Goaltending is sure to be a big talking point for the Philadelphia Flyers during this upcoming season – in a good way. The starting crease will be up for grabs between Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth to start the season and will last as long as it takes. The pair is also competing for a spot next year as they are both looking for new contracts as well.
A similar battle will take place in Allentown; at the Flyers’ AHL affiliate home of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms where Anthony Stolarz and Alex Lyon will also duel it out for the starting role this season.
Typically, the Phantoms have had a veteran netminder and a young prospect platoon in net from Yann Danis and Cal Heeter in 2013-14 to Jason Labarbera and Stolarz last season. But with two top goalie prospects in the AHL, the team will have a much younger duo in net.
While Stolarz and Lyon will be competing for regular starts during the AHL season, the big reward will be a spot with the Flyers next season.
Lyon vs. Stolarz
Even though Stolarz is over a year-and-a-half younger than Lyon, he is the veteran. With 78 AHL games under his belt, Stolarz already has a leg up on his fellow goaltender.
Stolarz was also drafted in the second round of the 2012 Draft and has an AHL All-Star game nomination on his resume. Lyon was signed as an undrafted free agent last April but was a Mike Richter Award finalist for top goalie in the NCAA at Yale last season.
Through the preseason, both have shown flashes of brilliance which must have the Phantoms excited. First, Lyon split a shutout with another hopeful prospect Carter Hart in the Flyers’ rookie game against the Islanders.
He followed that up with a 23-save effort in a split-squad loss against the Devils to open the pre-season. On the same night, Stolarz stopped 27 shots against the Islanders, but also ended in a loss.
Then on Wednesday night, the two combined for a shutout win over the Devils. Stolarz faced the tougher of the task, keeping the Flyers in the game during a slow start until the team took a lead it didn’t give up.
Despite the stellar play from both netminders, there simply isn’t enough room on the Flyers and the two were sent to the Phantoms Thursday in a camp-cutting move by the organization.
In Lehigh Valley
Despite the demotion, the battle is just heating up. Phantoms’ training camp opens Friday with two preseason games coming against the Charlotte Checkers next Friday and Saturday.
One would have to assume that the games will be split, but Stolarz will be the starter to begin the season. For one, the New Jersey native has AHL experience, but on top of that, he’s an All-Star at that level.
Lyon hasn’t played a single AHL minute yet, but he’s proved early on that he’s cut out for a spot in the league. With back-to-back games and sometimes three games in a row, there should be plenty of chances for the 23-year-old to get in the net.
Those opportunities will be the ones that Lyon will need to take advantage of to win more starts over Stolarz. For the 22-year-old, continuing his solid play from last year will keep him in net.
With a veteran defense and overall solid group in front of them, Stolarz and Lyon both have a great chance at putting up wins and strong numbers.
While each of them may want to see themselves come out as the clear starter, barring any drastic circumstances both will likely get starts throughout the season.
Future with the Flyers
Each netminder probably yearns for the starting spot, but the Flyers would want both to show starting potential – at the AHL and NHL. In Philly, Mason and Neuvirth’s battle for a contract next season will ensue, at the same time.
At the end of the 2016-17 season, the Flyers will have to make a tough choice to keep Mason or Neuvirth as the starter moving forward. With both contracts expiring, there won’t be enough cap space to keep both on the books.
But even if there was, it’s time for Philadelphia to promote a home-grown goalie onto the big club. The last time that happened was when Antero Niittymaki earned the backup role in 2005-06 (not counting Sergei Bobrovsky, who developed exclusively in Russia before the NHL).
Right now, Stolarz is the top candidate for the reward. The Flyers drafted him, have spent almost four years developing him and was drafted with the potential of taking over the Philly net someday.
So far he’s done that. A rough rookie season led to an impressive sophomore year and even earned multiple recalls last year due to injuries, but never got in a game.
But there’s no reason to count out Lyon. Stolarz slowed down in the second half of the season, as did the rest of the Phantoms. Goalies are also typically late-bloomers and just because Lyon wasn’t drafted as an 18-year-old doesn’t mean he doesn’t have starter potential five years later.
The battle for the Flyers’ 2017-18 backup role has already begun, but these next seven months will determine who deserves that spot.