Direct criticism aimed at the Philadelphia Flyers is running rampant. The media has been highly critical of general manager (GM) Chuck Fletcher’s plan for “stabilizing” the team with hopes of long-term contention. The fan base has voiced vehement frustration for the organization’s mismanagement of their offseason strategy, specifically the failure to find a way to land coveted free agent and local icon Johnny Gaudreau.
Fletcher’s strategy to stabilize a lineup of skaters lacking first-line talent is inconsistent and inherently flawed. The penny pinching required for the Flyers to remain cap compliant also left a need at the most important position in hockey. They are now in essence crossing their fingers and hoping that the lack of a reliable backup goaltender behind Carter Hart will not blow up in their faces.
Flyers Lack Reliable Backup Goaltender
Hart is the only goaltender in the organization with a significant NHL track record. Fletcher spoke on July 13 about the expectations for the goaltending depth chart behind Hart in 2022-23.
“(Troy) Grosenick and (Felix) Sandström will compete and in camp, along with Sam Ersson. In relation to Sam coming off the injury-plagued season that he did, we’re hoping to get him to full health and get them playing. We’ll have a competition in camp for the backup position.”
The three goaltenders in competition own a combined nine games of NHL experience. Sandström is the likeliest option to begin the season on the bench behind Hart. The 25-year-old Swede performed well at some points during his five games with the Flyers in 2021-22. The Orange and Backcheck podcast recently discussed how Sandström showed talent and poise in his start on April 13 against the fourth-ranked New York Rangers power play. However, some goals he allowed with the big club weren’t indicative of a goaltender who will stick at the NHL level for the long haul.
Grosenick will turn 33 before the start of training camp. He has bounced around the American Hockey League (AHL) for the majority of his lengthy professional experience. He started two games for the San Jose Sharks in 2014 and two games for the Los Angeles Kings in 2021. A journeyman who hasn’t stuck at the top level during a long career doesn’t carry a strong likelihood of significant upside in 2022-23.
Ersson potentially could’ve jumped Sandström on the organization’s goaltending depth chart last season, but a groin injury slowed his development during his first year in North America (from The Athletic, “Flyers depth chart and cap projection: RFAs left to sign? Roster battles?” 7/21/22). The 2018 fifth-round selection played just five AHL games in 2021-22. Goaltending is the most unpredictable element of the NHL, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Flyers could strike gold on a lesser-known Swedish prospect. However, the odds are outside their favor.
Fletcher lacked a secondary plan after an unfortunate situation came up with expected backup goaltender Ivan Fedotov. The Flyers selected the Russian netminder in the seventh round in 2015. He starred in the 2022 Winter Olympics, helping the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) to a silver medal, and in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in three full-time seasons since 2019-20.
Fedotov signed a one-year entry-level deal with Philadelphia on May 7. However, he was taken to a military base by Russian law enforcement officers just ahead of his planned move to the United States, his agent J.P. Barry told the Associated Press. The strategy of counting on an unknown commodity emigrating to the United States, adjusting to the North American game quickly, and playing at a high enough level to provide a good secondary option behind Hart wasn’t exactly bulletproof to begin with. The extenuating circumstances off the ice have already disrupted the questionable plan, and Fletcher has not countered with a viable alternative solution.
Hart, Jones Tandem
Hart provided the organization’s biggest bright spot in an embarrassing 2021-22 season in Philadelphia. He stabilized the crease after a poor effort in the shortened 2020-21 campaign when he finished with some of the worst raw statistics for a full-time goalie in the salary cap era. Martin Jones provided a suitable veteran presence that gave the team in front of him a chance to win when he occupied the crease during his only season in orange and black.
Goaltending was not a strength that kept the Flyers afloat through the nightmare of 2021-22. Both netminders finished below the NHL median in goals saved above expected (GSAx), which weighs a goaltender’s performance in relation to the shot quality against him. Hart finished with -6.6 GSAx, while Jones posted a -9.4 mark. However, both goalies held their own behind a porous defense that struggled on a nightly basis to break the puck out of their own zone. Their relationship with goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh was one of the few positive talking points about the direction of the organization last season.
The Seattle Kraken signed Jones to a one-year contract worth $2 million while Fletcher elected to ride with goaltenders who will cost under $1 million against the cap when they occupy a roster spot. The cheaper option became somewhat of a necessity because of an inability to keep the organization’s priorities in order. The Flyers spent extravagantly on a blue line that still doesn’t look impressive heading into the season, and they’ve consistently failed to properly account for salary cap constraints throughout Fletcher’s tenure.
The decision to sign retread Justin Braun, a player Fletcher sent to the Rangers in March, to a one-year contract worth $1.75 million indicates a misguided comfort level with a player who was part of an underperforming corps of defensemen last season. The money invested in Braun should’ve instead been allocated to the one position that had some semblance of stability in 2021-22 by bringing Jones back on a one-year contract as the veteran retread who stood his ground in an unfavorable environment.
Fletcher Ignores History with Decisions
Fletcher hopes the implementation of newly-hired head coach John Tortorella’s system will provide better defensive structure for a team that tied for the most goal allowed in the NHL over the past two seasons. He intends to instill a more disciplined and intense approach with the additions of Braun and Nick Deslauriers.
“Our expectations are we’re going to be a much more competitive team next year by stabilizing. We’re bringing in a new coaching staff. We’re fixing some things off the ice to help, hopefully, avoid some of the repeats of last year. We want to get to a spot where we have a relatively healthy group of players that are playing the system, playing hard, defending better and giving ourselves a chance to win every night. That’s what I mean by stabilizing.”
The effort to stabilize while taking a leap of faith at the goaltending position unwisely ignores the organization’s recent history and the nature of the position in the NHL. Fletcher began his tenure in Philadelphia in December 2018 in the midst of a season when the Flyers set an NHL record with eight starting goaltenders. The instability in the crease left a reasonably talented team with no legitimate chance to compete in front of a revolving door of overmatched netminders during the first half of the season. The nightmare continued a recurring narrative of the goalie graveyard in Philadelphia.
When the Flyers replaced the aging Brian Elliott with Jones during the 2021 offseason, they recognized the need for modern NHL goalies to play in tandem and properly manage their workloads. Jones played in 35 games in 2021-22, roughly four times the amount of combined games played by every goaltender remaining in the organization other than Hart. Even top-tier NHL goaltenders like Juuse Sarros and Andrei Vasilevskiy sat out 15 games or more last season, and Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin only played in 53.
Hart set a career high with 44 starts in 2021-22, which still only landed him 23rd in the league. Injuries have undeniably been a deterrent in his first four NHL seasons. He missed three weeks in between starts from February into March in 2019 and four weeks in between starts from January into February in 2020. He missed the final seven games of the 2020-21 season and the final nine games of the 2021-22 season. While Jones wasn’t a flawless replacement, he filled his role behind Hart adequately with durability.
The Flyers will now set out to establish a new era of stability with a lack of threatening firepower up front and an overpaid group of defensemen full of question marks. In order to assemble that lineup and remain cap compliant, it was necessary to ignore the harsh reality that goaltending issues can disrupt a season worse than any other problem in hockey.
Colin Newby is a freelance journalist from Delaware County, PA covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers. He is an encyclopedia of useless sports knowledge with an uncanny ability to rattle off Flyers goaltending stats from 2004 and every Stanley Cup winner during his lifetime. The depths of his knowledge stem from spending his entire life following the Flyers and the NHL, from fan favorites like the “Legion of Doom” and Claude Giroux to forgotten journeymen like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. He joined the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association (PHWA) in 2022.
Colin also covers the Philadelphia Eagles and works for 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia.