Near the midway point of the 2022-23 season, Philadelphia Flyers coach John Tortorella made the unusual decision to pen an open letter to the team’s fans about the franchise’s direction. “This year was the first step in building the future of the Flyers and restoring our reputation as one of the most respected teams in hockey,” the notoriously gruff bench boss wrote. “We’ll be an even tougher team for having gone through it.” Whether ‘Torts’ meant to give fans a legitimate insight into his hockey operation or force the organization into jumpstarting a long-overdue rebuild, he went over plenty of heads by admitting the Flyers were nowhere near where they needed to be.
Those same heads were on a proverbial stick by the end of the season; incoming general manager (GM) Danny Briere and CEO Dan Hilferty replaced the inept Chuck Fletcher and some empty suits at Comcast, respectively. Briere, Hilferty, and president of hockey operations Keith Jones have all echoed Tortorella’s sentiment that, for now, focusing on culture and youth is more significant than scraping together enough points to go on yet another listless playoff run.
In other words, the Flyers will play the right way, losing plenty of games along the way, and stockpile its next generation of stars. With the season looming, there is no better time than now to assess the early returns of that strategy, starting in the crease. Will the Flyers continue to struggle in net, or is the future bright between the pipes?
Who will remain when the dust settles on the rebuild?
Two months into the 2018-19 season, Carter Hart was thrust into the Flyers’ crease at just 20 years old, thanks to the record-setting rash of injuries the team had suffered in net. Hart, then a veteran of just 18 professional games, managed a .917 save percentage (SV%) and 2.83 goals-against average (GAA) behind the league’s third-worst defense. Astronomical expectations became inevitable, but the Albertan managed them well the following season, posting a 2.42 GAA and .914 SV% as part of a formidable battery with veteran Brian Elliott before carrying an anemic Flyers offense throughout the postseason with an elite .926 SV%.
Hart had gotten the job done behind a shoddy defense in 2019 and a punchless playoff attack the following year to establish himself as a big-game goalie on the rise. That reputation went down the tubes when he suffered through a delayed sophomore slump of sorts; he was objectively the worst player at his position in the NHL during a horrendous 2020-21 campaign (3.67 GAA, .877 SV%) and was negative again in 2021-22 as the Flyers’ descent down the standings continued.
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Though Hart’s SV% increased by a negligible .02% from 2021-22’s .905, his confidence grew by leaps and bounds under Tortorella, who trusted him with career-high volume; his 54 starts were a career-high by 10. He treated Hart like a true No. 1, and the player responded in kind, keeping one of the worst rosters in the league competitive throughout the early part of the season and winning 72 percent of the team’s paltry points total. Only Washington’s Darcy Kuemper finished with more goals saved above average (GSAA) on a losing outfit, and his Capitals were not half as bereft of talent as the Flyers.
At 25, Hart is a candidate to stick around for the long haul as the Flyers embark on a rebuild, but his immense trade value and status as an impending restricted free agent (RFA) mean he is no sure thing to re-up in Philadelphia. What if a desperate team calls with first and second-round picks and a prospect or two? Is any netminder worth $5 million plus against the cap on a team that would stink with Pelle Lindbergh in goal? That is the bare minimum it would cost to keep Hart long-term, and Briere will spend much of the season pondering those questions.
Felix Sandstrom deputized for Hart last season and struggled mightily. He did little to elevate the team in relief of Hart, allowing an ugly 3.72 goals per game with an equally porous .880 save percentage. The Swede posted respectable numbers in a seven-game stint with the American Hockey League (AHL) Lehigh Valley Phantoms, and his inability to pull it together with the Flyers suggests that level is where he belongs moving forward.
Cal Petersen should replace Sandstrom as Hart’s backup this season but isn’t any more likely to factor into Philadelphia’s plans. The former Notre Dame standout came into the NHL with a bang, stopping .916% of the shots that came his way over his first 54 games with the Los Angeles Kings, but GM Rob Blake’s three-year, $15 million gamble from the fall of 2021 has not paid off; Petersen has stopped just 89% of the pucks he has faced since inking his extension. The 28-year-old is only with the Flyers because Blake paid them a second-round pick in 2024 and prospect Helge Grans to take his contract along with right-sided defenseman Sean Walker. The American goaltender will try to revive his career over the two seasons remaining on his deal, but there is no telling where he will end up should he succeed.
Sam Ersson lacks the pro experience of Petersen or even Sandstrom but showed more promise in his 12-game NHL audition than either player has over the past two seasons. His 3.07 GAA and .899 SV% were just below league-average numbers, not bad for a rookie on a 31-win team, but Ersson was better than the numbers suggest. The Swede compiled a 6-0 record with the sort of poise and positional awareness Elliott excelled at, and 12 of the 33 goals he allowed came in two starts against the Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils, elite teams that were always going to steamroll the overmatched Flyers. Even though Tortorella has made his preference of the 23-year-old over his countryman Sandstrom well-known, Ersson would most benefit from high-leverage AHL minutes to start the season behind a Phantoms’ blue line full of bonafide NHL prospects.
Hart is a legitimate NHL starter whose best hockey is in front of him. Though he lacks the Canadian’s elite athleticism and technique, Ersson brings the mental fortitude and positioning that have eluded his counterpart, and the duo could give the Flyers security in net for years to come. Unfortunately, the former’s uncertain future, the latter’s relatively low ceiling, and the underwhelming depth surrounding the two drag down the current group’s staying power.
Do the Flyers have options going forward?
Ersson, a pro for this article, is still officially a prospect because of his limited NHL appearances. Alexei Kolosov signed an entry-level contract during the summer and is a starter in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) but is at least a season from coming stateside, and it could be another few years before 2023 selections Carter Bjarnasson (51st overall) and Yegor Zagravin (87th overall).
Two goalie picks in three rounds show that Briere and the Flyers are actively trying to hit at the position, where there is already plenty of youth in and around the pro ranks; the team even traded up to select Bjarnasson from the Western Hockey League in the second round. Zagravin also plies his trade at the junior level in Russia. Before the duo arrives in the AHL on a presumably similar timeline, Kolosov will get his first taste of the North American game.
The Belarusian posted a .912 SV% and 2.55 GAA in the “K,” often lauded as the world’s second-best league. Those numbers are elite on first viewing, but Russian superstars Ilya Sorokin and Igor Shesterkin cleared the .950 SV% mark in their respective tenures in the KHL, where stats skew in favor of netminders. Take that grain of salt with this one: Kolosov only turned 21 in January and accrued respectable stats behind a shaky Dinamo Minsk side. An undersized, reactive shot-stopper, Kolosov could be an electrifying watch on South Broad if he puts it all together.
Thanks to the five-year age gap between the pro-ready Ersson and newly 18 Zagravin, Philadelphia can stagger the quartet in a way that allows Briere to assess whether there’s a standout in the group. If they are all pro-caliber players, “it’s a good problem, and [the Flyers] will deal with it,” the rookie executive said at the draft. There is no can’t-miss prospect at the top of the totem pole like the Buffalo Sabres’ Devon Levi or the Calgary Flames’ Dustin Wolf, but Briere has ensured the Flyers have options in the cage far into the future.
Are there game changers hidden within the organization?
Does Hart count? Most goalies don’t hit their stride until their late 20s, but his early start means he’s due for a star turn at 25. He was not as easily discouraged last season as he had been from bumps in the road earlier in his career, and though the raw numbers do not show it, he has never been better from a value perspective. Maybe it is the perfect time to trade Hart: if the Flyers were not cutting ties with future All-Stars on the verge of stardom, would they really be the Flyers?
Elsewhere, this section is far murkier than it will be for the skater entries in the series. No goalie is a sure thing until they hit the ice in the NHL, and it takes years to determine whether impressive debuts are anything more than flashes in the pan. Just ask Petersen. Kolosov and Ersson both have pro qualities, but it is very early to tell whether either is an NHL player, let alone a 30-game winner. As for Bjarnasson and Zagravin, the raw talent is there, but anyone who analyzes their career trajectory chances beyond guesswork is a liar.
B- (As long as Hart’s still a Flyer)
This group would show some promise if there were any certainty on Hart’s future. With No. 79 around, there is a plus starter, a backup that could rebuild his stock in the NHL in Petersen, an insurance plan in Ersson, and a host of up-and-coming prospects that will filter through the organization in the coming years.
If Hart leaves near the midway point or earlier, no combination of Petersen, Ersson, and Sandstrom does not end in a bottom-place finish in the East. That is what the team is going for in the present, but it will have an egg on its face if Hart moves onto accolades as the Flyers wait for Ersson, Kolosov, or a pair of 18-year-olds years away from NHL duty to pan out. There are bright spots at each rung of the organization, but there’s no guarantee one will emerge as a solution in time for the team to see the light at the end of its rebuild. The Flyers’ landscape in goal is too volatile to warrant a positive grade.