Carter Hart has come in ahead of schedule and quelled any doubt about his NHL preparedness. Barring a horrific turn of events, the net is his in 2019-20 and beyond, and the Philadelphia Flyers’ long search for a starting goalie over. But, who’s going to be the backup?
The team has a few options on the table, but the answer could be in-house. Anthony Stolarz, the 25-year-old 2012 draft pick, has performed well in very limited appearances with the team over the last few seasons. But he’ll hit free agency at the end of the season, and his future with the franchise might partially depend on how he handles backup duties for the rest of this season–if he’s given the opportunity.
Stolarz Might Get an Audition
Obviously, neither Hart nor Stolarz was part of the team’s NHL plans going into this season. The veteran tandem of Michael Neuvirth and Brian Elliott were slotted to handle all netminding duties, with Stolarz or Lehigh Valley Phantoms netminder Alex Lyon available to fill in as-needed.
And, just as obviously, those plans fell through. Both veteran keepers have been plagued by injuries for the past two seasons, and mishaps throughout the depth chart have flung the door wide open for both Hart and Stolarz. Neuvirth has almost certainly played his last game as a Flyer. Elliott remains on injured reserve also, though he has a conditioning stint with the Phantoms and will have to be re-designated next week.
There’s three more back-to-back sets on the schedule for the rest of the season, and it’s unlikely that Hart will be asked to start every one of the other 19 games. Unless the team brings Elliott back in, Stolarz should get another handful of chances to make his case for a new contract–though whether it’s with the Flyers remains an unknown.
Typically, a player would be a restricted free agent at his age, but Stolarz seems likely to reach group VI unrestricted free agency. As a 25-year-old with more than three professional seasons, he needs to have played at least 30 minutes in at least 28 NHL games. To date, he’s only received 18 qualifying games, meaning he’d have to play a bit more than the average backup from here on out for the Flyers to maintain his free agency rights this summer.
Stolarz Has Made His Case so Far
Stolarz is still young in goalie years, and has shown himself very capable in a really limited sample size.
Despite a rough start to his outing against the Minnesota Wild this week, the 6-foot-6 netminder recovered to make 35 saves on 39 totals shots–many of them from prime real estate–to secure the win. It was his third outing since returning to the lineup in late January, and the team has earned five big points out of the six available in those games. In all three, he had to face 38 or more shots.
Such performances shouldn’t be surprising. Stolarz made his debut in 2016-17 as a 22-year-old and was strong in his seven appearances that season, earning a shutout and posting a .928 save percentage (SV%). But a knee injury kept him out for all of last season, and his return to the best professional hockey league in the world has been forgivably uneven.
He’s only notched a .903 SV% so far this season, though it’s worth noting that the bulk of that damage occurred during the team’s fateful Western Canadian road trip in December, when the wheels of this season–and Dave Hakstol’s coaching career–fell off completely.
Asked to play an absurd five games in just eight days, Stolarz allowed 15 goals on 91 shots behind a ragged, defeated Flyers team. Even during a 6-5 team collapse against the Calgary Flames, he played better than his numbers: he allowed six goals, but they occurred on 41 shots, many of them from high-danger scoring areas. A match days later against the Vancouver Canucks proved to be Hakstol’s last, and Stolarz exited early with a nagging injury after allowing two goals on the first four shots.
On that trip, he was brutally overworked, allowing 17 goals on 121 shots (a .860 SV%) and getting hurt in the process. But outside of that one nightmare week, his results have again been mostly stellar: just 18 goals allowed on 237 shots across seven appearances, good for a .924 SV% and a shutout.
Does Chuck Fletcher Just Have Other Plans?
His injury history, however, might give the Flyers pause. Plus, the team might just prefer a more experienced veteran to platoon with Hart.
There are rumors out there that the Flyers are exploring other options for their second goalie–Cam Talbot’s name keeps popping up, in part due to a friendship with Hart. The 31-year-old Edmonton Oilers keeper has had a difficult season and is himself an unrestricted free agent in a few months. The Oilers are in cap trouble and may be willing to provide a small incentive to take on his contract. The Flyers, in turn, would then be able to give Talbot an orange-and-black audition of his own, if there’s truly interest in signing him as Hart’s mentor and backup going forward.
There’s also a ripe crop of other free agent veterans should the Talbot plan fall through. Among others, Detroit Red Wing goalie Jimmy Howard has been solid for a long time and will likely be easing into a backup role for the twilight of his career.
Unfortunately, any move for a veteran keeper could spell the end of Stolarz’s relationship with the organization. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent, and there will be little room left even in the AHL with Lyon under contract and promising youngsters like Felix Sandstrom working their way through the system–plus, others like Samuel Ersson on their tails. Stolarz may try his luck with the Phantoms, but it would be hard to blame him if he moved on, which would be a disappointing end to his time with the team.
Long before Hart became the man of the future, Stolarz was once the Flyers’ best goalie prospect–with lower expectations, but modest upside. He won 50 games as a Phantom and endeared himself with teammates: Shayne Gostisbehere even considers him his “best friend in the world.” Across his brief NHL career, he’s posted a .911 SV%–about what you’d expect from a backup–and has earned the Flyers as many shutouts as Elliott has, in far fewer tries.
Even five years after turning pro, the big kid from New Jersey remains a relative unknown. But whether or not he’s in general manager Chuck Fletcher’s plans going forward, he has certainly earned his shot at the NHL. If not in Philadelphia, somewhere.