dealt with in decades, but it’s also important that no decisions are rushed here. There’s nothing wrong with Ersson playing the bulk of the rest of the season in Lehigh and letting he and Sandstrom battle for the backup spot in camp next season. This is Ersson’s rookie season after all. Enjoying the taste he’s given everyone can be a positive glimpse for the future while simultaneously admitting now is not the right time to make the switch, even if Ersson may be the better, more tempting option.
By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
photo credit: nbcsports.com