Flyers’ Backup Options for Hart Are Plentiful

For the first time in decades, the Philadelphia Flyers have a good young starting goaltender with the potential to be a franchise cornerstone. Carter Hart, 21, has established himself as the team’s go-to option in net this season through his positional precision and mature approach. It hasn’t been a perfect season, his home and road splits are startling, but there will be plenty of time for him to improve. With the top spot settled, the backup situation warrants examination.

Carter Hart Philadelphia Flyers
Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Veteran Brian Elliott has been Hart’s primary relief this season, seeing action in 31 games with a 16-7-4 record, an .899 save percentage (SV%) and a goals-against-average (GAA) of 2.87. These are decent stats for a number two goalie but at 34 years old, and due for a new contract at the end of the season, Elliott likely isn’t considered a long-term member of the team. There are several goalies within the organization who have reached developmental maturity but experience and consistency may be obstacles. Here are the candidates for the Flyers’ second goaltender job next season.

In-House Options

I’ve only included prospects who have already made their professional debut, which excludes Roddy Ross and Matej Tomek.

Samuel Ersson

There wasn’t much fanfare when the Flyers selected Samuel Ersson in the fifth round of the 2018 NHL draft but much has changed since then. Last season, he established himself as one of the top prospects in the team’s system, regardless of position. He profiles as a tactician between the pipes, relying on position and good angles over athleticism; a mold that translates well to the pro game, as Hart can attest.

Related: Flyers’ All-Decade Team

In 36 games with Västerås IK in the Allsvenskan league, Ersson posted a .933 SV% and a 1.95 GAA to go along with his 27-9 record. He also had a strong showing at the 2019 World Junior Championship, getting the bulk of starts for Team Sweden. He earned a promotion to Sweden’s top pro league, the SHL, playing this season for Brynas IF. The young Swede has, however, had a bit of a rocky start to his professional career.

Samuel Ersson of Brynas IF
Samuel Ersson of Brynas IF (photo courtesy Brynas)

In 35 SHL games this season, Ersson’s SV% has dipped to .895 and his GAA has risen to 2.90. His team was near the bottom of the standings with poor shots against metrics, a difficult situation for a young goaltender. No one expected the 20-year-old to dominate in his first season playing at Sweden’s highest level, but based on the numbers, he will likely spend another season in his home country. Even if he signs an entry-level contract and makes the move to North America, making the jump straight to the NHL would be a tall order.

Felix Sandstrom

Once viewed as a potential 1a, 1b counterpart to Hart, the buzz surrounding Felix Sandstrom has calmed as he transitioned to North America. He is a smooth netminder who relies on above-average athleticism to bail himself out with highlight-reel saves. He spent four seasons honing his craft in the SHL, playing for HV-71 as well as Brynas IF. He was solid, never posting lower than a .902 SV% in a season. Upon making the shift from Europe, Sandstrom was set to factor into the Phantoms’ goalie rotation heading into 2019-20.

Felix Sandstrom, Philadelphia Flyers
Felix Sandstrom, Philadelphia Flyers goaltender, July 7, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He was sent down to the Reading Royals of the ECHL on Oct. 7 and spent the rest of the season splitting time with the next man on this list, Kirill Ustimenko. Sandstrom didn’t set the world on fire in the ECHL either, finishing the season with a .885 SV% and a 3.16 GAA in 25 games. The Royals don’t boast the same emerging young defense that the Flyers do, which some account for his dip in production, but the optics are not objectively good.

The Phantoms deployed Jean-Francois Berube and Alex Lyon as their primary tandem this season, playing in a combined 61 of 67 total games, but both goalie spots should be up for grabs next year. Berube was traded to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline for future considerations, and Lyon is a pending unrestricted free agent. The 23-year-old Sandstrom has as good a shot as anyone to seize the Phantoms’ starting job, but it would take a monster showing in training camp to force his way onto the Flyers’ opening night roster.

Kirill Ustimenko

Ustimenko is an interesting player. He played very well in his three seasons in the Maritime Hockey League, the Russian junior ranks, putting up three consecutive seasons with a 1.81 GAA or lower and SV% of .927 or higher. Despite this, he remained difficult to analyze due to his league, as the MHL is not nearly as established as the Canadian junior leagues.

Related: Revisiting the Brayden Schenn Trade

He is a read-and-react goalie; he tracks the puck well and has strong rebound control to go along with his athleticism. The key to his development is to cut down on the need to scramble to recover, focusing more on positioning and angles. The conversation about the Flyers’ goaltending prospects has primarily centered on Hart, Sandstrom and Ersson in recent seasons, but Ustimenko has made an impression this year.

Kirill Ustimenko Reece Newkirk Robert Michel
Kirill Ustimenko, Reece Newkirk and Robert Michel (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Like Sandstrom, he started with the Phantoms before being sent to the Royals. However, he has differentiated himself from the Swedes in how he has transitioned from playing overseas. In 31 appearances for the Royals, Ustimenko posted a SV% of .919 with a GAA of 2.40. He could rejoin Sandstrom as part of a duo playing for the Phantoms next season, but development camp and training camp will provide further opportunities for him to cement himself as an option. Still just 21, he has made positive strides toward earning more consideration from the big club next year.

Ivan Fedotov

The true dark horse of the Flyers’ goalie competition is Ivan Fedotov, who’s had an intriguing path and could overtake the pack. A seventh-round pick in 2015, the third goalie the Flyers selected in that draft, he wasn’t handed his place in the organization. Fedotov plays to his strengths. The athleticism he brings to the table coupled with his large frame allows him to minimize his movement in the crease and take away chances that other goalies cannot.

He performed well in the MHL but broke out this season, playing for Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL. In 32 games as the team’s starter, he put up a SV% of .931 and a GAA of 2.10. While not the same caliber as the NHL, the KHL remains one of the world’s top professional leagues and many players have successfully made the transition. With a season of experience playing against grown men, Fedotov might be the closest of the prospects to NHL-readiness.

Ivan Fedotov (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It will take time for him to adjust to the sightlines on the smaller ice surface, but the old, “bigger goalies cover more of the net” line of thinking can’t be thrown out in Fedotov’s case. Goaltenders, in general, are physically large, but even among goalies, 6-foot-8 qualifies as huge. He might pique the Flyers’ interest if he can be taught Hart’s approach of playing strong angles and sound technical positioning. A very athletic goalie who plays a technically-sound game is something that any organization can buy into. Given that none of the in-house options is running away with the job, don’t be surprised if Fedotov gets an extended look through training camp, and beyond.

Free Agents

The Flyers may have found their man in Hart, but given his age, the team could prefer an experienced veteran to supplement his efforts. Philadelphia has spent this season living close to the salary cap ceiling, and that is unlikely to change next year. Whoever the team selects to share the crease with Hart will have to come fairly cheap. Here are a few free agents that could provide serviceable starts.

Keith Kinkaid

Only suiting up in six games for the Montreal Canadiens this season, Keith Kinkaid could be looking for a fresh start. The 30-year-old has respectable numbers with a SV% of .905 and a GAA of 2.95 across his seven-year career and is outside the top-tier free agent goalie group.

Keith Kinkaid Montreal Canadiens
Keith Kinkaid, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He is familiar with the Metropolitan Division, spending his first six seasons with the New Jersey Devils. The market for Kinkaid should be mild, so the Flyers should kick the tires.

Aaron Dell

A career backup, Aaron Dell is not short on NHL experience. In 107 career games, he has a SV% of .908 and a GAA of 2.76. This season, his GAA has jumped to 3.01, but that can be tied to the meager product iced by the San Jose Sharks and his SV% has held steady. The price tag should be modest for the 31-year-old, and he will be in his familiar relief role.

Brian Elliott

It is staggering how many of the pending free agent goalies are either older, more expensive, or both, compared to Elliott. Yes, injuries have plagued him in the past, but he has been able to remain in the lineup this season and provide quality starts behind Hart.

Brian Elliott Flyers David Pastrnak Bruins
Brian Elliott and David Pastrnak, Philadelphia Flyers vs Boston Bruins, Dec. 2, 2017. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If the Flyers determine that none of the prospects mentioned above is ready for the NHL, Elliott could be the most viable route, especially on another short-term deal.